Can We Learn From the TVA Headquarters Experience?

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

The Tennessee Valley Authority’s headquarters is for sale. For years, the presence of a couple of giant blank buildings that aren’t generally open to the public, and are empty most of the time, was a challenge to Market Square development. About 15 years ago, a visiting urban-design expert declared Market Square would never work with overlarge office buildings squatting on a corporate campus where street access to the north should be.

The Square’s modern revival has succeeded in spite of it. Or, as I’ve lately grudgingly wondered, because of it. The weirdness of this modernist hard stop on one end of Victorian Market Square seem secluded, distinctive, and perhaps endearingly odd.

But the sale is also a cautionary tale about the major concessions a city makes to even the most promising developers.

When it was built, just 40 years ago, TVA was among Knoxville’s biggest employers and the life of downtown’s party. In the ’70s nobody wanted to live downtown. Few wanted to venture downtown after dark. The movie theaters were closing, retail was suffering. Thank God TVA was there, 3,000 people coming to work daily, if only weekdays, and at least keeping the luncheonettes busy. Downtown retailers, which previously had offered evening and weekend hours, started to imitate TVA hours. Some claimed 90 percent of their business came from TVA.

At the time, TVA was hinting it might one day employ more than 5,000 at its headquarters. But for years, there had also been hints that TVA might move, to the suburbs or to Muscle Shoals. Despite its reputation for massive building projects, during its heroic era, TVA had always operated out of old downtown buildings. After four decades of international fame, TVA was finally ready to plan its first custom-built headquarters, and Knoxville wanted it.

The city laid a table for them. We closed a whole street, the northern couple of blocks of Market Street, cutting off Market Square from the direct access it had for a century. If downtown had a throne, it would be the hill we offered TVA. It even made old Market Square seem like a corporate amenity.

And then, to clear the site, Knoxville tore down lots of historic buildings. Wall Avenue looks almost suburban today, with lots of shrubbery, but a century ago, it was a dense, teeming place of big buildings, each one different from the next. Wall Avenue changed with every step.

COVER_0505_knoxsessionscoverCourtesy Bear Family Records

To see what was destroyed for the TVA buildings, have a look at a new album cover. This weekend, Bear Family Records is releasing a big box set called The Knoxville Sessions. The cover grabs the attention of everyone who sees it. “Where the hell is that?” they ask.

It’s a busy block of tallish Victorian commercial buildings, several stories each, with marble facing, elaborate brickwork, contrasting colors, lots of arches. Most of them were torn down to build the big buildings TVA doesn’t want anymore.

This weekend we’re celebrating the recordings made in 1929 and ’30 at the St. James Hotel. It was one of Wall’s more conservative buildings, built mostly of reinforced concrete a decade later than some of its brick and stone Victorian neighbors. There, in WNOX’s radio studios, Vocalion recorded dozens of country, jazz, blues, and gospel performers.

Though it had declined as a hotel by the ’70s, the St. James was a solid building, reportedly one of the toughest demolition projects in memory. Through the first few blows, the wrecking ball just bounced off it.

Other buildings on Wall that were in the way of TVA, or just its landscaping, include the old Stratford Hotel, where elderly millionaires lived late in life when they found themselves alone, and some of the earliest headquarters for Knoxville institutions like H.T. Hackney and Mayo’s Seeds. Wall hosted cobblers, barbers, grocers, dentists, opticians, butchers, milliners, jewelers, boarding houses, even a piano dealer. In 1930, the two blocks from Gay to Walnut—not counting Market Square—supported 41 businesses and multiple residences.

Those buildings fascinated me even as a kid. The dozen buildings along the north side of Wall were in decline in the ’70s, but were bigger and more elaborate than the buildings on Market Square, with big arches and almost bulbous bay windows projecting out over the sidewalk for attention.

I’m not sure how much we can blame TVA’s building project for a simultaneous project called Summit Hill Drive. It leveled the beloved 1915 library, Cal Johnson’s once-famous Lone Tree Saloon, and the lovely old Commerce Street Firehall, whose approval to the National Register of Historic Places arrived in the mail a few weeks after it was demolished. Not to mention most of Knoxville’s only park at the time, and most of Commerce Street. It was a city project, but the city cited TVA’s proud new headquarters as a main motive.

All of that was not too long ago, if you think about it. Columbo was on TV, Sunday nights. Mel Brooks was making politically incorrect movies. Desk-top computers were showing up in offices. Rap and punk were beginning to stir.

And 40 years isn’t very long for architecture. The Kern bakery building, down the Square, is exactly one century older than the TVA buildings. A durable and versatile building, it houses two busy restaurants and a hotel.

But things change. The grand new modernist TVA buildings that dominated the skyline were only four years old when Ronald Reagan, running for president, spoke on Market Square, assuring us that he wouldn’t sell TVA. And he didn’t. But his choice for TVA chairman, “Carvin’” Marvin Runyon, set about to simplify and downsize TVA. By the end of the Reagan administration, the Knoxville headquarters staff had been cut by 65 percent. Staff has shrunk a little more in recent years. The twin towers, never used to full capacity, haven’t been mostly full since the 1980s.

All the cool buildings we sacrificed for it are still gone, and are going to stay that way, I’m afraid. If it were still intact, Wall Avenue would be worth millions, and might be kind of famous. But Wall Avenue can’t support 41 businesses anymore.

Great buildings and street plans can last for centuries. Businesses, even the biggest utility in America, aren’t that durable.

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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