The Tennessee Theatre Purchases Four Floors of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building

Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

I first wrote about the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building at 612 South Gay Street about four-and-a-half years ago. The article focused on the amazing fifth floor of the building. Almost a year ago I, again, wrote about the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, with a focus on the first four floors, which were for sale.

It’s a special building inside and out and contains quite a bit of history. The first three stories were built in 1881 and reconstructed in 1907 and the top two floors were added in 1923. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, its Second Renaissance Revival style marble facade is one of the most striking downtown.

Ground Floor of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

It’s walls have seen productions by Cas Walker, performances by the Everly Brothers and a bit of production in the movie “October Skies.” Knoxville’s most famous shoot-out happened just outside its doors. The story of that gun fight was written, most famously, by Mark Twain in his “Life on the Mississippi.”

In 1994 married couple Doug Toppenberg and Elaine Burke purchased the first floor where they have practiced law for the last twenty-five years. They subsequently purchased the second, third and fourth floors in 2014 when Revenue Recovery Corporation moved from downtown. The first floor (and mezzanine), as you can see from the photographs, is an opulent, finished space. The other three floors are shells awaiting development.

Ground Floor of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Ground Floor of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Ground Floor of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Ground Floor of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Ground Floor of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

The floors have been on the market for some time, and late last year the Tennessee Theatre stepped in to purchase all four floors, closing last week. With that, they became the owners of the lower, finished floor, as well as the three floors which will require some finishing to be usable.

I spoke with Executive Director Becky Hancock who said the theater is very excited about the possibilities presented by the building and they see it as an answer to some of the limitations of the the theater. Initial plans call for using the finished space to “improve the patron experience.” She gave examples of patron groups that have to meet or have events in the foyer of the Tennessee, explaining that they are using the theater for purposes well beyond its original intent.

Unfinished floors of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

She also said they want to “use the new space to develop future audiences.” Exactly what form that will take is uncertain at this time, though she indicated they have ideas they aren’t ready to discuss and they are still exploring possibilities. They are working with Partner’s Development for a design team leading up to construction in the three floors.

Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

In the shorter term while that’s being sorted out, the bottom floor is ready for use as a private reception space for groups like the symphony, opera or sponsors. A number of groups who use the Tennessee Theatre like to do a private event before or after the production and they’ve not really had an option until now.

Meanwhile, the sale underscores several points about downtown: The arts in general, and the Tennessee Theatre specifically, are doing well. Once-abandoned properties are finding their uses. It’s a time of growth and redevelopment in the city and we clearly live in a very special era in downtown Knoxville.

Also check out the Tennessee Theatre’s new podcast series here.

Comments

  1. Superb news. Congratulation to the Tennessee Theatre board of directors, dedicated staff, and many volunteers who have had the vision and wherewithal to take this giant leap of faith into the future.

    Architects, designers, audience development officers, and an army of professionals will soon embark upon the tasks of making magic with this opportunity. We know and trust they are up to the task.

    Again, congratulations to those who carry the bright Tennessee Theatre torch into the futire.

  2. G. Mitchell says

    How very exciting for the Tennessee and our fabulous town.

  3. Melinda Grimac says

    This is a very exciting project for the Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation! They have a team of board members and experts evaluating the many options this new opportunity holds and look forward to sharing the details when they are finalized! Congratulations to all!!!

  4. Chris Eaker says

    I know this building is not connected to the theater building, but it would be nice if they could build additional restrooms. The ones they have are inadequate for the crowds, especially when they give short intermissions. I wonder why older theaters didn’t build adequate restrooms. The same was true of Clarence Brown and the Bijou. It’s not like people didn’t need to use the bathroom as much back then.

    • Becky Hancock says

      Hi Chris,
      The biggest difference is that concessions weren’t sold in the Tennessee until the early 1950s. Trips to the restroom weren’t as frequent or necessary when there were no beverages being sold, so comparatively fewer restrooms were part of the 1928 design. We nearly doubled the number of facilities during the 2005 renovation, but there are still long lines.

      Also, we use the venue today very differently than its original intent. For movies, people could get up and leave the auditorium anytime to use the restroom; for many events now held there, audiences are inclined to all descend on the restrooms during one short intermission period.

      It’s not a problem unique to the Tennessee (as you point out); even Broadway theaters in New York struggle to accommodate crowds at the restrooms.

      We look forward to seeing how the property at 612 can improve the Theatre patron experience in several ways. Stay tuned!

  5. Very prudent purchase for the theatre to grow in their next 90 years. Applaud their vision & stewardship of this historic treasure. Congratulations Becky & Team

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