How Kristopher Kendrick’s Preservationist Vision Reshaped Knoxville Today

In Cover Stories by Tracy Jones6 Comments

Kent Kendrick remembers the first time his late father, Kristopher Kendrick, took him to the building that had been Patrick Sullivan’s saloon, at the corner of South Central and East Jackson streets. It was the mid-1970s. Geographically, it was a short distance from downtown, but the warehouse district was perceived to be a world away from the offices of bankers and lawyers and engineers who headed to the suburbs each night.

What Kent saw was a broken-down hull of a 90-year-old building, with a dusty time-capsule interior and people sleeping in the doorway. Kristopher saw the building’s great bones, its irreplaceable details, its location at the heart of what could become a vibrant living and entertaining district. It wouldn’t be until 1988 that he opened it as Patrick Sullivan’s Saloon, but Kristopher’s vision on that day was clear, even if no one else could see it.

“He could always see what the end looked like, when all I could see was broken glass,” Kent says.

Kristopher Kendrick, who died in 2009 at the age of 74, is rightly remembered as one of the masterminds of Knoxville’s downtown revitalization and Old City development. But his influence extended far beyond the center city. He renovated residences of grace and charm in West Knoxville—and inspired a dedicated group of friends to carry on his preservationist mantle. He took on an industrial building in a not-gentrified area and made it a hot address for young urban professionals, families, and retirees. He saw some projects through from their bare bones to the end; others, he just touched with his magic before passing them along. He was a developer, an entrepreneur, an evangelist. 

Downtown Knoxville today is experiencing a period of revitalization that was nearly unimaginable 30 or even 20 years ago—except by Kristopher Kendrick. By placing a value on old and often empty buildings, he put a template into place that is being used now to great effect: refurbishing our existing building stock to create new places and new energy. It may be accepted as common practice now, but when Kendrick started rehabbing properties, he was blazing a trail that few believed was going to be followed by anyone else.

Across Knox County and in the city itself, Kristopher Kendrick’s legacy is represented in the projects he imagined and completed in his own inimitable way. Here are some highlights.

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The Nicholas

At Historic Westwood—the grand Victorian home of the preservation organization Knox Heritage, on Kingston Pike—there is a dedicated Kristopher Kendrick parlor. A picture of the dapper developer hangs there, like an angel reminding everyone it is our duty to save the things we love, to see the value in what has been beautifully made to last for the ages.

cover_1013_kendrickpreservation4“I relate to Knoxville as though she were a beautiful woman who needs to be dressed up and taken out. She has all the potential in the world.” This statement, which Kendrick first said to late News Sentinel columnist Carson Brewer in 1982, is one of the title cards for a remarkable documentary about Kristopher Kendrick, produced as a fundraiser for Knox Heritage in 2009. In the documentary, which features sweet reminiscences from those who knew him, he doesn’t mince words about preservation:

“I had always felt that Knoxville—the people who I felt should have saved the buildings were the old families here, all of whom I knew quite well,” he said. “But that’s not what they did. Just because Granddaddy built it, that didn’t mean ‘We want to save it or protect it.’ They went to Florida for the winter. Anyway, I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’”

Since he was a teenager—when he and his future bride, Mary Marlene King, would drive through Sequoyah Hills—Kendrick had dreamed of living in one of the aging mansions that dotted the neighborhood. Although it’s hard to imagine now, Kent Kendrick says, in the 1970s, “There were so many vacant luxury properties.” These included the Barber & McMurry mansion that the Kendrick family purchased at 450 Cherokee Boulevard. Built in the 1920s, it had been vacant for 18 years.

It was here that Kristopher got a real taste for making an old space new, for finding a spot for the antiques he was collecting and for some small-scale repurposing of the architectural relics he had been cultivating—mantels, doors, columns, sconces—from some of the old homes that were being destroyed or allowed to fall down.

