Last month, the Rogero administration made an executive decision about one of the very few decrepit buildings left downtown. The three-story brick building on State Street known as the Cal Johnson Building now has a city-imposed H-1 overlay, a historic-preservation initiative that’s rarely used in Knoxville. That status sends future building permits to the Historic Zoning Commission, which encourages preservation and complicates demolition. H-1 is intended to make fixing up or selling more attractive options. It doesn’t always work, but it’s the strongest gesture available to a city to save a building.
Maybe it doesn’t look like much, from a distance, a battered, boarded-up brick building of that dull purplish brown that disappoints kids get when they try to use all the crayons in the box. The bottom floor was once converted into a garage of some sort. The iron ladders and landings on the front look ornate, even if they’re just part of an Victorian-era fire escape.
But there may not be another building like it in East Tennessee. It tells an extraordinary story.
The owner, Bacon & Co., who once used it for storage, has been mum about any long-term plans for it. But they took the trouble a few years ago to board up the windows and repair the roof, so it wouldn’t keep raining into the place.
What is in one respect the most forlorn-looking historic building downtown is in a couple of respects also the rarest building downtown. You might not notice it at first, but if you look up at the small white stone tablet on the second floor, and you’ll see part of the story. “BUILT 1898. CALVIN F. JOHNSON.”
It’s the only big urban building I know of that was built by a man who was raised to be a slave.
Calvin F. Johnson (1844-1925) was one of the most remarkable people who ever lived in Knoxville. He was born a stone’s throw from here, up on Gay Street, a slave to one of the McClung families. His father, Cupid Johnson, was a slave, too, but was a respected trainer of horses. Some of that rubbed off on Cal. Emancipated as a very young man, Cal scratched out a living, taking on some jobs others wouldn’t handle, like disinterring war dead in Cumberland Gap and reburying them with their families.
In the 1870s, he was still a young man when he rented a saloon known as the Poplar Log on the corner of Vine and Crozier—what’s now Summit Hill and Central—and made a success of it. He later owned a couple of saloons on Gay Street. Cal Johnson was black, and he ran some saloons mainly for blacks, but some of his saloons were for whites. After seven years, he made so much money that he bought the Poplar Log. He opened a saloon on the 200 block of Gay Street called the Lone Tree, named for the fact that the only tree growing on Gay Street in the 1890s was the one right in front of his saloon. He was a non-drinker himself, but made his money selling alcoholic beverages. He was a man of paradox if not contradiction, but he made a very good living.
Popular even as a young man, in the 1880s, he was elected to two terms on Knoxville’s Board of Aldermen. He diversified. By the 1890s, some claimed he was a millionaire. He was involved in horse racing. He owned a string of nationally competitive racehorses, one of which showed well at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair—you never know whether to take those claims of world speed records seriously, but maybe—and he also owned whole racetracks, one in South Knoxville and later near Chilhowee Park, the Cal Johnson Racetrack.
He and his wife lived in a good-sized Victorian house on State Street, when it was considered a mixed-race middle-class residential street. He was in his mid-50s when he built a three-story clothing factory next door to his home.
The 19th century suited Cal Johnson well. But in 1907 we banned his saloons, along with everybody else’s. Soon after, we banned gambling, which doomed his famous racetrack.
But even in his mid-60s, Johnson was nimble. He established Knoxville’s first movie theater for blacks. The Lincoln Theatre on South Central was in fact one of Knoxville’s first movie theaters of any sort. The Cal Johnson Racetrack, built for horse racing, saw the beginning of local automobile racing. In 1910, the 66-year-old not-quite-retired Johnson made special arrangements for his old racetrack to host Knoxville’s first landing of an airplane. He became a bit of a philanthropist, helping establish what would be known as Cal Johnson Park, on old Mulvaney Street, by donating a big marble fountain to it.
Most of his legacy has been torn down. His house on State is long gone. His movie theater’s gone. All his saloons are gone. The Lone Tree Saloon was still standing until the 1970s, when we decided it was in the way of the Summit Hill Drive project. We cut down the tree, too.
The marble fountain he donated to the public was somehow misplaced during urban renewal. No one knows what happened to it. But the recreation center later built there was named for him.
The Cal Johnson Racetrack in East Knoxville was redeveloped as a residential neighborhood. Today the half-mile oval is known as Speedway Circle. The tiny little street that connects it to Fern Street is called Calvin Street.
Somehow his old clothing factory, with his name high on the front, survives. It’s been little more than a warehouse for 80 or 90 years. For decades, Knoxville didn’t care much about State Street. But with the completion of Marble Alley—the biggest residential development downtown in decades—just across the street, the old Cal Johnson Building is suddenly central to a high-density, affluent residential area.
There were once at least two other buildings each known as “the Cal Johnson Building,” but they were torn down many years ago. This is the only one that remains.
One thing I’ve learned: When physical remnants of even the most remarkable and inspiring life vanish, people tend to forget about them. That’s hardly surprising, because everything they did is gone. That’s not quite true for Cal Johnson.
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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