That statement, coming from downtown developer David Dewhirst, seems like the understatement of the century! Dewhirst has made a career of restoring old buildings — and he’s been a major part of transforming downtown Knoxville in the process.
For the second year in a row, Dewhirst led a group of Knox Heritage supporters through his projects at the corner of Gay Street and Jackson Avenue as part of the group’s “Downtown Secret Supper,” one of Knox Heritage’s “Summer Suppers” series of fundraisers. In the “Secret Supper,” you pay your money and you are informed by mail a few days before the event where you are to meet the rest of the group. Parts of the dinner are served in various locations that are only revealed as the evening progresses. It’s great fun — and very educational, too. So, come along on the journey!
Coincidentally, Alan and I happen to live in a great little condo development, Cherokee Lofts on Church Avenue, that Dewhirst also restored. So, although it was not officially a part of the tour, we started our evening with champagne and appetizers in our condo.
Our first stop was the location of the former Volunteer Ministry Center on the corner of Gay Street and Jackson Avenue.
David said the Volunteer Ministry Center and the building next door on Gay Street, which he called the Three Feathers Building, along with the Tennessee Associated Building and the Tennessee Armature Building on Jackson Avenue have been at least 50 different establishments throughout their more than 100-year history. Seems that small store owners from the outlying areas would ride the trains to downtown, disembark at the Southern Depot across the street, and shop in the area to stock their stores and trade goods. They were treated to lunch (and other entertainments!) by the owners of the warehouses in the warehouse district in that area. After 1925, the Three Feathers Building was the St. Lawrence Hotel. Prior to that it was a number of saloons and even a “shooting gallery,” although it is not clear exactly what that means.
If you want to see the story from last year when Dewhirst introduced us to these buildings, click here. (I think he might be a little behind the schedule he announced last year.)
The buildings were in great disrepair when Dewhirst purchased them. One had a 40-foot hole in the roof where rain had been pouring in for years. It was almost totally rotted in that area. But, Dewhirst said, old buildings are sturdier than new ones. The building materials used back then were extremely heavy and strong. That is a blessing for someone like Dewhirst who is trying to save the spaces.
A series of clever clues led us to our next stop: Immaculate Conception Church, the oldest Catholic Church in Knoxville, at 414 West Vine Avenue. Alan and I were familiar with it — it’s where we were married 26 years ago!
The original Immaculate Conception Church was built on this property — the highest place in Knoxville — in 1855. Why were there so many Catholics in Knoxville? Irish laborers came to town to work on the railroad. Later they were joined by Italian and German Catholic immigrants and soon the small church was overcrowded. So Joseph Baumann, the leading architect in town at the time, was commissioned to design a new church to be built on the same property. The new church was dedicated in September of 1886. After that, the old church was demolished to make room for the completion of the new church.
Our third location, also within walking distance, was Lincoln Memorial University’s Duncan School of Law, also known as Old City Hall. The building, which originally served as a school for the deaf as well as a hospital for both sides during the Civil War, was built in 1848. It served as City Hall from 1925 until 1980. When I started at the Knoxville Journal as a reporter in 1980, I covered the City Hall beat and remember going to Old City Hall until the move was made later that year to the City-County Building, where it currently is located. After 1980 it was occupied by the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce and TVA offices.
And then it was on to our fourth stop — and dessert! We headed almost back where we had started, this time to 129 S. Gay Street to a three-story building built in 1895. The ground floor today is occupied by the Unarmed Merchants shop. The upper stories are a condo.
This is just a fabulous way to spend a fun and interesting Saturday night while supporting a good cause, enjoying great food and getting a little exercise in the process. Now, if I could just talk them into serving pinot grigio instead of chardonnay. . .