Kristopher was one of the first developers locally to see the wisdom in architectural salvage. Eventually he would have relics from the old Fulton mansion, the Bonnyman mansion on Kingston Pike, and many more.

“He had relationships with the larger demolition companies,” Kent says, and he stored his architectural pieces in a couple of very full warehouses, one behind his restaurant, the Orangery, and another near his Old City properties.

cover_1013_kendrickpreservation2The family’s Cherokee Boulevard home burned in 1979, in a fire that made front-page news and injured several of the inhabitants, including Kent. Kristopher took the whole family across Kingston Pike to the old Mary Reed Apartments.

Opened in 1930 at the height of sophisticated suburban living, the Spanish-style stucco dowager is still a Kingston Pike showpiece, not far from Historic Westwood. The creamy exterior has arched entryways and a riot of greenery around it. When Kristopher bought it, it had been cut up with renovations. Ensconcing himself in a third-floor corner apartment, Kristopher began overseeing the rebuilding of their Cherokee Boulevard home while also redeveloping the Mary Reed Apartments as a condominium complex rebranded the Nicholas. At the time, the idea of condominiums was novel to Knoxville, and their success surprised everyone.

The layout of some of the units is novel, and there has never been any parking to speak of (an amenity that was short on several of Kristopher’s original projects), but those who call it home revere it.

“I love the Nicholas,” says interior designer Christopher Davis, principal at the Drawing Room. He and his partner, Rene Yates, have owned a unit for several years and are embarking on a couple of major remodel projects in the next year.

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“The rooms are beautifully proportioned and appointed with beautiful salvaged architectural details that would have been lost to us,” Davis says. “Living here is easy and life here has a little more elegance.”

cover_1013_kendrickpreservation6Tricia Bateman
Kendrick Place

The red-bricked Edwardian row houses of Kendrick Place sit in one of downtown Knoxville’s most desirable addresses, just steps away from Market Square, near the city’s ambitiously renovated Daylight Building and the gracious old Masonic Temple on Union. They were built in 1916 and are some of the most prominently preserved row houses in the city. Brick sidewalks extend around the cozy complex, with one of Kristopher’s touches—geraniums flanking the outside—still preserved. Inside the complex is a gracious courtyard, a concept Kristopher used later at Park Place.

cover_1013_kendrickpreservation7Tricia Bateman

Inside the units, many of which have been rehabbed and refitted since Kendrick Place was created, Kristopher came up with some of the signature touches he would carry into other projects. Exposed brick inside the units is a residential detail that is often found now in “repurposed buildings” such as JFG Flats or White Lily Flats (both projects by contemporary developer and Kendrick protégé David Dewhirst). At the time Kristopher Kendrick did it, such “industrial” touches were daring, as was the use of non-traditional elements to create room spaces, like employing an old barn door for a room divider rather than sheet-rocking in a plain wall.

Everything had to look like it had aged gracefully, even if it was new—“He liked things to look a little decadent,” Kent says. Some of this approach was due to his father’s horror of cookie-cutter design—no two units were laid out the same or had the same elements. Kristopher would pay extra to retro-fit a quality fixture rather than pay less for a new one. “I’d know the difference,” he’d say.

But when Kristopher ran out of budget, that was it—having paid for the touches that were important to him, he wouldn’t stress further. And he often made creative improvisations to meet his budget: During the Kendrick Place rehab, for example, the crew had taken dozens of doors out of the row houses. When codes required him to enclose the job site, Kristopher got a quote for fencing that horrified him. The next thing Kent knew, he and the rest of the crew were creating a construction enclosure made out of those old doors.

Kendrick Place was the project that held a special place in his dad’s heart. “It was the first big thing that he did,” Kent says. “It has our name on it.”

When Kristopher purchased the row houses in 1981, they were individual apartments, many of them cut up in ways that were almost impossible to untangle. The buildings had to be gutted. More delicately though, the apartments were still home to residents, some without a lot of resources, some of whom couldn’t imagine moving. Their plight also made front-page news at the time.

