The Burwell Building and the Curious Case of “The Human Fly”
On April 7, 1918, spectators lined Gay Street to catch a glimpse of George G. Polley, a.k.a. The Original “Human Fly,” attempt a most spectacular stunt – climbing all 10 stories of the 1907 Burwell Building on Gay Street. The climb was in conjunction with the Great Liberty Parade, which was to take place right after the stunt. Polley planned to scale the outside walls by hanging on to crevices in the bricks, window ledges, cornices, and any other projection he could find.
George Polley, a native of Richmond, Virginia, was born in 1897 and grew up a star athlete. His career originated at the age of 12 when a local businessman promised him a new suit if he would climb to the top of his building. Polley was triumphant and never looked back, becoming best known for his “buildering,” work as a vaudeville magician, and raising charitable contributions during World War I.
After arriving in Knoxville on April 5, Polley secured a permit from the City of Knoxville to climb the Burwell Building. Two days later at 1:30 pm, “The Human Fly” began his climb, and within 30 minutes he had reached the top and proceeded to stand on his head with his feet extended over the edge of the roof before scaling the flagpole too! Five thousand people looked on in amazement.
Known throughout the country as “The Human Fly” who risked his life countless times in spectacular climbing stunts, Polley never fell but part of his act was to pretend to slip or lose control. During World War I, he served as an Army sergeant and became nationally known for raising funds for U.S. soldiers overseas, the Salvation Army, and many other charitable organizations here in the States. George Polley is said to have climbed more than 2,000 buildings throughout his short career. His greatest achievement might have been his daring attempt at climbing the Woolworth Building in New York City in 1920. At that time, it was the tallest building in the world at 792 feet. He made it to the 30th floor before being arrested for failing to secure a permit. Sadly, Polley died in 1927 during an operation to remove a brain tumor.
The iconic Burwell Building was built in 1907 as the Knoxville Banking and Trust Building at the corner of Gay Street and Clinch Avenue. It was the tallest building in Knoxville at a height of 166 feet until 1913, when the Holston National Bank was built across the street. The building was designed by the architectural firm of Richards, McCarty, and Bulford of Columbus, Ohio, in the Second Renaissance Revival style. The Knoxville Banking and Trust Company ceased operations in 1912, and the Southern Railway Company established its main Knoxville ticket office in the building’s lobby. In 1917, the C.B. Atkin Realty Company purchased the building and renamed it “Burwell” in honor of Mrs. C.B. Atkin’s family name. Clay Brown Atkin (1864-1931), who at the time was one of Knoxville’s wealthiest citizens, also purchased land for the Tennessee Theatre and an expansion of the Burwell Building.
Since the Burwell was not the tallest building in Knoxville at the time (Polley’s preferred climbing subject), he most likely was asked to scale the building at the request of C.B. Atkin to increase publicity and excitement for his new real estate ventures. “The Human Fly,” however, wasn’t the first to “scale” and stand atop the building. One of the essential members of the construction crew was a mule called Maud – named for a funny comic strip character that would kick someone high into the air at the end of each strip. After the iron work structure was completed on the building in 1907, Maud the Mule was hoisted to a platform at the top of the building to the cheers of thousands of onlookers!
The next time you’re strolling down Gay Street, look up at the Burwell Building. Can you see George Polley swinging from a cornice or window sill? Can you see Maud the Mule being hoisted above the roof? We sure can!
Knox Heritage preserves structures and places of historic or cultural significance for our community. Founded in 1974, Knox Heritage is a non-profit dedicated to historic preservation education, advocacy, and technical services. It also owns and operates Historic Westwood and the Airplane Filling Station. Knox Heritage is supported by members who value preserving historic places in our community. Learn more and become a member at www.knoxheritage.org.