Changes stirring at old Giffin School

Betsy PickleOur Town Stories, South Knox

Giffin Elementary School, a 94-year-old building in the South Haven neighborhood, is back in South Knoxville’s consciousness thanks to new efforts to repurpose the site, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Giffin’s northwest corner in March 2022

The term “affordable housing” – which is the new proposal for what’s being called Historic Giffin Square – has some South Haven residents worried, but others are relieved that the long-dormant building, which closed its doors to schoolchildren almost 30 years ago, finally seems to have a future.

It hasn’t been utilized since the late Stan Brock and Remote Area Medical leased it for $1 a year to store medical supplies (and provide Brock’s living quarters) in the early 2010s.

According to the archives at the Knox County Museum of Education, the roots of Giffin go back to the years after the “Great War” (World War I), when population started rising in South Haven. It became apparent that a school was needed in the city neighborhood. Resident Andy Giffin donated land for a schoolhouse between Oak Grove Street and South Haven Road.

Construction began in 1919, and the school opened in 1920. The PTA was launched that same year. The first principal was Mrs. Charles Weaver (remember, women didn’t have first names back then … sigh). Her successor was Mr. E.D. King. The school operated on the property for eight years until it became obvious it needed to expand. In addition to the challenge of burgeoning enrollment, there was no cafeteria.

Southwest corner of Giffin School in January 2015

A seven-acre site was purchased at 1834 Beech St., and a new school with the same name was opened in fall 1928. The notable Knoxville architectural team of Barber & McMurray designed it. King helped lead the transition. The new brick building had 11 classrooms, a cafeteria and a central heating system.

By the late 1940s, the school was overcrowded again, and another standout Knoxville architect, Bruce McCarty, was contracted to design an addition. Students got to experience it beginning in fall 1950. You can look up to see where the “new” part begins – the roof is flat.

In 1975, Giffin received an award for being one of the few Tennessee schools with a continuous PTA for 50 years or more. In 1986, the school held a big homecoming and celebrated its long existence. In 1991, Dr. Charlotte Dorsey became the school’s last principal. At the end of 1994, Giffin joined Knox County’s roster of defunct schools. Giffin, Anderson and Flenniken schools were closed and merged into Dogwood Elementary School, which opened in January 1995.

Many Giffin alumni live in South Knoxville, some still in South Haven. The district’s city council member, Tommy Smith, attended kindergarten through third grade at Giffin.

“I remember running races on the playground,” Smith recalls. “Kenny Chesney’s dad was my gym teacher. He used to talk about his son trying to make it big.”

Smith claims he wasn’t a model student.

“I remember being a bit mischievous and being paddled by the principal,” he says. On one occasion when he got into trouble, his teacher didn’t send him to the principal’s office. She made him sit in the stairwell outside the third-grade classroom, where through the windows he could see the back parking lot.

“I saw my dad’s truck pull up,” he says. “Then I knew I was in trouble. He had left work to come ‘adjust’ me. Then I went back into the classroom with a better attitude.

“Apparently he had told the teacher, next time don’t send him to the principal – call me.”

Patrick Weaver, who preceded Smith at Giffin by a few years, evidently was well regarded by his teacher.

“I was running an errand for the teacher when (the space shuttle) Challenger exploded,” says Weaver, recalling the tragic event of Jan. 28, 1986. “When I came back to the classroom, she had to explain what happened.” He is grateful that he didn’t see the television coverage that traumatized his fellow students.

Windows on the Beech Street side of Giffin School in January 2015

The 1928/1950-hybrid Giffin Elementary didn’t strike Weaver, who is on the board of the South Haven Neighborhood Association, as being particularly old in the 1980s.

“I didn’t know any different,” he says. “I enjoyed the old part of the school more than the new part. The old part had large windows that would open and you could get fresh air. The (33,000-square-foot) school didn’t have air conditioning, so it was common to have the windows open (during winter) because the heat was working too well.”

Giffin featured an interior grass courtyard (somewhat similar to Dogwood Elementary’s), but Weaver was never sure of its purpose.

“I don’t recall it ever being in use. It was just kind of there.”

He remembers wondering, “How’d they get a lawn mower out there?”

