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
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.
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.
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