Turning a Dysfunctional Eyesore into a Critically Functional Work of Art

Stairwell at Gay Street Viaduct, West Jackson Avenue at the Gay Street Viaduct, Knoxville, March 2018 (Photo Couresy of CBID)

Staircase at Gay Street Viaduct, West Jackson Avenue at the Gay Street Viaduct, Knoxville, March 2018 (Photo Couresy of CBID)

It’s a staircase I suspect most people who come downtown haven’t even noticed. It’s often dirty, smelly and it’s built just a bit different from most stairwells – it sort of spirals, but not quite. The location doesn’t inspire many people to use it – it leads from a spot most people don’t walk – the Gay Street Viaduct, to, well, beneath the viaduct, though that spot is changing rapidly with the new businesses in the Jackson Terminal Building.

So, why is it getting attention, now? Because it is about to become a critical connector from the 100 block down into the Old City. In fairly short order – this summer into fall seems likely – the ramps from each side of the Gay Street Viaduct on Jackson, both east and west of Gay Street, will be removed for repairs likely to take as long as a year.

Stairwell at Gay Street Viaduct, West Jackson Avenue at the Gay Street Viaduct, Knoxville, March 2018 (Photo Couresy of CBID)

Staircase at Gay Street Viaduct, West Jackson Avenue at the Gay Street Viaduct, Knoxville, March 2018 (Photo Couresy of CBID)

Stairwell to the Gay Street Viaduct Circled by Fence, Jackson Avenue, Knoxville, March 2018

Staircase to the Gay Street Viaduct Circled by Fence, Jackson Avenue, Knoxville, March 2018

Consider yourself on a First Friday night standing at the Emporium on the 100 block of Gay Street and desiring to carry the party to the Old City. The best known options will be ugly – to walk across the viaduct to Depot over to Central and around or, alternately, walk out to the Summit Hill side of the block and walk down the hill that way. The only good option will be the little staircase that could. And it will be ready for you.

The CBID (Central Business Improvement District) in conjunction with a host of partners is fast-tracking a major aesthetic and functional upgrade of the critical connector. Liza Zenni helped get quick approval for the concept through the Public Arts Committee. The city came on board, Robin Easter Design, with lead designer Erik Vass, developed the concept. Dollar and Ewers Architecture designed the lighting with help from Jack O’Hanlon of the O’Hanlon Group.

Rendering of Proposed Stairwell Mural, West Jackson Avenue at the Gay Street Viaduct, Knoxville, March 2018

Rendering of Proposed Staircase Mural, West Jackson Avenue at the Gay Street Viaduct, Knoxville, March 2018

Rendering of Proposed Stairwell Mural, West Jackson Avenue at the Gay Street Viaduct, Knoxville, March 2018

Rendering of Proposed Staircase Mural, West Jackson Avenue at the Gay Street Viaduct, Knoxville, March 2018

If you do know the stairway, you may have noticed that fencing now surrounds it, making it unusable for the duration of the improvements. The plan is to work quickly to add treads to the steps, re-coat the steps and landings with a non-slick surface, add lighting from top to bottom and apply Erik’s design to the steps and to the center of the structure.

Beyond simply an attractive mural, the design is intended to be interactive. Throughout the piece you’ll find Knoxville references, some obvious and others more subtle. The idea is to spotlight historical and contemporary people, attractions and qualities that make Knoxville the city of which we are all proud.

With nearly fifty such references embedded, the stairwell should be fascinating to consider. A brochure will list the references and challenge passersby to find them. A website will provide the connections. Famous people with Knoxville connections such as Hank Williams, Sr., Patricia Neal, Peyton Manning and Cal Johnson sit alongside Johnny Knoxville, the Body Farm (hint: the reference is a skull – so you have a start), White Lily Flour, the World’s Fair, Pat Summit, Alex Haley and Big John Tate.

Designer Erik Vass with his model of the proposed Stairwell Mural, West Jackson Avenue at the Gay Street Viaduct, Knoxville, March 2018

Designer Erik Vass with his model of the proposed Stairway Mural, West Jackson Avenue at the Gay Street Viaduct, Knoxville, March 2018

The steps will match the mural in bright colors, but, for safety reasons on the stairwell, will not include the same design. It should be a fun eye-catcher that will generate interest even before the ramps are removed and it becomes essential. I’m most excited to see it from down the street at night, which should be spectacular.

For those who don’t see it here, there’s an event planned to let the wider world know about the stairwell while also helping with crowd control for a popular annual event schedule for April 21. Attracting thousands each year, Market Square is nearly impassable with the press of the crowds for the annual Chalkwalk. Planned for the same day this year will be a major sideshow: The Sidewalk Sideshow.

Rendering of Proposed Stairwell Mural, West Jackson Avenue at the Gay Street Viaduct, Knoxville, March 2018

Rendering of Proposed Staircase Mural, West Jackson Avenue at the Gay Street Viaduct, Knoxville, March 2018

Rendering of Proposed Stairwell Mural, West Jackson Avenue at the Gay Street Viaduct, Knoxville, March 2018

Rendering of Proposed Staircase Mural, West Jackson Avenue at the Gay Street Viaduct, Knoxville, March 2018

Described as “Whimsical, wondrous and wacky, the site says to prepare for, “jugglers, stilt walkers, giant puppets, unicyclists, musicians, marching bands, aerialists and more all along Gay Street and around the Old City…something around every corner.” And much of the pedestrian traffic will be directed over the little staircase that could. It will add to the festive nature of the day while spreading the crowds around the city and teaching the masses a new path to the Old City. Sponsors for the day include the Old City Association, CBID and City People.

