Buildings and Blocks

Three Beauties

Hollywood Boulevard, the main street of the movie capitol, is lined with theaters. Like most built in the 1920s, these had large marquees, canopies that doubled as billboards for the show and shelter for the crowds buying tickets and waiting to get in. The marquees in place today are not the originals, but replacements from the 1950s replete with flashing neon, animated incandescents and giant plastic letters, all intended to capture the attention of passing motorists and pedestrians at a time when movie attendance was flagging. Anachronistic in an electronic age, these garish artifacts have been meticulously preserved as historic relics of the period in which they were built.

The issues of what is good architecture, what is historic, and what should be saved, confront historians, preservationists, building owners and city officials throughout the country. Costs versus benefits are considered, and politics, as usual, enters into the decision process. The first step is to educate the public to the presence of buildings that may not be very old but are unique in some distinguished - or distinguishable - way. Some may go unnoticed while others, like Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York, become subjects of derision before their value is recognized. There are many local examples of last-century beauties I'd put high on my must see, if not must save list. Here are three of them.

Rich's Department Store, later known as Miller's, and now the UT Conference Center, is a big box in the truest sense of the term, occupying a full city block between Locust and Henley, Church and Cumberland. Completed in 1955, it was Rich's first retail venture outside its home city of Atlanta. The building, designed by Atlanta architects Stevens and Wilkinson in association with industrial designer Raymond Loewy (best known for the Coca-Cola bottle and Studebaker automobiles), was recipient of an AIA Merit Award in 1957. The east and west facades feature green glazed tile, tinted glass, porcelain trim and undulating concrete entry canopies, while the north and south facades are surfaced in red glazed brick, punctuated by shaded display windows that liven the sidewalk. This particular aesthetic, developed in Europe in the 1920s, was refined by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen for his General Motors Technical Center near Detroit. The premise is that building materials, properly chosen and simply applied, could provide an outer skin that is both decorative and functional, with an intrinsic ability to keep itself clean.

In a reversal of its expansion policy, Rich's sold the building to locally-owned Miller's. It continued its life as a department store until 1992 when it was sold to the University of Tennessee. The open interior spaces were then carved up into offices and meeting rooms, but the striking faŤades remain mostly intact. The building was included in Knox Heritage's "Fragile 15" list of 2007 because of a need for exterior maintenance and recurring threats to redevelop the site.

Perhaps my favorite building downtown is the Lawson McGee Library, not just for its looks, but because it's the one I've used the most. Completed in 1970, it was designed by Bruce McCarty and Associates before McCarty formed the partnership that produced the master plan (and a few of the buildings) for the 1982 World's Fair. Like so many of its contemporaries, the library has an exposed, reinforced concrete frame and generous use of glass, brick, stone and wood that make the interior a wonderful place to read, research and retreat from the outside world. The children's library is located in the basement but open to natural light brought in through a sunken courtyard below the level of the sidewalk, allowing the kids to watch the pedestrians and vice versa. The main reading room has two-story-high, north-facing windows and a mezzanine that contains the media collection. Everything seems in its place, grand but intimate, just as it should in a good building.

There's never enough room for the computers, though, which find their way into the least appropriate places, pushing out armchairs and reading tables in their hegemonic quest for space. The original plan provided for the library's expansion on the site next door, now the parking lot for the Duncan Federal Building. With security a concern, it is unlikely the Feds will surrender their occupied territory, so the library has been looking at alternatives for several years. If that means the abandonment of their current home, I selfishly hope they won't find one.

Last on my abbreviated list are buildings almost no one likes, the Holiday Inn complex fronting on Henley Street. The grouping includes an office building to the hotel's south and the city-owned exhibit halls tucked under the main lobby. Designed by McCarty Bullock Holsaple, it was built in anticipation of the 1982 fair and sited on the east side of World's Fair Park. (Until the Candy Factory went condo this year, the hotel was the only residential use on the park.) Berated for the stark, bunker-like quality of its exposed, reinforced concrete facades which express the structure of the buildings, the aesthetic is an example of post-Vietnam War functional "brutalism" that swept the country. The plain exterior hides some lovely interior spaces, particularly at the street level. Public areas flow freely from entry to reception, from lobby to bar and restaurants, all overlooking the park through panoramic windows and cleverly connected to the convention rooms and park below by wide stairs and escalators. The spaciousness is surprising and refreshing, evidence that the "open plan" concept promoted by Wright in the early 20th century and so prevalent in later residential and commercial architecture really works.

Some say it would be cheaper to demolish the building than refurbish it to contemporary standards of access, room size, finish and decor, but in an economy of great uncertainties, just as we are reasessing the value of recycling, destruction would seem a waste of labor, energy and material. Further, it is difficult to imagine a replacement hotel of its quality and durability being built today. Hire a noted interior designer like Zaha Hadid, Karim Rashid or Philippe Starck to redo the public spaces, and watch how quickly in-the-know tourists flock to this spot.

As Angelenos were celebrating the preservation of their 50s marquees, Knoxvillians were removing one of the last Gay Street remnants of the glitzy, glamorous, post-war era of prosperity and extravagance. The neon and incandescents of the Tennessee Theatre marquee were dimmed forever, replaced by a digitally-equipped reproduction of the original 1928 marquee. Hoping the earlier, mid-period marquee could be saved, perhaps even moved to a place of honor in the Knoxville Museum of Art, I wrote a letter deploring the decision as a violation of its artistic and historic integrity and importance. The artifact was lost, except in photographs. If anything has been learned by the process, it's the need to open our eyes a bit wider and, led by Knox Heritage and other caring civic and professional groups, take a fresh look at the buildings down the block and around the corner.

©2008 Michael Kaplan. This article originally appeared in the Knoxville Voice.
Photo: Rich's Department Store at night, c.1955 (Photo courtesy Stevens & Wilkinson Stang & Newdow Inc.)