A blacktop attached to the addition was where the students played.

“When we would go out to recess, we had all the things that are banned today – monkey bars, jungle gym, poles with tires. It was always, ‘Who’s going to fall off the monkey bars and break their arm this year?’”

Like Smith and Weaver, Heather Burchfield Ream remembers having Dave Chesney, Kenny’s father, as the gym teacher. But that wasn’t the only claim to fame for Giffin.

“I remember that there was a writing contest held by the local Daughters of the American Revolution, maybe the Farragut chapter, and Giffin swept the DAR awards for a few years,” says Ream, who now lives in Lindbergh Forest. “I was third place in fifth grade.”

Ream and Weaver both recall playing the “Oregon Trail” game in their 1980s computer class, a quintessential experience for students of that era.

Ream, who attended Giffin in first and third through fifth grades, also remembers her mother being heavily involved in the PTA with bake sales, raffles and other fundraisers.

“We had a really active PTA,” she says. “We had good teachers.

“It was a pretty awesome little elementary school. I loved it.”

Nature seems untamed at Giffin in March 2022.

After Dogwood opened, Giffin sat empty for more than 15 years, falling into disrepair like many other closed local schools. Knox County Schools didn’t know what to do with it.

Architect David Cockrill, who in the mid-2010s was developing a senior-living concept with Dr. Deaver Shattuck, medical director at Island Home Park Health & Rehab, recalls the scenario.

“The short story there is, (Knox County) Mayor (Tim) Burchett was going to tear it down, and Knox Heritage stepped in and said, ‘Sell it to us for a thousand dollars,’” says Cockrill. “And then Knox Heritage put out a competitive RFP (Request for Proposals) for adaptive reuse of the facility.

“Deaver and I were talking about how to create a new model to take care of our seniors. I called Deaver and I said, ‘Hey, front page of the paper, there’s a property on the Fragile 15 of Knox Heritage. I think this is our first piece of dirt.’ So we put together our senior-living concept and sent it to Knox Heritage. Beat some of the big boys around town.”

With backing from an entity in Kentucky, Cockrill and Shattuck started preparing the site, shoring up the building, removing asbestos and lead paint. But just as they were about to begin the construction phase, their backers disappeared, and the funding plan became a nightmare.

Eventually, they got in contact with some people who had expressed interest earlier and were pleased to get on board. “We submitted a planned development application Feb. 28 (2022) for the property,” says Cockrill. “I’ve been sitting on that property for six or seven years now.”

Woods on the north side of the school property in March 2022

His new partners “have developed historic properties all over the country,” he says.

“I had already put it on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s approved for a historic tax credit.”

The plan is to convert the school and construct four additional buildings as “workforce housing,” plus construct a new commons building that will be available for neighborhood meetings.

“It’s for working families at or below 60 percent of Knoxville’s median income,” says Cockrill. “It’s not public housing. There’s private equity in it. There’s an incentive to keep it up, and there are shareholders to answer to.”

The new buildings are required to be “compatible and complementary with” the 1928 Colonial Revival and 1950 Modernist styles of the original structure(s), according to the application.

The concept’s 99 units will need an exception to the RN-2 zoning of the neighborhood. The plan calls for 27 efficiencies and 12 one-bedroom units in the school building, and 20 two-bedrooms and 40 three-bedrooms in the new structures.

The landscape plan will “meet or exceed requirements,” and existing trees will be preserved “to the greatest extent possible.” A trailhead leading to Mary James Park will be established.

The intersection of Lenland Avenue and Beech Street may have a new look if a proposed project at the old Giffin School is approved.

Cockrill has already started meeting with the South Haven Neighborhood Association and intends to maintain communication and invite input throughout the process. Some in the SHNA already have expressed disapproval, citing concerns about residential density, parking and environmental impacts.

Smith is keeping an open mind.

“I always caution people, ‘Best to wait for all the details before you form an opinion.’

“I think everyone wants something there. It’s a matter of making sure what’s there is not only not disruptive but it contributes to the people who live there now.

“It’s been an empty, blighted building that we need life in.”

Betsy Pickle is a freelance writer and editor who particularly enjoys spotlighting South Knoxville.

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