19 May 2024

Knoxville Center, Knoxville, TN

 A dead mall

During the late eighties our family took several road trips in the old station wagon between Virginia Beach and Huntsville. I loved the change from coastal plains to the piedmont through to the green peaks of the Appalachian Mountains, but I mostly looked forward to the cities through which we'd be passing. And one of my favorites was always the eastern Tennessee metropolis of Knoxville.

East Towne Mall under construction in the early eighties.  (Source for both)

Nestled at the gateway of the Smokey Mountains National Park, the town hosts the University of Tennessee, the Sunsphere from the 1982 World's Fair, and formerly one of the most distinctive malls that I had seen in my, by that time, short 12 years, East Towne Mall.

East Towne Mall Mallmanac ca. 1996. View the full PDF version here.

Speeding along I-640 through the city's hilly eastern environs, I would never have noticed East Towne Mall had it not been for its distinctive white tents. It was a plain, mud brown building that was almost indistinguishable from its surrounding terrain, but the fabric centerpiece gave it away. In the midst of fighting with my older brother for back seat dominance and trying to stay occupied in those years before cell phones and vehicular entertainment systems, whizzing by the place was one of the highlights of the trip.

East Towne Mall just after its opening in 1984.  (Source for all)

East Towne Mall opened in 1984 in Knoxville’s then bustling east end.  Its debut anchors included Knoxville area nameplates Miller’s and Proffitt’s as well as national retailers JCPenney and Sears.  Catalog merchandiser Service Merchandise also held a smaller plot on the shopping complex’s northeastern side.

Knoxville Center lease plan ca. 2000.  View the full PDF version here.

Miller’s converted to Hess’s after their acquisition by the latter east coast stalwart but closed down soon after, becoming a Dillard’s in 1992.  In 1997, East Towne Mall underwent its first major renovation, when a mountain themed interior was implemented.  When this revamp was completed, the new name for the retail destination, Knoxville Center, was put into use.

Knoxville Center’s interior in 2019 not long before its closing.  (Source for all)

However, these changes did little to prevent the decline of what was once East Towne Mall.  Service Merchandise departed in 1999 while Belk took over the Proffit’s space just a few years later in 2008.  That same year, Dillard’s announced the closure of their outlet.  In 2017, Knoxville Center was sold and the name was officially and internally changed back to East Towne though all signage and marketing still referred to the complex as the newer moniker.

Knoxville Center lease plan ca. 2011.  View the full PDF version here.

Knoxville Center’s slide continued as JCPenney departed later in 2017 while Sears hung on just one year longer, shuttering their space in 2018.  As more of the inline stores relinquished their leases, Belk joined the exodus in 2019, leaving East Towne Mall with no anchors and fewer than a dozen small shops.  The entire retail facility would close just a few months later.

The exterior of Knoxville center around the time of its closure in 2019.  (Source for all)

I only stepped foot into what was then East Towne Mall once, during a trip in 1996 to eastern Tennessee to visit my partner at the time’s hometown.  He wondered why I wanted to go to that mall when West Towne had so much more.  After convincing him, I was bummed to find that the facility’s interior, even back then, betrayed its distinctive edifice.  Even then, many of the stores were darkened and the writing was already on the wall.  And that’s too bad; I feel bad for all of today’s budding retail nerds speeding in the back seat down interstate 640 with nothing more to lay their eyes on than the lifeless box housing an Amazon distribution center.

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