Collaborative effort transforms viaduct stairway

Betty BeanFeature, Inside 640

For 99 years, the oddly configured – sort of square, sort of spiral – stairway connecting the Gay Street viaduct to the Jackson Avenue railroad yards and Old City down below was obscure and uninviting, except maybe to pedestrians looking for a spot to relieve their bladders after a night on the town.

But now, thanks to a collaborative effort among some creative business types, a gaggle of non-profit organizations and Knoxville city government’s commitment to public art, this forbidding little corner of downtown has been transformed into a bright, inviting and functional artwork.


The idea was born last November when Robin Easter, principal and creative director of Robin Easter Design, and architect Robyn McAdoo with Dollar and Ewers got together to brainstorm ideas to brighten up the Old City (Easter is president of the Old City Association; McAdoo is membership chair).

McAdoo found an example of a mural in another city, and together they came up with a plan to turn an eyesore into a destination.

“We wanted to do something to instill pride in our city,” Easter said.

Among those who pitched in was Erik Vass, lead designer at Robin Easter Design, who came up with a bright, evocative design that celebrates the city’s history and culture and contains clues to an on-going scavenger hunt. Southern Lighting Source (formerly the O’Hanlon Group) did the lighting.

There’s a practical side to this project, as well. Later this year, the ramps on either end of the viaduct are going to be removed and repaired. The viaduct will be closed for about a year, so the bright, well-lighted stairwell is going to see a lot of use.

It’s been a big week for the Old City, and for Easter, who had another ribbon cutting the day after the stairwell event. The second ribbon cutting celebrated the completion of more than $2 million in streetscape upgrades – including KUB gas and electrical relocations, burying utility lines and sidewalk and lighting improvements and along West Jackson Avenue in the Old City.

The viaduct at night. (Photo courtesy of Southern Lighting Source)

Stair detail

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