UT’s Student Center Was Amazing Without Ever Being Beloved

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

Go drop in on the University Center. It hasn’t been much heralded, but this month is your last chance to visit a local institution.

It’ll be demolished in a few weeks. That’s not news; its demolition was first publicly announced eight years ago. It had been on the drawing board for some years before that.

They’ll build a much-bigger student center, even though the University of Tennessee is hardly bigger. In fact, in total students, UT’s a little smaller than it was when I was in school, 35 years ago. But folks in the university business agree, if you talk to them privately, that it’s about attracting teenagers, and today’s teenagers demand luxury. They demand extraordinary luxury, even beyond what they have any reason to expect when they’re grownup professionals. La Bohème is so 19th century. College is posh now.

Maybe the new building will do the trick. But some personal appreciation for the old one seems called for. Everybody’s would be different, but here’s mine.

First envisioned in 1950 as a “Student-Faculty Center,” this building has been UT’s student union ever since 1954, the early days of television and rock ’n’ roll. Its origin involves a very strange story often simplified. I’ll tell it in this space later this month.

For 61 years, it has served as an intellectual forum, bringing some of the great thinkers and performers and creators of the era to one place. It’s also been a great place to get an extraordinarily cheap bag of chips and Coke. Also to go bowling. The first time I ever bowled—I was about 9, I think—was there, in the basement. Three decades later, I took my kids there to go bowling. They were better at it.

One of my life’s regrets was that I considered, and chose to skip, the Tom Waits show in the UC auditorium, in 1978. He did two shows in a row there, in the days when he was using gas pumps for props and singing sad, beautiful songs. I remember seeing the little posters for it outside the cafeteria. It was five bucks. I wasn’t sure I could justify it. He didn’t return to Knoxville for 30 years.

The first time I ever dared to taste yogurt was there, at a restaurant then called the Rafters, an odd name for a basement cafeteria. It was the ’70s, and I became an addict.

You may consider this cheating the harsh reality of life, but for three years after I graduated I found myself in the UC almost daily. The cafeteria was still a handy resource for a good cheap meal, and after supper I often went upstairs to hear a lecture or see another interesting old movie in the auditorium. I was a better student after graduation than I was when I was enrolled.

Sometimes the UC was a lightning rod. Remember the controversy about Philip Pearlstein’s unsettling nudes, on display in the corridors, in the ’80s? I didn’t get it. I didn’t like them or hate them. I saw bluesman Albert Collins play guitar there, in the same room where I later heard legendary ghostbusters Ed and Lorraine Warren. And then Norman Mailer.

One column can’t contain its history.

A list of other literary figures who have lectured there includes playwright Tennessee Williams, poet Allen Tate, novelists Saul Bellow, James Dickey, Joseph Heller, and Kurt Vonnegut. Pearl S. Buck, who in 1938 became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, spoke there in 1967. Historian Bernadotte Schmitt, UT’s first alumnus Pulitzer Prize-winner, spoke there in 1957.

Robert Lowell, one of the best-known American poets of the 20th century, gave the final reading of his entire career in the Shiloh Room, in May 1977. An alcoholic with a serious heart problem, he died a few weeks later. I always thought there should be a plaque.

Regional figures like Bobbie Ann Mason, John Egerton, Lee Smith, Alex Haley, John Siegenthaler, and Andrew Young all spoke there.

President Lyndon Johnson stopped his motorcade in front of the UC in May 1964, to get out and shake a few dozen strangers’ hands. That was gutsy, considering what had happened to his boss not six months earlier. Yippie Jerry Rubin spoke there about 15 years later. President Ronald Reagan was there for a few hours in 1985 when he presided over a technology symposium in the ballroom. With him was the whole White House press corps, including Helen Thomas and Sam Donaldson, who reported on the occasion.

Humorists from Art Buchwald to Margaret Cho have spoken there. And Bill Nye the Science Guy. Frank Zappa gave a very frank talk there in April 1969, an audio recording of which has gotten around on the Internet. Tragic, short-lived folksinger Phil Ochs performed in front of the building, in 1970.

You’d think some awareness of that heritage, of all the major world thinkers and artists who have convened at the University Center, would be a selling point for a college. I don’t know that it ever was. I had to do a few hours of digging to research this column.

The UC was central to the whole antiwar Student Strike of May 1970. And of course there was the Marion Greenwood legend. The muralist—she’s soon to be the subject of a biography—painted her “Singing Mural” for the ballroom in 1955. After it was damaged during the most chaotic weekend of the Strike, and some called the painting controversial, it was fastidiously concealed with paneling, hidden there for decades. Saved, it will soon be on display at the Knoxville Museum of Art.

The UC has some history. But is there something about modernist architecture that tends to shed affection? The UC should be a famous and beloved building. I can’t tell that it is. If it were a nominee for the National Register of Historic Places, it would be a slam-dunk. But it’s being torn down, and there’s not a whole lot of demonstrating about that fact. For the last few years it’s been on Knox Heritage’s Fragile Fifteen list, but I’ve met only a few—and there are a few—who regret its loss.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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