This is where Kristopher stood firm in his vision that residential living was coming back to downtown. He paid the relocation expenses for the people in the apartments, at minimum, and in some cases more. But he was convinced that urban professionals would jump at the chance to live so close to the heart of the city and that developments must be created to attract them.

“If you have a city you have to have urban living. Otherwise it is not a city,” Kristopher told a reporter at the time. “There is no reason why Charleston or Savannah have to have all the charm.”

Kent lived in the unit that had originally been built as a furnace room. He had trained as a carpenter’s helper and a surveyor on construction crews, but when he started working with his father in earnest, his true education began.

“He hired really good people, and I learned from them,” says Kent, who still owns one of the family’s buildings, the Kentshyrs off Broadway, and who rehabs and sells homes in the Parkridge neighborhood. “When I was really young, I knew everything and he knew nothing. Now I’m really glad for all the time we had. We always dreamed of building ‘a new old house’ together.”

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Park Place

Gordon Gibson, a retired Unitarian minister and author, jokes that he will happily talk your ear off about the virtues of Park Place, in East Knoxville’s Parkridge. The condominiums were created out of the old Park Ridge Junior High. Built in 1927, the rock-solid building still looks like a pre-Depression institutional marvel. Sturdily and classically built, the red-brick school was closed in 1980. Kendrick bought the building in 1983 for a steal of a price (about $75,000) and immediately set about refurbishing it for condominiums.

He left many of its original features intact: the old gymnasium, the playground, the top-floor “science room” (now a unit with a conservatory). He chose the tiling, paint, and cabinetry—and many who have lived in the residences before and after joke about how Dixie Kitchens must have had a sale on black-and-white patterned flooring and blonde cabinets. Otherwise, he let the first buyers finish out their own residences as they saw fit—part of his “not cookie cutter” approach, resulting in very idiosyncratic units. But the condo that Gibson and his wife, Judy, occupy was created for its first owner by Kristopher himself. It includes the principal’s office, where the vault was, now converted into a pantry.

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Inside the gated complex around Park Place, there’s a courtyard and fountain, an oasis in urban living. Exterior stairs along the building lead into a communal hallway that is graced by original blueprints of the Park Junior High. Residents and visitors love to look at the original building plans for a “then and now” comparison.

“It’s simply the most fun space I’ve ever lived in,” Gibson says. The Gibsons relocated here from Indiana several years ago. They wanted a place that was urban, but with room for their many books and antiques (as opposed to clutter-free loft living). After moving in, the couple commissioned Kent Kendrick to create large book shelves that would work to break up some of the great room. In the process, Gibson learned more about the history of the project and of Knoxville itself.

Gibson says he now knows that what appealed to him about the space had to do with Kristopher’s original vision: “Some of it was the feel of what Kris had imagined: Respect for the past, energy for the present.”

cover_1013_kendrickpreservation9Tricia Bateman

Today, Park Place is still more of a hidden gem than Kendrick Place, but word-of-mouth brings buyers and renters to it. Gibson says it is a place where all ages live happily; some of his newest neighbors are twentysomethings who have judged this the best example they could find of repurposed urban living. Gibson agrees. “Park Place set a standard that many of the later conversions of historic buildings merely dream of,” he says.

Newcomers may not always know the name of the man who saved it, but they certainly feel his presence.

“A lot of what is good about this town is stuff Kristopher had a hand in,” Gibson says.

The Old City
cover_1013_kendrickpreservation12Tricia Bateman

“I remember my father saying, ‘Son, don’t you know what kind of neighborhood that is?’ And I remember saying, which is true, ‘Pop, I’m going to change it.’”
—Kristopher Kendrick, 2009

The “warehouse district” was still a relatively rough place when Annie’s (not owned by Kendrick) and Manhattan’s opened in the early 1980s. From that first idea of buying Patrick Sullivan’s old saloon, Kristopher Kendrick came full circle when he renovated it in 1988 and it became the anchor of a thriving social scene. Today the gorgeous old building, without the Sullivan name for the first time in its almost 120-year history, is home to the recently opened culinary destination Lonesome Dove.

