On Saturday afternoon, a dozen or so sign-carrying demonstrators stood along Broadway, in front of a pretty old tree-shaded house. For whatever it’s worth, dozens of drivers honked in support. The 1910 Howard House at 2921 Broadway, just this side of Atlantic Avenue, is a rarity. Broadway used to have scores of especially pretty old houses, but over the years we’ve turned it over to parking lots, strip malls, drive-thrus. As of this spring, at least, the Howard House is still there.
Built in 1910, it wasn’t just an example of its era—it was an exemplar. Featured in an early promotional brochure called “Greater Knoxville Illustrated” as one of the best examples of stylishly modern new Craftsman houses of that era, it was designed by local architect Charles Hayes. A University of Tennessee grad who trained with noted architect George Barber, Hayes did most of his work elsewhere, especially Atlanta and Mobile—but he designed this one in his hometown for his own brother, Lynn Hayes, who was Knox County Trustee during the World War I era. Lynn Hayes was also a successful contractor who built some of the first houses on Cherokee Boulevard, which as a beautiful residential avenue arguably stole the place in Knoxville’s heart that used to belong to Broadway.
The same house later served as home to Charlton Karns, Knoxville city manager and two-term city councilman. Later still, it was the Minton Tourist Home, in the days of the Dixie Highway. We’d call it a bed and breakfast. Maybe that’s an ideal use for it today.
The Howard family, who were in the plumbing and heating trade, but got involved in public life. Resident Paul Howard was a city councilman in the 1970s. That house was home to a county trustee, a city manager, two city councilmen. (Is there a house in Sequoyah Hills with such a record for municipal leadership?) The Howards lived there longer than anyone else—for 60-odd years—and took good care of the house. Now a developer known for preparing the way for regional Walmarts wants the property. The house site would become a small part of a proposed surface parking lot.
I suspect Walmart’s public-relations team is overworked, but it might behoove them to recall a cautionary tale.
There are people who still despise one particular big-box store for doing in another Broadway landmark, just a couple of miles north. Of all Broadway’s grand residences, none of them were quite like Park Place. Designed by Baumann Brothers in the early 1890s for hotel developer J.C. Woodward, the 23-room mansion reigned over a hilltop at Broadway and Gibbs Drive and intrigued all passers by with a turret, balconies, wraparound porches, columns, stained-glass windows, and what were described by a scholar as “remarkably delicate carvings” in stone and terra cotta.
That was just what you could see on the outside. Most Fountain Citians never saw the inside of Park Place, but were proud of it anyway.
Target bought the property and, after a fight with some City Council folks and other erstwhile planners, tore down the house along with the hill it sat on and put in a flat ordinary store and parking lot there. All that happened 35 years ago. But even after more than a third of the century, some people in Fountain City still speak of it with regret and, specifically, disdain for Target.
That story comes with an all-too-familiar coda. By 2005 Target decided they didn’t need that store anymore and abandoned it. They’d proven who was boss. And having proven who was boss, nobody can tell them they can’t just move somewhere else.
In most preservation cases, I’ve found, it’s the proving who’s boss that turns out to be the important thing.
Now the site’s a strip mall with a Kroger and some other things. You’d never guess there was any history to it.
There are some differences between the Howard House and Park Place. The latter was more jaw-droppingly astonishing to see. It was also harder to suggest new uses for in an era when most people live in households of two or three and few of us are coal barons.
The Howard House seems much more manageable.
There are lots of reasons to save old houses. One of the best ones is the one that’s chillingly practical. It’s that every time—and in my lifetime, it’s been every single time—we tear down an old building, what we replace it with is worse.
I’ll define my terms, here. By “old,” I mean a building 75 years old or more. And by “worse,” I don’t just mean something I personally like less, from some sentimental, nostalgic, past-worshipping point of view.
I mean categorically worse. Cheaper, flimsier, uglier, less sustainable, less versatile, more dysfunctional. Every time we tear down an old building, our city gets crappier.
Here’s a challenge: Can you think of an exception?
You’ll find some examples in the deeper past. Some interesting buildings, like the once-famous mid-Victorian McCrary & Branson studio, were torn down around 1925 to build the Tennessee Theatre. Some pretty houses and a notable 19th-century school were torn down for Church Street Methodist Church, which any agnostic would admit is an architectural monument.
It’s possible we might one day tear down an interesting old building for something that turns out to be worthy. I like modern architecture. I just can’t think of any living-memory examples of replacing an old building with something better. Can you? It doesn’t have to be that way; it just is.
It’s the way we do things now. It’s not just that materials are more expensive, though they are, or that workmanship is more expensive, though it is. Those facts do introduce some discouraging math. We can’t replace old buildings for any amount close to what our forefathers built them for, even adjusted for inflation.
But more than those realities, a take-the-money-and-run ethic dominates 21st-century Knoxville more than it ever has in history. The people who call the shots in Knoxville development are rarely figuring on sticking around for long. And you can’t blame them for shunning a city that’s more and more about parking lots.
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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