1985, 88 years after the Million Dollar Fire that all but decimated the 300 and 400 blocks of Gay Street, urban pioneers Ann and Mike Rowland, lawyers of Rowland & Rowland Law Firm, dreamed up big plans to resuscitate Knoxville’s struggling downtown by breathing life back into one of the oldest buildings remaining on the main strip.
The building was a drafty, dark and boarded-up structure, soon renamed the “Century Building” in honor of its perseverance.
The Century Building was originally erected in the late 1800’s as one of of many jobbing houses along bustling Gay Street. These ornate structures were the pride of Knoxville, representing the prosperity enjoyed by the region in years following the Civil War. Jobbing houses were a type of wholesale merchant business that served as a distribution point for manufacturers and retailers throughout the region.
On April 8, 1897, the great “Million Dollar Fire” devastated Gay Street’s east side. As the blaze spread, it claimed some of Knoxville’s most impressive structures. The fire was extinguished just before it reached the Century Building. The south side’s exterior still displays brick remnants of the structure which, prior to the fire, bridged the gap between it and what is now Mast General Store, marking the farthest reaching point of the destruction.
Though the upper 3 stories have mostly remained empty since it’s early years, business carried on as usual downstairs. As Gay Street began its slow decline, so too did the remaining prominent structures of the age. Renovation after renovation, the Century Building endured, housing over twenty businesses since it’s construction.
Ann and Mike Rowland, seeing the untapped potential of the aging building, purchased it from McGhee Properties in the mid-1980’s, announcing their plans to begin restoration as part of the Main Street USA program designed to revitalize the area. “Everyone is waiting for someone to do something; we’re about to do something.”
And they did.
Authentic cast iron columns on the ground floor were unearthed, upper-floor brick arches framing the windows retained, original stained glass preserved, cornices and decorative terra cotta around the windows reconstructed; all in effort to preserve the landmark structure to it’s original beauty.
Rowland and Rowland prospered as a notable law firm for years, making headlines representing workers for the largest manufacturer of beryllium in the world, Brush Wellman. In addition to exposing obvious gross negligence, Rowland and Rowland proved Brush Wellman deliberately concealed information about the dangers of beryllium.
Almost 30 years after initial restorations, the Century Building was picked up once again, this time by a team of developers and designers dedicated to continue the journey started by the Rowlands.
Poised to become an exquisite addition to Downtown Knoxville’s vibrant residential renaissance, the Century Building’s conversion into twelve beautiful residences will preserve its 19th Century charm, while incorporating the features and amenities now expected of the 21st Century’s new urban luxury movement.
The Century Building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places; part of the Gay Street Historic District, is an irreplaceable part of Knoxville’s history.