Watch for the new project to take shape very quickly in order to be ready for the big day. It’s just one of many changes and festive events happening in the city in the next weeks. It also represents what can be done, with a bit of creativity, to turn an urban liability into an attractive asset.

Comments

  1. Mal Alder says:

    Good article, but I am a bit confused why the article leaves out the option to walk down Jackson Ave. after visiting The Emporium? Is it because of the current roadwork? It just seems off to mention the stairwell will once be open for pedestrian use, but to ignore the sidewalk and somewhat popular roadway that runs perpendicular to it.

    From article:
    “Consider yourself on a First Friday night standing at the Emporium on the 100 block of Gay Street and desiring to carry the party to the Old City. The best known options will be ugly – to walk across the viaduct to Depot over to Central and around or, alternately, walk out to the Summit Hill side of the block and walk down the hill that way. The only good option will be the little staircase that could. And it will be ready for you.”

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      From the previous paragraph, “So, why is it getting attention, now? Because it is about to become a critical connector from the 100 block down into the Old City. In fairly short order – this summer into fall seems likely – the ramps from one side of the Gay Street Viaduct on Jackson, both east and west of Gay Street, will be removed for repairs likely to take as long as a year.” The ramps and sidewalks will be gone. You will not be able to walk down Jackson.

  2. Jennifer says:

    So, what you’re saying is we won’t be able to use this stairwell during the Big Ears Festival, right? It was quite handy to use to get to the information center at the Jackson Terminal during the festival last year.

  3. Thank you for the great article Allen. We at Robin Easter Design are so excited to be a part of this project. We think it will become a destination!

  4. I love the basic idea and the actual art work but I’ve lived on the 100 block of Gay Street for 3 years now and that thing is generally just used as a toilet. I stumbled upon people shooting up drugs and a naked guy passed out on the third level. Hopefully the extra forced foot traffic from the construction on Jackson will push this activity away.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      I remember when the alley between Market Square and Gay Street was very similar, but the increased foot-traffic has reduced those issues greatly. I think the combination of increased foot-traffic and, maybe more so, the lighting will make the spot less attractive for activities generally reserved for more secluded or private spots.

    • I think the city should add another set of public bathrooms on this side of town like they did with the Market Square garage. The staircase in that garage has smelled a lot better since then.

      • Yes. A public one across the street from the wine bar in front of that parking lot. With parades, marathons and the general bar/restaurant scene down there it seems like it would get used enough.

    • I came here to say the same. Every time I’ve ventured up those stairs I’ve seen feces and discarded clothing and other trash.

  5. s.m. dupree says:

    When I lived in the Emporium I routinely used that stairwell. While I did indeed encounter human fecal matter, I stood an order of magnitude less chance of stepping in it than I did the dog shit coating the grassy areas on the North side and middle of Summit Hill when I walked out Fire Street instead.

    Why don’t we just call this a good thing and let it go at that?

    • Because he was accurately describing its current/previous state. The pungent aroma of human urine and excrement in that stairwell has been a huge issue and this is addressing it.

  6. What was the plan for getting the vomit, garbage, urine, and broken glass off the staircase? After 7 years of living practically across the street from it, I learned long, long ago not to go near. The day I had a beer bottle thrown at me from it by a ranting drunk lunatic while walking my dog was the last straw.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      I use it pretty regularly and am not happy with some of what I encounter. I suppose I should count myself fortunate to have avoided the beer bottle treatment. With the closure of the Jackson Avenue Ramps, there isn’t going to be a convenient alternative to this staircase, which means a lot more people using it. Add to that the lighting and I think it becomes less attractive as a homeless enclave/restroom facility.

  7. Rachel Ford says:

    So excited to see this improvement! Kudos to the Public Art Committee, CBID and all other partners for working on the project. This is a stairwell many of us who work in the 100 Block and park on Jackson Avenue use daily. Thrilled to see the improvements because, as previous posters mentioned, it has been pretty impassable at times…

  8. Sounds fun!
    Is there a chalk-walk coordinator? Will there be a directory of sorts to where all the drawings pop up (or lay down)?

  9. Every time i use that stair case i have to step over human feces. There is a blind spot in the staircase thst homeless use to go #2. Fyi.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      I’ve had a lot more #1 encounters there, but, yes, we talked about that. The thinking is that lighting plus increased foot traffic should, um, reduce the numbers, so yo speak.

    • Exactly, Lynn. It’s been nasty for a long time. Let’s hope, as Urban Guy suggests, that this creative remodeling with new lighting will increase traffic and eliminate the problem.

  10. Jill Green says:

    Love the idea. One small question: While most people are smart enough to maneuver stairs without directional arrows, will the arrows on the proposed rendering have some bumping into each other (going up and down on the outside of the staircase if they follow the guide)?

    • Christopher Eaker says:

      I agree. The arrow on the bottom should encourage people to walk on the inside of the staircase.

  11. I love this! Talk about an opportune moment! If the ramps of the viaduct weren’t going to receive a massive rebuilding, then it might not have been possible for the money to be allocated for this otherwise overlooked stair.

  12. I love this! Whenever I use those stairs they are just a little too dark and dreary for comfort. This is going to look great!

  13. Mick Ketron says:

    I’m so happy to hear that staircase is staying and will continue to be functional during the ramp work! I was getting nervous when I saw it had been gated off….and looks like it’s gonna be pretty to boot!

  14. I love what this team of creative geniuses has proposed and talk about taking the neccessary “steps” to execute (an otherwise eyesore) unto a fun and connective project! Personally, I cant wait till the 21st to join the festivities and be counted as one of the firsts to accend the stairs with these creative stars. Congrats and well done all!

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