One of Clinton Highway’s most notable landmarks is the old Airplane Filling Station just past the Walmart heading north just before Rhealand Lane. Also, known as the Powell Airplane, the structure has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2004.
The 53-foot-long structure was built in 1931 by the brothers Elmer and Henry Nickle with the help of architect Wayne L. Smith in what’s called the mimetic style: made to look like something. In this case, it was supposed to be a reasonable facsimile of The Spirit of St. Louis, the plane that carried Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic.
It spent the first 30-something years of its existence as a gas station, but that ceased sometime in the 1960s. It’s no coincidence that aligned with construction of I-75 between Knoxville and the Kentucky border. Since then, the location has served as a barber shop, liquor store and produce stand to name a few.
Justin Bailey said he had driven past the property his whole life. Realizing it was for sale again and not wanting the structure to get moved elsewhere, it occurred to him the place might work as a short-stay rental.
“It’s such a unique property. One thing this area, in fact most of the state, lacks is novelty rentals,” he said, giving examples of train cars, tree houses even a giant walnut as some of the unique locations available elsewhere. “So, I called Mom, told her ‘you’re gonna think I’m crazy.’ I explained what I wanted to do, and she said, ‘sounds crazy enough.’ So now I’m a 50% partner with my parents.”
Bailey said they’ve contracted with Haven Property Management to handle bookings and such once they have it ready to go. The structure already had a bathroom but didn’t have a shower, so that’s being built along with some other improvements. He said he’d be remiss if he didn’t give credit to those who’ve kept the property from falling through the cracks: Roch Bernard and the Airplane Filling Station Preservation Association (AFSPA) as well as Knox Heritage.
“Years ago, the association took up donations to buy the property, to make sure the plane wasn’t destroyed or moved elsewhere,” he said. “And then the property was given to Knox Heritage, but there wasn’t a whole lot they could do with it.”
Bailey said the new venture with his parents will hopefully be seen as a win-win for everybody: the building is preserved and put back into use, Knox Heritage has some more money to put toward other efforts, the property returns to the Knox County tax roll, and the community benefits from visitors spending money at area businesses. He said they hope to be booking in time for the Vols home opener against Austin Peay on Sept. 9.
Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for KnoxTNToday.com