In January of 2005, it looked like six historic buildings in the 500 block of Gay Street, located between the Farragut Building to the south and the Fidelity Bank Building to the north, would be lost. They would be replaced by a sprawling new multi-screen cinema complex that government and business leaders hoped would be the missing link for downtown Knoxville's rebirth. It seemed that many Knoxvillians were ready to sacrifice the buildings for that ever-elusive thing known as "progress." That same month the Knox Heritage Board of Directors gathered and voted to oppose the demolition of the iconic structures, including the S&W Cafeteria Building, the Athletic House, the former WROL studios, the Walgreen's Building and the Gaut Ogden Stationers Building.
One phone call transformed that looming battle into a cooperative effort between Knox Heritage and the City of Knoxville. That call between Knox Heritage Board President Finbarr Saunders and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam was the first step in pulling the 500 block of Gay Street back from the brink. For more than two decades most of the buildings had stood vacant as multiple redevelopment plans fell through. They dodged bullet after bullet - a Knox County government plan to demolish them for a new downtown justice center and jail; demolition for a City of Knoxville transit center combined with a theater multiplex; and general neglect that resulted in collapsed roofs and crumbling facades.
As Mayor Haslam waited in an airport for a plane that day in January, he and now County Commissioner Saunders agreed to take a second look at the project and see if a compromise could be found. The final agreement they reached allowed 45 days for Knox Heritage to propose an alternative design that would preserve as much of the historic fabric as possible while meeting the goals of the city and the needs of Regal Entertainment Group.
That effort, begun more than four years ago, laid the groundwork for the construction of the new Regal Riviera and the preservation of some of Knoxville's most beloved historic buildings. Downtown now has its successful movie theatre and, thanks to the local development team of John Craig, Mike Hatcher, Tim Hill and Dane Baker, it will also have its historic buildings filled with the S&W Grand Cafe, Coolato Gelato, professional offices and retail space - all in the same space once set aside for the new cinema alone. The attention to detail in the restorations is rare and will surely be appreciated once they are unveiled. The first business, Coolato Gelato, will open within the week, many of the offices will be filled in the coming month and the S&W Grand Cafe is scheduled to open its doors in September. It's a success story few expected in the winter of 2005.
All historic photos courtesy of the McClung Collection - Knox County Public Library.
500 Block of Gay Street Looking North - June 2009
500 Block of Gay Street Looking North - 1925
This photo from the McClung Collection shows the Farragut Building in the far right corner. The next building advertises Electro-Turkish Baths and was built in the alley that once led to the circa 1830 Crozier Mansion. The next two buildings to the north are what we know today as the WROL / Central House Hotel Building and the Athletic House / Knaffl Brothers Building. The next two buildings to the north were combined and given a new facade to create the S&W Cafeteria in 1937. The Gaut Ogden Stationers Building stood between the S&W and the original Riviera Theatre, but could not be saved after decades of neglect. The Walgreen's Building just south of the Fidelity Bank Building met the same fate.
The S&W Building - 1937
The S&W Building - June 2009
The Art Deco style exterior of the building retains most of its historic materials, unlike the interior which was largely destroyed by decades of neglect. The building will be the home of the S&W Grand Cafe that is scheduled to open in September.