In the go-go 1990s, the heyday of the Old City, Kendrick’s company had a small fleet of Isuzu troopers with “Old City” stenciled around the word “troopers.” He worked with partners to invest in and resell properties in downtown proper, including the Emporium Building, which he sold to David Dewhirst. Other properties with the Kristopher Kendrick mark on them include the Stuart and Cunningham buildings downtown, the stately Kristopher at Maplehurst apartment complex, the renovated Hotel Oliver, which he called the Hotel St. Oliver, River House, and many others.

Not everything that Kendrick touched was a success, and not everything could be saved, but his son says he always saved a great building that could be saved if it let him break even.

Scott West, whose family developed property in the Old City and in Market Square, says everyone who loves the city owes a debt to Kendrick.

“Kris Kendrick is the Godfather of historic downtown Knoxville’s revitalization,” West says. “He saved the sawdusted and storied bones of these awesome old buildings so that we could adorn, decorate, and inhabit them for everyone to enjoy.”

Sidebar: Preservationist Origins

Kristopher Kendrick grew up in Oak Ridge, where his father worked for the housing authority, and he spoke often about how the contrast between the “everything is new” vibe of the instant secret city and the abandoned farmhouses that had been pushed aside for growth had made him a preservationist at a young age.

He trained as a hair dresser—it was a job where there was always employment, and where he would come into contact with people who would encourage his vision and who would rely on his talents. With his friend, Jane Oliver Bailey, he opened the very forward Kristopher and Co. hair salon in the plaza where Long’s Drugstore is in Bearden. Later, a couple of miles down the road, he built an avant-garde lifestyle complex anchored by his French-inspired restaurant, the Orangery, on the site of an old tractor-supply company. Kristopher’s “immortals,” as he would come to call his favorite clients, had a one-stop shop for hair, lunch, and dresses. But all the time he was dreaming of transforming the city he loved.

He started with the old Percy Lockett house (c. 1903) on Hill Avenue. Built by a prominent businessman in an antebellum style, it had been converted to the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in the 1920s, then abandoned in the 1970s when the congregation moved west. Kendrick opened it in the late 1970s as the wildly successful supper club Lord Lindsey. For decades, first as a restaurant, then as a nightclub, the grand structure was a height of city social life. In 2003, as Kendrick was slowing down, there was a scare that the building might be sold and torn down, but the family held it. Although it is still idle, attorney Anthony Cappiello Jr., who bought it in 2010, has stated that it will be preserved and repurposed, continuing Kendrick’s legacy.

Kendrick also started up the Bistro at the Bijou, in the historic Bijou Theater/Lamar House, one of the first significant downtown structures to be saved from the wrecking ball by a group of concerned citizens. Back then he referred to all of downtown as the “Old City,” but later narrowed it to Jackson and Central, crediting the term to Pat Roddy Sr.

Through the 1970s and well into the 1980s, experts came together to talk revitalization and give up on it in the same breath. One real estate manager at the time was quoted as saying developers had to focus on the bread-and-butter infrastructure of daytime workers who would need banks and law offices and lunch spots; around-the-clock city life was never coming back.

Kendrick never listened, and he encouraged others with the same dream. “I would like to renovate the entire Old City and its surroundings if I could manage it,” he told a reporter in 1981.

Tracy Jones
Contributing Writer

Writer Tracy Jones lives in Knoxville, Tenn. One of the original contributors to Metro Pulse, she worked as a lifestyle magazine editor in Fort Myers and Naples, Fla., where she wrote about home, design, not-for-profit organizations and more.

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