By Shara Casey, Knox Heritage Intern

The building that now occupies 445-465 South Gay Street bears a bronze plaque that simply reads “Miller’s Building,” hinting that there is more to the ornamental façade than meets the eye. Indeed, hiding behind a local ice cream shoppe and a closed-down bank is a building that boasts more than a century of commercial and architectural history. “Miller’s Building” refers to the fact that the address was home to Miller’s Department Store, a sprawling enterprise that was once the largest store for consumer goods in East Tennessee. 

Miller’s Store was originally located a little further down Gay Street at 311 when it opened in 1901. By 1905, business was booming, and the company secured a contract to construct a building at 445. The plan was to erect a seven-story storefront in the Neoclassical Beaux Arts style, and though plenty of columns and Grecian lady statuary made the final design, the top two floors did not. The new Miller’s Department Store opened for business in 1906 and was an immediate hit with Knoxville shoppers anxious for a taste of the luxury shopping experience at an affordable price. In fact, Miller’s did so well that by 1908, the sixth story from the original design was added to the building, along with an elevator to take customers up to the top. The additional floor proved not to be enough, so three years later, Miller’s Department Store bought the property next door for an addition that perfectly matched their architectural style while more than doubling their square footage. 

This version of the Miller’s Building required Knoxville’s first use of a steam shovel for excavating a foundation, and once finished, it had the broadest footprint of any store, retail or wholesale, in the city. The Miller Store Company quickly became famous not only for its doorbuster deals, but also for its devotion to the holistic department store experience. It housed every clothing and home department imaginable, as well as a beauty parlor, cafeteria, credit lender, check cashing counter, sign maker, and gallery space. Through the roaring ’20s, Miller’s hosted art exhibitions, gave lectures, organized fashion shows, and held contests almost non-stop. 1922 saw the addition of Miller’s Budget Annex, a three-story building connected to the larger store by underground tunnel. 

Even as the pall of the Great Depression descended upon the 1930s, Miller’s Department Store seemed largely unaffected. The company made what was reported in The Knoxville Journal as “the largest real estate deal since the start of the depression” when it procured long-term leases for three more bays along South Gay in 1935. This final expansion of the main store broke away from the rest of the buildings Beaux Arts style, foregoing red brick for the grays of Tennessee marble and imported aluminum. These new materials reflected contemporary Art Moderne sensibilities and were intended to be used for refacing the original old brick as well. However, by the time the marble addition was completed in 1937, war was looming on the horizon, and the plans for creating a single, block-long, cohesive Miller Building had to be dropped. 

Miller’s continued to thrive and had plans to move the whole operation to a new spot downtown in 1954. The relocation never came to fruition. Instead, the Miller Company bought out their Henley Street competitor “Rich’s” and operated out of two locations until 1972 brought West Town Mall. By 1973, Miller’s store in the mall so outperformed the other two Knoxville locations that the company decided it was time to let go of the Gay Street location. It was bought by a developer who made his own attempt to modernize the edifice by removing some of the masonry and replacing it with reflective glass, but there was little interest in purchasing the building thereafter. 

In 1998, the Knoxville Utilities Board and the City of Knoxville worked together to rescue the building from demolition. They went on to share the costs of an arduous renovation of the exterior, stripping the reflective glass and attempting to restore the lost masonry. A few Grecian ladies were gone for good, but the one that remained was replicated to fill the space of her sisters. Local architect Duane Grieve led the effort and gave us the iteration of the façade we see today, preserved for admirers of architecture and the generations of Knoxvillians who will never get the chance to shop at Miller’s Department Store. 

Knox Heritage preserves structures and places of historic or cultural significance for our community. Established in 1974 as a non-profit educational corporation, our organization works to protect and raise awareness of what is beautiful and irreplaceable in East Tennessee.