Tennessee Modernism: The 3 projects which sought to modernize Downtown Knoxville

Downtown Knoxville has always been an important part of East Tennessee. But Downtown Knoxville wasn’t always on the cutting edge of modern design. So, in 1957, a group of local business owners created the Downtown Knoxville Alliance (DKA), an advocacy group whose goal was to “promote the downtown district as a major attraction for shoppers throughout East Tennessee and other parts of other states.” Headed up by Aubrey C. Couch (the longtime manager of the Tennessee Theater), the DKA executed three unique projects to revitalize downtown Knoxville, each one featuring local Knoxville architects. Let’s have a look at the three projects.

Structure: The Promenade
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Painter, Weeks & McCarty
Date: 1958
Story: Gay St (the main street running through Downtown Knoxville) shops had a problem. After you parked your car one block off of Gay St, you had to walk up to Gay St before you could even begin perusing the downtown shopping.

So the DKA tasked the minds at architectural firm Painter, Weeks & McCarty to come up with a solution for this inconvenient shopping experience.

Their solution was “The Promenade,” a platform on the backside of the Gay Street stores. This created what the architects called “back fronts,” and allowed shoppers an attractive look at all of the stores (despite the fact they were looking at the back of the stores). The platform was held up by concrete “spider leg” supports, and enabled downtown shoppers to park their cars, walk up onto the platform, and straight into the store of their choosing.

Shoppers could then move through the store and exit directly onto Gay St, no roundabout route required.

Although it would later be torn down to make way for more parking, The Promenade was a big success, a success which led the DKA to pursue their next project…

Structure: Market Square Mall
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Ben McMurry Jr (representing the AIA East Tennessee)
Date: 1962
Story: One block off Gay Street is Market Square.

In the olden days, Knoxville, Tennessee’s Market Square was a circular street that ran around the Market House . The Market House was where citizens of all types (fisherman, farmers, flower vendors, etc.) bought and sold their wares.

In 1960, the building was torn down, making space for an area that was a lot more flat (and a bit more like the Market Square that exists today).

The new Market Square Mall emulated traditional malls (think: the National Mall in Washington D.C.).

But McMurry didn’t just replicate other malls, he brought his modernist sensibilities to the table and gave the project a contemporary twist: concrete canopies to give shoppers and leisure-seekers respite from the sun.

The concrete canopies featured screens (of every color) that businesses could lower when the sun sunk lower in the sky. The project was very well received, even getting a feature in Architectural Forum (April 1962).

I wish these photos were color!

There’s no doubt these screens took a lot of inspiration from the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Johnson Wax Building.

Image of the Johnson Wax Building by Frank Lloyd Wright

There was some talk of building out Market Square Mall to be more department store focused, but that idea never came to fruition (see the renderings below).

Alright, let’s check out the third project

Structure: Gay/Way
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Ben McMurry Jr (of Barber & McMurry) and Bruce McCarty (of Painter, Weeks & McCarty)
Date: 1964
Tidbit: In early 1962, DKA decided that since the Market Square Mall was such a success, they wanted to revitalize Gay St itself.

Calling the revitalization “Gay/Way,” DKA retained the services of the two architects who’d worked on on the previous two projects.

Although it would take a few years to fully manifest, Gay/Way essentially added a large, covered walkway above the Downtown Knoxville sidewalk.

The Gay/Way awnings are clearly visible in this Veterans Day picture from 1977
The Gay/Way awnings can be seen adjoining what is now the Embassy Suites

Gay/Way also gave the downtown shops a chance to remodel their storefronts, updating them with more mid-century look and feel.

Eventually, Knoxville decided that mid 1950s design wasn’t really it’s jam. The city then spent then next 50 years or so removing the modernist projects and turning the downtown back into a more traditional looking downtown (see below)

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