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Opening Night at TVA Central

When a local newsman visited TVA’s Knoxville headquarters in 1933, the curtain had just gone up on the TVA story. What he didn’t know was that this was the opening of a long-running hit.

It’s a different sort of place now, this six-story building on Union Avenue at the corner of Walnut Street in downtown Knoxville, Tenn. Today it’s known as the Pembroke — an upscale apartment building with about 40 units, a private penthouse garden on top and a pool in back. Not terribly distinctive as a piece of architecture, it’s the kind of place that was modern by 1930s standards, with horizontal lines and lots of big glass windows.

Sixty-eight years ago it was called the New Sprankle Building, and more than 100 people worked there, laboring all day and often through the night to do a job that had never been done before. They were employed by the soon-to-be-world-famous Tennessee Valley Authority, and this was its newly opened headquarters.

photo of knoxville news-sentinal header

The building was named for developer Ben Sprankle, who constructed it and who happened to be a big booster of TVA in those early days. Thanks to a feature article that ran in the Sunday edition of the Knoxville News-Sentinel, we have a good record of what things were like inside.

To the student of TVA history, the New Sprankle Building in 1933 is a little like Independence Hall in 1787. The reporter who wrote the article, John T. Montoux, gives us a “personally conducted tour” of TVA’s nerve center during its first months of existence. With the benefit of hindsight it’s a fascinating account. Montoux saw a beehive of TVA activity; we live with the mountains of honey that activity ultimately produced.

But in the late fall of 1933, TVA’s work had just begun. On the ground floor of the building, the employment office was often crowded with job-seekers. In that Depression year alone, thousands of hopefuls, mostly men, came looking for work. Many found it.

And it was hard work, even for those who got desk jobs here in this comfortable office. “TVA has been so busy getting its vast economic development of the Tennessee Valley under way,” the reporter tells us, “that its employees, from stenographer to the head man, have had to work night as well as day. If you want to check up on this, walk by the New Sprankle Building any night and see for yourself the lights in the windows.”

Much of the activity that summer involved Norris Dam, the first of a system of TVA-built dams that would put the Tennessee River to work for the people of the Tennessee Valley region. On the third floor was Earle S. Draper, now legendary as the chief planner of Norris, Tenn., the internationally famous model town constructed to house the workers who were building the new dam.

In an adjoining office, J. W. Bradner Jr. was plotting out the revolutionary new Norris Freeway: “A speed of 60 mph will be possible around curves . . . The road will have a 250-foot right-of-way so that hot dog stands, filling stations and billboards won’t spoil the roadside.” Twenty years before the interstates, Norris Freeway was one of a kind.

Across the corridor was the office of architect Roland Wank, who would design dams and power plants for TVA over the next several years, achieving world renown in the process. “In his early 30s, he came to this country nine years ago from Budapest, Hungary, and already has become one of the best-known architects of the East,” the reporter notes. “Mr. Wank has the suavity and savoir-faire of a foreign movie actor, and speaks flawless English, though with a slight accent.”

photo of tva employees at work

TVA’s busy bees toil away in the fall of 1933 at the New Sprankle Building in Knoxville, Tenn.

In this building TVA employed a wide variety of professionals: doctors who tackled health issues in the TVA region, lawyers who handled legal questions and teachers like educator Floyd W. Reeves. A well-known author and a former professor at the University of Chicago, Reeves had been hired not only to provide expertise in personnel training, but also to conduct social and economic research in the region.

The article mentions one of Reeves’s assistants, a “young University of Chicago graduate” named Gordon R. Clapp. A decade later, Clapp would be the general manager of TVA; in 1946, he’d become the corporation’s fourth chairman. In just four years of his administration, TVA would build seven coal-fired power plants, some of them among the largest in the world.

As it turned out, all four of the chairmen who led TVA during its dynamic first two decades were working together in this building in the fall of 1933.

The other three were right above Clapp, on the fourth floor. They were, of course, TVA’s original triumvirate, the directors who shaped the corporation as we know it: Arthur Morgan, at this time the chairman; Harcourt Morgan (no relation to Arthur); and David Lilienthal.

“Most striking is the office of David E. Lilienthal, where a homemade desk of white pine catches your eye,” the reporter says. Eight years later Lilienthal became chairman, perhaps the most influential man ever to hold TVA’s top job. In his five years at the helm he oversaw massive dam-building projects, most of them carried out during World War II, and helped create the power-producing juggernaut that TVA became.

But in 1933, in the corporation’s first headquarters, he was a 34-year-old boy wonder, still new to Tennessee. He’s shown seated at his famously plain desk, smiling shyly for the camera.

Here they all were once, working together under the same roof for a common cause. Inside the Pembroke today, it’s quiet. The 40 condominiums are occupied by retirees, young professionals and even a few 21st-century TVA employees.

But a couple of blocks away, in the twin towers of TVA’s current headquarters — and at offices, power plants, recreation areas and laboratories across the region — the work that began in the New Sprankle Building goes on.

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