The Anti-Preservationist’s Secret Heartbreak

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

month ago I proffered a challenge: to name one instance in which tearing down a building 75 years old or more resulted in something better than the building that was demolished for it.

Since it’s Preservation Month, as celebrated by the National Register of Historic Places, I thought it worth revisiting that question, and possible answers to it.

I got quite a lot of responses to that article in general, so I know people heard the question. I got a few tenuous responses, none resounding.

One recalls some small historic buildings were torn down in 1988 for the Whittle Communications Headquarters project, the building that’s now the federal courthouse. The only building of historic interest, as identified in newspaper reports at the time, was the 1920s Baumann and Baumann office building, on the now-nonexistent 800 block of Market Street. It sounds as if its interest was more for its association with those locally significant architects than for its own architecture. I don’t remember it, and haven’t found a photo of it. In any case, it was only about 60 years old when demolished. It caused only a little bit of a stir.

A couple of readers, including former Metro Pulse contributor Matt Edens, who now lives in Maryland but reads the Mercury online, brought up the ca. 1910 Townsend house at 1515 Cumberland Ave. Originally owned by a lumber executive, a member of the family for whom Townsend, Tenn., was named, it was a pretty cream-colored brick house with a big staircase and oak paneling inside. In its later years it served as UT’s International House. It was torn down 20 years ago and replaced with a probably necessary addition to the UT Law School, an addition to the front that redefined that building’s presence on the street. It’s generally agreed to be an aesthetically and functionally successful building.

Is it a better building than the house was? Neither of the readers who nominated it was very certain about whether to call it the elusive exception. “I’d say it was, at best, an even trade for the International House,” Edens says.

He also mentioned that he’d heard praise for the Tennessee Valley Unitarian-Universalist Church, on Kingston Pike, which was built after the controversial removal, almost 20 years ago, of the 1916 Bonnyman house, a two-story Charles Barber landmark, along with the hill it sat on. Fans of innovative modernism like that church, while admitting you have to get off the road and see it from the west side—or, of course, go inside—to get the effect of it.

Again, Edens was just offering a speculative for-instance of a building with value removed to be replaced by another building with value. To date, no one has even claimed any new building in their personal memory was categorically better than the historic one it replaced.

And so far, not even any nominations for replacements to buildings demolished in our own century.

Does that say something?

The word “progress” was once a handy euphemism treasured by lazy headline writers to describe the motive to tear down old buildings. Local newspapers of the 20th century are full of headlines like “Old Tavern Makes Way for Progress.” I’m not sure reporters ever followed up, to measure that progress they once heralded, and whether the city ever saw a real gain from the removal of another irreplaceable bit of history.

You don’t see that word used so casually anymore. The heartbreak of the non-preservationist faction is their unimpressive resume. Regardless of what developers announce to be built in place of a demolished building in the near future, the fruits of demolition have a very strong tendency to be, even 10 years later, nothing but parking lots.

Anti-preservationists are people, too. If you know one, he may need a pep talk. The things they promise will happen just don’t ever seem to happen.

And they have to sit there and listen while everybody talks about all the new things going into preserved old buildings. That can’t be easy.

All the exciting new development in Knoxville, downtown especially but all over town, has been happening in preserved old buildings. Well over 90 percent of the current new businesses and residences downtown are in pre-1940 buildings.

If you don’t like old buildings, if you’re annoyed by preservationist do-gooders getting in your way, stand up for yourself. Have some pride, man. If you tear down a house or building that many people in the community wish you wouldn’t, prove them wrong! Build something good!

Don’t put in a parking lot and then cash out and move to Florida. You’re not serving the anti-preservationist cause that way.

Maybe you’ve succeeded in knocking down a building. But in your heart you know you’re letting the preservationists win the moral argument, again.


For Memorial Day, I looked into something I’ve wondered about for years. Sutherland Avenue, which may be getting more of a workout lately as an alternative to construction-constricted Cumberland Avenue, has cross streets with colorful names of less-than-obvious origin.

Streets named Liberty, Victory, Division, Seaman, Concord. They’re all words that were big in the headlines during the world wars. 

Another, Portland, might be puzzling, considering its distance from any port or any place of that name—but, speaking of seamen, the U.S.S. Portland played a major role in the Pacific during World War II. Could nearby Seaman Street be a reference to a sailor on the Portland?

Well, no, as I learned at McClung over the weekend. Seaman Street was named around 1920 for J.W. Seaman, a marble worker who lived there. Portland Street’s origin is a bit of a mystery, but it had that name seven years before the famous battleship did. For all I know, considering its stone-working community, it may be named for Portland stone and cement.

Then there’s another cross street, Cary Street. Frank Street and Harry Street might be hard to guess, but the most famous Cary in Knoxville history, by far, is Cary Spence (1869-1943), a veteran of two wars, a colonel who saw combat in World War I and later became a brigadier general. It was named in the 1920s, at the height of his fame.

All these names first appear in the 1920s, within a decade or so after World War I. It was during that short period when some people really did believe it was the war that ended all wars.

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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