Knoxville Loses Another Fine Mid-Century Modern Building: Hamilton National Bank

In Architecture Matters by George Doddsleave a COMMENT

There is a hole at the southeastern corner of Knoxville’s Western Plaza. On the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015, another building by of one of Tennessee’s finest 20th-century architects was lost in the gap between no-longer-new and not-quite-old-enough. The former Hamilton National Bank building was not the largest of Robert B. Church III’s buildings, nor was it his most elaborate. It was, however, the most distinguished of his extant buildings—particularly before its several “renovations,” first by United American Bank (UAB) and later by First Tennessee—and easily the finest example of mid-century modern architecture along all of Kingston Pike. Kem Hinton, of Tuck-Hinton Architects of Nashville (who knew the building well as a student of architecture in Knoxville) characterized the demolition as a “tragic loss.” Hinton elaborated: “It was perhaps the finest statement of its kind in our entire state.”

Church (who would not live to see construction completed) designed the bank when he was a partner at the local firm of McCarty, Bullock, Church, Holsaple (MBCH). The new branch of Hamilton Bank was featured in the August, 1974 issue of what was then the most important American architectural journal, Architectural Record, and went on to win a State of Tennessee AIA Award and a Gulf States AIA Award.

Two of Church’s assistants on the project, Charlie Smith and Robert French, remember vividly the design process and the experience of the newly-completed building. French, a local practitioner and longstanding adjunct faculty at the UTK School of Architecture, recounts: “[H]ow ennobled and uplifted I felt every time I took those broad steps up to the plinth level, grasped the door handle, and pulled open one of those sparkling glass doors, crossed the threshold onto the cleft slate pavers beneath the warmth of the wood ceiling and [crossed the floor] to the beautifully designed and crafted business counters. I always had the feeling that it connected me, us, to the same stream of emotions and artistic and intellectual sentiments sought and experienced by the ancient Greeks.”

The wood ceiling and slate floor were among the first of the finely detailed interior finishes lost to the several alterations to the building, set in motion by the infamous bank fraud of the Butcher brothers, who acquired Hamilton in the late 1970s. The closure of 12 of the Butcher banks cleared a path, through an FDIC structured liquidation, for First Tennessee to acquire UAB and the lease on the building, ultimately repurposing it for financial planning. For a quarter of a century, they were its stewards.

Within little more than two years, Knoxville has lost two excellent Church-designed buildings, the second being his parking garage for the former Carolyn Brown University Center on the UTK campus. They were both demolished, in part, because they were caught in the gap between not-as-useful-as-they-once-were and not-old-enough-to-be-protected.

Were we living among great agglutinations of architectures piled high upon the sedimentation of continuously inhabited centuries, those of us so deeply unsettled by the recent razing may see things a bit differently. Ours, however, is a relatively young and somewhat scattered environ, home to few excellent works of architecture. There are scant buildings one can take a student to and ask, “What makes this one better than all the others?” Church’s former Hamilton Bank was first among these. The parking garage, as odd as it sounds, was another.

It’s a truism of architectural practice that there are no great outcomes without great clients. Max Robinson, the former director of the UTK School of Architecture and once a lead designer with MBCH, now McCarty Holsaple McCarty, recalls how excellent were the leaders of Hamilton Bank as clients: “They trusted in Bruce McCarty to deliver what they needed and know how to get it built properly. And Bruce trusted Church.” As it turns out, Hamilton Bank was not only an excellent client, it was remarkably civic-minded as well. Robinson recalls how Hamilton required the inclusion of a basement meeting room carved into the plinth that could also be used by local community groups and operate separately from the bank, even when the bank was not open—a gesture difficult to imagine today. It is this sort of gesture that distinguishes a bank such as Hamilton from ordinary business enterprises.

That said, the buildings we wrap our institutions in, no matter how well built, tend to have far shorter lifespans than the institutions that build them. That First Tennessee is the third bank to do business out of the Western Plaza location is a good case in point. Which is why it is so important that, in addition to their main charge—religious, commercial, educational, judicial—institutions act as good stewards of their property. When First Tennessee vacates an important work of architecture and landscape such as the former Hamilton Bank, leaving it to an out-of-town developer (Biltmore Property Group of Asheville, N.C.), it divests itself of the responsibility to maintain a valuable part of our community. It’s difficult to imagine this same institution casually ceasing its funding of the Knoxville Museum of Art, the Knoxville Symphony, or the Tennessee Theater, leaving a budgetary hole so big as to imperil their very existence, further diminishing the culture of our city. Yet, First Tennessee’s divestiture of their former branch building has done nothing less.

There is a hole at the southeastern corner of Western Plaza where once stood a fine work of architecture. If properly restored or repurposed, Church’s elegant building could have enjoyed a long and productive life in our community. That Biltmore Properties could not envision this path is a great loss to us all. Yet, those with control over the most money often seem to have the least idea as to how to best dispose of it. When Western Plaza’s owner, WP General Partnership, merged with Biltmore Property Group in 2013, it essentially became an out-of-state developer itself (changing its address to BPG’s in Asheville, N.C.). And in this case, it acted like one.

That First Tennessee Bank—headquartered in Memphis but a longstanding Knoxville benefactor—could not reimagine the building as a cultural surplus is an even greater loss. For example, one could easily see the site reworked into any number of scenarios. The “First Tennessee Kunsthalle,” for example, a new venue for the Knoxville Museum of Art, in which art work is relocated from storage in the KMA building on the bluff above World’s Fair Park nearer the quotidian marketplace. These sorts of things have happened decades ago in other cities with great success. That path, however, is closed.

One path still open would be for we, as members of a locale that values such things, to start minding the gap between the no-longer-new and the not-yet-old-enough. We can begin by systematically identifying buildings and places of excellence caught in this shady interstitial space, to assure that we do not wake up one day to find yet another great building being carted off to a landfill in Murfreesboro. This challenge will remain unmet, however, as long as no one minds the sorts of gaps that create the sorts of holes made by the demolition of the former Hamilton National Bank. Another building can be constructed on that site, but the hole will never be filled.

Color photos of the Hamilton National Bank are courtesy Doug McCarty of MHM, with thanks to Charles Smith for his assistance.

Scans of the August 1974 edition of Architectural Record are courtesy John Lynch Sanders of Sanders Pace Architecture

Corrected 11/11/15: A previous version of this column identified First Tennessee Bank as the owner of the building; however, FTB had been leasing the building when the company vacated it.

George Dodds

George Dodds’ Architecture Matters explores issues concerning the human-made environment, primarily focused on Knoxville and its environs. He has been teaching and publishing commentaries on the practice and history of architecture, urbanism, and landscape architecture for over 30 years. He has practiced in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., has lectured internationally, and has served on the editorial boards of several journals. Since 2000, he has been on the faculty of architecture at the University of Tennessee.

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