Going West: Oliver Smith Jr.’s 7-year shopping center vision

Tracy Haun OwensOur Town Stories, West Knoxville

Oliver Smith IV’s first memory of West Town Mall is not of throwing pennies in one of the fountains or of drinking an Orange Julius or of shopping the magnificent toy selection at Miller’s. Instead, he remembers being about 5 years old, his grandfather beside him, standing at one end of the poured foundation and looking across the hundreds of thousands of square feet of building site.

A few years later, Smith IV (now the president of Oliver Smith Realty and Auction) squirmed in a line of dignitaries and developers that included his father, attorney Oliver Smith III, and his grandfather, Oliver Smith Jr., for the mall’s ribbon-cutting in August 1972. For Smith Jr.’s vision as the primary developer and driving force behind the 700,000-square-foot mall, Mayor Kyle Testerman declared him “the mayor of West Town.”

“He really was a visionary with regard to growth,” says Smith IV of his grandfather.

Oliver Smith Jr.

Born and reared on a large farm in Concord, Oliver Smith Jr. (1915-1990) created a successful real estate business early and kept hunting opportunities. Smith IV says he’s seen a map of the West Knox County area where his grandfather had penciled in the proposed route of the federal highway that is now I-40. Smith Jr. wisely followed it, predicting the coming boom out west.

The first inkling that something big was up came Feb. 21, 1965, in a legal notice in a Sunday newspaper crowded with legal notices. There was a “Petition of Oliver Smith Realty Company” to rezone 58 acres zoned for agriculture to “SC-3,” or “Shopping Center,” a zoning that didn’t exist. It would front the south side of Kingston Pike and the west side of Morrell Road.

Smith Jr. was happy to spill the plans when prodded a few days later. He, Dr. John Montgomery and Mrs. Perry McGinnis were going to develop a $10 million air-conditioned, enclosed mall. It would be accessed at Morrell, which would be four-laned, as would nearby Montvue. (For reasons related to the safety center across the street, a Kingston Pike entrance was not an option.)

The Metropolitan Planning Commission, which had to come up with the special zoning, asked the developer to show there were at least 100,000 customers within a 30-minute drive. That was no problem.

“We had reached a pattern of growth where we were no longer a small town. We could justify a mall,” says Smith IV.

There had to be at least 40 tenants – already Smith Jr. was hearing from local retailers clamoring to move in. And there had to be at least one anchoring department store – already rumors were buzzing about Miller’s.

The MPC meeting to approve the plan had its largest turnout in many years, but not a single one of the citizens came to talk about the mall. Instead, disgruntled Deane Hill homeowners tried to shout down the developer of a complex of nearby “luxury garden apartments.” (The homeowners lost.)

From a 1972 ad for Miller’s in a University of Tennessee playbill (From UTK digital collections)

By fall 1966, both Miller’s and Penney’s had signed on, both promising to keep their downtown locations going after they opened out west. Architects had come up with a distinctive four-entrance plan. Smith suggested the mall would open in summer 1967.

And then the opening was to be summer 1968. By that time, there were growth and infrastructure issues in southwest Knox County that had nothing to do with the mall. Smith Jr., who was still the primary developer, welcomed in Chrysler Realty Corp., which broke ground with great fanfare in May 1969. Before the announced opening date of August 1970 – or before much had been done – Chrysler had cried financial woes and packed up.

Five years after he and two friends had first revealed plans for the shopping mecca, Smith Jr. found an aggressively willing development partner in Connecticut-based businessman Ralph Biernbaum. By March 1972, hundreds of people lined up for the opening of Miller’s, which was to sit by itself until the summer.

In August 1972, West Town officially opened with four anchor stores – Miller’s, Penney’s, Proffitt’s and Sears – and 71 other establishments, ranging from M.S. McClellan & Co. to Morrison’s Cafeteria to Lillie Rubin. (Oliver Smith Realty had its own offices there until 1992.)

The mall – with its elegant fountain planters, happy mix of stores and all that promised air-conditioning – was an instant and ongoing success. Smith Jr., though, was not one to sit still for long. In 1979, he began speculating aloud about a new “East Towne Mall,” a two-story retail fantasia. He sold his West Town interest to Biernbaum, and East Towne opened off Millertown Pike in 1984.

Last year Simon, which sold East Towne to Knoxville Partners LLC in 2016, celebrated the reopening of a newly grand West Town Mall with Oliver Smith IV. It’s tempting to say that Oliver Smith Jr., who passed away in 1990, could never have imagined the retail-restaurant-entertainment destination his mall has become. But he probably did. He was a visionary, after all.

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