Reclaiming the past to build communities for the future

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South High School

Knoxville, Tennessee

Starting Spring 2017

It’s been a quarter century since students occupied the desks at South High School on Knoxville’s Moody Avenue. And just as decay threatened to take down what remained of the building, Dover Signature Properties stepped in with a plan to save it.

Knoxville city officials had been looking for a way to preserve the historic building for years, but didn’t have the funds to take on the project. Finally, in October 2016, they agreed to sell the property to Dover Signature Properties to create a 60-unit assisted living and memory care facility that will bring life and activity back to the neighborhood—along with 30 permanent jobs.

The project will be considered a historic restoration and will open to residents in 2018, says general manager Rick Dover. “This building is one of a kind,” he says. “It’s a real local treasure, and we’re honored to take on the considerable job of restoring it.”

The inside will be completely new and modern, but the red-brick neoclassical façade will be preserved and made beautiful again. The new structure inside will echo the form of the original architecture—the large windows, high ceilings, and wide corridors of a school building make for a beautiful living space with historic character.

The preservation will even extend to the old elm tree in the front yard—Dover will keep that and put back a restored version of the original swing that used to hang from its branches.

The project—very similar to the project Dover completed at the former Oakwood School in north Knoxville—will involve tackling a building that has suffered from years of neglect and will require substantial work and time. But the unique architectural style of the building makes it a natural choice for its eventual purpose. “It’s really in our sweet spot in terms of conversion for senior living,” Dover says. “It’s the right size and layout, and the classrooms are exactly the right dimension for apartment living.”

Dover is especially excited about the chance to restore the work of Knoxville’s most well-known architect, Charles Barber, who designed the original school building in 1932. Working with local firm Barber McMurry (co-founded by Barber) on the redesign and development, Dover will ensure the preservation is done according to historic overlay requirements, with painstaking attention to detail. “This building exhibited a high degree of craftsmanship when it was built, so we will be faithful stewards of that,” he says. “It’s not an extremely ornate building, but it’s very elegant and noble-looking thanks to the beautiful brickwork and the placement, sizing, and repetition of windows throughout. It’s the architectural patterns you see that are really noteworthy.”

He anticipates that the restoration will have a huge stabilizing effect in a struggling neighborhood. “When a building that was formerly a center of life and activity goes dark, it tends to suck energy out of the community,” Dover says. “Restoring that building to its former beauty becomes a catalyst for redevelopment. That’s one of the most gratifying things for me, to reverse that downward pressure and turn the tide. We’re always pleased to be able to come in and do that for a community.”

The present state of South High as captured by Knoxville News Sentinel photographer Saul Young. See the photos.