Mayor Applies for Protective Overlay on Historic Cal Johnson Building

Communications Director

Kristin Farley
(865) 215-2589

400 Main St., Room 691
Knoxville, TN 37902

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Mayor Applies for Protective Overlay on Historic Cal Johnson Building

Posted: 12/09/2015
Mayor Madeline Rogero has filed an application for H-1 historic overlay protection on the Cal Johnson Building at 301 State St., to ensure the preservation of the three-story 1898 structure. The brick warehouse was built by its namesake, Cal Johnson, one of Knoxville’s most prominent African-American businessmen and a civic leader throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The application has been filed with the Metropolitan Planning Commission, and it would take a vote by City Council to enact the H-1 overlay. But even during the application period, the building is protected against immediate demolition or other adverse action. Mayor Rogero said City staff want to work with the property owner to protect the building against deterioration and restore it to productive use.

“We have many incentives and tools that have been successfully used by property owners and developers to renovate historic structures throughout downtown and across the city,” Mayor Rogero said. “Our intention is not in any way to restrict the future use of the building, only to ensure that this valuable piece of Knoxville history is preserved.”

Born to a Knoxville slave family in 1844, after the Civil War Cal Johnson worked his way up from a cook and bartender to owner of some of the most popular saloons in the city. He also owned the only horse racing track in Knoxville, until the General Assembly outlawed the sport in 1907. Today, Speedway Circle, the site of the track, maintains its original shape in what is now the Burlington neighborhood near Chilhowee Park.

From 1883 to 1885, Johnson served on the Knoxville Board of Aldermen. In 1906, he donated a house at the corner of Vine and Patton streets to be used as Knoxville’s first black YMCA building.
In 1898, Johnson constructed what is now known as the Cal Johnson Building on State Street in downtown Knoxville. Built in the Vernacular Commercial style, it was used for some time as a clothing factory. The Cal Johnson Building is a rare example of a large commercial structure built by a former slave, and is the only original building associated with Johnson that is still standing in Knoxville. It has been identified repeatedly by the preservation group Knox Heritage as an endangered structure on its annual Fragile Fifteen list. 

Knoxville has recognized Johnson’s legacy in several other ways. In 1922, the City established the Cal Johnson Park in his honor, at what is now 507 Hall of Fame Drive, and in 1957 the Cal Johnson Recreation Center was erected in the park.

Although minimal changes have been made to it, the Cal Johnson Building is threatened by long-term, ongoing deterioration and lack of maintenance.