Gay Street: Knoxville, Tennessee


Since its development in the 1790s, Gay Street has been the center stage of downtown Knoxville's progression from a commercial wholesaling capital following the Industrial Revolution to today's vibrant entertainment and residential corridor. Through the hard work of countless individuals, organizations, and local governments, and more than $50 million spent on redevelopment projects since 2000, Gay Street has experienced a complete transformation from its ghost town atmosphere of the 1970s.

Designated Area

Ten blocks between West Jackson Avenue and the southern end of the Gay Street Bridge.

First Friday is a monthly art event beginning in the 100 block of South Gay Street and stretching to Market Square, offering visitors live performances, local food, and late night gallery shows, celebrating the vibrancy of downtown Knoxville. Photo courtesy Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission.

Planning Excellence

The most well-known firm headquartered along the street was the Sterchi Brothers Furniture Company, which occupied a number of buildings on the street but eventually settled at 116 South Gay St. in 1925. Company leader James Sterchi transformed the one-store business into one of the world's largest furniture companies at the time. The presence of wholesaling giant Cowan, McClung and Company, the furniture corporation W. W. Woodruff and Company, and Miller's Department Store solidified Gay Street as the city's business center in the early 20th century.

With development of suburban malls during the 1970s, business dwindled to the point that many companies were forced to either relocate or close, leaving a surplus of vacant buildings along Gay Street. In an effort to save the historic Bijou Theatre, a group of concerned citizens formed Knox Heritage in 1974 to educate the city on the merits of preservation.

Their hard work paid off when the Southern Terminal and Warehouse Historic District and the Gay Street Commercial Historic District were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 and 1986, respectively. The City of Knoxville responded by adopting the Downtown Knoxville Plan in 1987 and the Downtown Streetscape Plan in 1988, both of which resulted in improvements to Gay Street including wider sidewalks, bicycle racks, landscaping, and historic lamp posts.

In 2001, under Mayor Victor Ashe, the city began offering redevelopment incentives, including tax abatements, low-interest loans, and reduced permit fees, which spurred the renovation of virtually every historic building along Gay Street into residential, commercial, or retail spaces. Restorations of the Bijou Theatre and Tennessee Theatre, which have hosted performances by Bob Dylan, Diana Ross, and Johnny Cash, are two of the many projects that have helped Gay Street weather the 2008 economic recession. An influx of new shopping, dining, and entertainment options, coupled with the nearly 600 permanent residents, once more make Gay Street Knoxville's busiest street.

Krutch Park features picnic tables and a relaxing water feature and is a favorite of residents who use it throughout the work day for a much needed respite from the hustle of South Gay Street. Photo courtesy Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission.

Defining Characteristics, Features

Architecture, Historic Districts

  • Southern Terminal and Warehouse Historic District encompasses the 100 block of South Gay Street; late 19th century buildings; added to National Register of Historic Places (1985)
  • Gay Street Commercial Historic District, four blocks — West Summit Hill to West Church; more than 35 historic buildings on South Gay; added to National Register of Historic Places (1986)
  • Gay Street Bridge, cantilevered bridge set on stone piers is last of its kind standing in the U.S. (1898); $16 million restoration in 2003 brought up to 21st century standards
  • Phoenix Building, 418 South Gay; Renaissance Revival building from 1899; named Phoenix after rebuilt three times due to fire; $8 million renovation (2005) for offices and apartments
  • Fidelity Building, 502 South Gay; four-story Italianate building constructed for the Cowan, McClung & Company (1871); largest department store in Knoxville until 1919
  • Farragut Hotel, 526 South Gay; nine-story Beaux-Arts building by William Lee Stoddart (1917); The French Market restaurant and luxury condos occupy space today
  • Tennessee Theatre, 604 South Gay; Spanish-Moorish building (1928) features breathtaking lobby, two grand staircases, five crystal chandeliers; $30 million restoration completed 2005

Planning Milestones

  • Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission (1956); agency that guided and implemented planning, zoning, land regulations to revitalize Gay Street and Knoxville
  • Downtown Knoxville Plan (1987); citizen-backed initiative led to wider sidewalks, bicycle lanes, three trolley routes along Gay Street
  • Streetscape Plan (1988); led to Gay Street historic lighting, brick sidewalks, Central Business Improvement District landscaping (1993), and grants, services not covered by government
  • Nine Counties. One Vision (2001); regional planning effort that led to a Downtown Plan (created by Crandall Arambula) and a design review board that oversees construction along Gay Street
  • Knoxville-Knox County General Plan 2033 (2003); comprehensive plan led by the Metropolitan Planning Commission outlines business, social, cultural improvements for downtown
  • Knoxville Design Guidelines (2007) used by the Downtown Design Review Board to approve public and private improvements, including those on Gay Street
  • Horticulture and Public Service Department; handles Gay Street's landscaping, street lights, bicycle racks, benches, trees, flowering baskets
  • Policy and Redevelopment Department ; a Downtown Coordinator has been working since 2004 to oversee public improvements, including transformation of lower Gay Street

Amenities and Events

  • Krutch Park, between Clinch and Union Avenues and Gay Street, connects to Market Square
  • Cradle of Country Music Park, Summit Hill Drive (2010) and the associated walking tour commemorates Gay Street's musical past
  • Central Business Improvement District is major supporter, organizer of Gay Street events
  • Rossini Festival (April), Dogwood Art Festival and Parade (April), Veterans Day Parade (November), Christmas in the City (December) attract thousands to Gay Street year-round
  • East Tennessee History Center, 601 South Gay St., has museum, archives

In 1987, the Downtown Knoxville Plan resulted in widened sidewalks, bicycle route designation, and three trolley routes down South Gay Street. Photo courtesy Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission.