Dinner and a Movie: The Rebirth of Knoxville’s 500 Block of Gay Street

Posted on: October 25th, 2010 by Guest Writer 1 Comment

This is the latest in a series of posts celebrating the 10th anniversary of the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC) by sharing some of its biggest successes.

Written by Kim Trent

The 500 block of Gay Street, c. 1937.

The 500 block of Gay Street, c. 1937.

In January of 2005, it looked like five historic buildings in the 500 block of Gay Street in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, would be lost. They would be replaced by a sprawling new multi-screen cinema complex that government and business leaders hoped would be the missing link for downtown Knoxville's rebirth. It seemed many Knoxvillians were ready to sacrifice the buildings for that ever-elusive thing known as "progress." That same month the Knox Heritage Board of Directors gathered and voted to oppose the demolition of the iconic structures, including the S&W Cafeteria Building, the Athletic House Building, the former WROL studios, the Walgreen's Building and the Gaut Ogden Stationers Building.

One phone call transformed that looming battle into a cooperative effort between Knox Heritage and the City of Knoxville. That call between Knox Heritage Board President Finbarr Saunders and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam was the first step in finally pulling the 500 block of Gay Street back from the brink. For more than two decades most of the buildings had stood vacant as multiple redevelopment plans fell through. They dodged bullet after bullet - a Knox County government plan to demolish them for a new downtown justice center and jail; demolition for a City of Knoxville transit center combined with a theater multiplex; and general neglect that resulted in collapsed roofs and crumbling facades.

As Mayor Haslam waited in an airport for a plane that day in January, he and now County Commissioner Saunders agreed to take a second look at the project and see if a compromise could be found. The final agreement they reached allowed 45 days for Knox Heritage to propose an alternative design that would preserve as much of the historic fabric as possible while meeting the downtown redevelopment and budget goals of the city and the needs of theater operator Regal Entertainment Group.

Restored buildings along Gay Street.

Restored buildings along Gay Street.

Knox Heritage convened a task force of volunteers made up of architects, attorneys, developers, city officials and John Leith-Tetrault of the National Trust Community Investment Corporation. The complex challenge of saving the block began with a very simple design idea from theaters of the past.

Knoxville is blessed to have two restored historic theaters in its downtown – The Bijou and The Tennessee - that have national reputations due to their historic character and the caliber of performers who have graced their stages. It’s not unusual to see them written up in the New York Times and other national publications.

The Bijou Theatre opened in 1909 when the performance space was added to the rear of the Lamar House, built in 1817 as a private residence for Thomas Humes. The first floor became the lobby for the theater beyond. Knox Heritage was formed in 1974 to save the Bijou from demolition for a parking lot. The Historic Tennessee Theatre opened in 1928 as a movie theater featuring an elaborate Spanish-Moorish interior. It was constructed at the rear of the 1907 Burwell Building and its impressive lobby flows through the center of that original office building. The Tennessee was completely restored and transformed into a regional performance arts center in 2005 with help from an almost $6 million investment by NTCIC. It was one of the first projects in the country to “twin” the Historic Rehabilitation and New Market Tax Credits.

The Regal Riviera & Tennessee theaters.

The Regal Riviera & Tennessee theaters.

The design of those two historic theaters inspired the proposal Knox Heritage presented to the City of Knoxville. The lobby of the new eight-screen movie theater would be placed in the empty space on Gay Street once occupied by the Riviera Cinema that was lost to fire in the 1970s. Then the non-contributing rear additions to the remaining National Register-buildings would be removed in order to make room for the eight screening rooms of the new theater. This put the windowless box portion of the movie theater at the rear of the site and saved three of the imperiled historic buildings. City officials and Regal approved the design, but there was still a question of funding the project.

That’s when NTCIC played a pivotal role in making the project a success. The city planned to sell the historic buildings saved by the proposal to private developers who would be able to use the Historic Rehabilitation and New Market Tax Credits. However, the proposal increased the cost of the new theater the city planned to build and lease to Regal. The National Trust could not invest its New Market Tax Credits in the new structure, but saved the day by identifying another investor for the project who brought $2 million dollars to the table and made the entire plan work. Mayor Haslam pushed through the financing and Regal Entertainment Group announced they would call the new movie theater the Regal Riviera in honor of the earlier theater that stood on that site.

That effort, begun almost six years ago, laid the groundwork for the construction of the new Regal Riviera and the preservation of some of Knoxville's most beloved historic buildings. Downtown now has its successful movie theater and, thanks to the local development team of John Craig, Mike Hatcher, Tim Hill and Dane Baker, it will also have its historic buildings filled with the S&W Grand Cafe, Coolato Gelato, professional offices and retail space - all in the same space once set aside for the new cinema alone. The attention to detail in the restorations is rare and crowds packed the buildings when they were unveiled. It's a success story few expected in the winter of 2005.

Gay Street at night.

Gay Street at night.

Since that time downtown Knoxville has experienced a renaissance few would have ever thought possible and the Regal Riviera is the second highest grossing movie theater in Regal’s Knoxville market. It’s second only to their sprawling 18-screen complex in suburban Knox County which is one of their most successful theaters in the country. Gay Street and Market Square are filled with restaurants, shops, concerts, a farmers market, loft apartments and, most importantly, people. It’s an exciting time and tens of thousands of people from across the region are enjoying downtown’s success, brought about by preservationists, local developers, small business owners and government leaders. And word of this transformation is starting to spread across the country, contributing even more to the momentum and making Knoxville a model for other mid-sized cities.

According to John Leith-Tetrault, president of NTCIC, "The National Trust Community Investment Corporation has been providing tax credit financing to historic properties in central business districts for 10 years, including three such investments along Gay Street. We have never in our experience seen a downtown renaissance occur so quickly and with such a clear connection to the rehabilitation of historic buildings."

We wouldn’t be here without the National Trust, NTCIC and the investments they made in our preservation organization and our downtown. That relationship began in 1998 and it has benefitted downtown Knoxville, as well as our entire East Tennessee region.

Kim Trent is executive director of Knox Heritage, the non-profit preservation advocacy organization for Knoxville and the surrounding 16-county region. She’s proud to call downtown Knoxville home for herself and her two children and they all love looking out over Gay Street from their loft apartment atop the 1906 Emporium Building.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.


One Response

  1. Dawn Archdeacon

    October 29, 2010

    A great article, and a great time be in Knoxville. Knox Heritage has done a fine job helping developers balance growth with preservation.

    One thing that this article only touches on, but worth noting – Knoxville’s renaissance seemed to begin with the rebuilding of Market Square around 2000 and the re-make of Krutch Park. As a long-time downtown patron, I doubt that the Riviera would have had the success it has had if folks weren’t already coming downtown to eat/shop at Market Square and attend events like Sundown in the City. It’s been a steady growth, with support from a lot of individuals & groups (including the Market Square District Association).

    Good job all round.