The Tennessee Theatre: Ready to Build on Established Success

The Tennessee Theatre has proudly served Knoxville and the greater East Tennessee community for nearly a century. Attendance and engagement metrics continue to increase year after year, and we expect that trend to continue.

However, the Theatre has unwittingly been a victim of its own success: sold-out crowds mean longer lines at restrooms and concessions; local user groups such as the Symphony, Opera, and Jazz Orchestra desire additional spaces to serve their loyal audiences; touring Broadway shows need rehearsal space that we don't have; and most importantly for continued impact and relevance, our expanded education and community partnership initiatives need more space to fully engage and better serve even more arts enthusiasts. The organization has reached capacity in every sense of the word.

A few years ago, property within the building at 612 S. Gay Street was put up for sale. After necessary due diligence and architectural studies, it became apparent that this property could significantly meet all the needs listed above, and best of all, it could be physically connected to the Tennessee Theatre building. The Theatre raised funds to purchase the property and began the task of designing the spaces to accomplish these ambitious goals. Although the pandemic intervened and we paused the project for several years, we are just weeks away from finally commencing. 

Completion of this project will prepare the Tennessee Theatre to begin its second century better equipped to serve the entire Knoxville community (via enhanced operations, expanded programming, and increased outreach capability and partnership opportunities), while revitalizing another historic building on Gay Street, resulting in positive impacts to be felt for generations to come. Learn more below, and stay tuned for exciting project updates!

What is the Tennessee Theatre 612 Expansion?

Property located at 612 S. Gay Street, adjacent to the Theatre, was made available for sale in late 2017. After performing early due diligence and programmatic studies, and thanks to the generosity of several donors, we were able to purchase space in early 2019. This will facilitate a physical connection between the spaces at 612 S. Gay Street and the Theatre, allowing our nonprofit organization to address many of the ongoing operational, programmatic, and community outreach limitations of the existing Theatre building. We will be able to offer more concessions, restrooms, and entertaining and event spaces, along with increasing our office and administration footprint.What is the Tennessee Theatre 612 Expansion?

Why did the Tennessee Theatre purchase additional property?

While the Theatre is happy to host sold-out crowds, more attendees and patrons mean longer lines at restrooms and concessions; local user groups such as the Symphony, Opera, and Jazz Orchestra desire additional spaces to serve their loyal audiences; touring Broadway shows need rehearsal space that we don't have; and most importantly for continued impact and relevance, our expanded education and community partnership initiatives need more space to fully engage and better serve even more arts enthusiasts. The organization has reached capacity in every sense of the word, and the most desirable solution was to purchase property that is close to the Theatre.

The 612 Building is the perfect fit for a Tennessee Theatre expansion based on its adjacent location and the ability to connect this building to the Theatre’s auditorium foyers. This physical connection and access to an additional 16,000 square feet of space will address virtually all of the challenges experienced as a result of our busy calendar, and fulfill our desire to better serve our entire region.

How is the Theatre paying for the purchase and construction?

The Theatre raised funds to purchase the property and began the task of designing the spaces to accomplish our expansion goals. Although the pandemic intervened and we paused the project for several years, we are just weeks away from finally commencing the project.

Our total fundraising goal of $19 million for this project has been ambitious. Over the past five years, the Theatre board of directors and staff have worked tirelessly toward this goal. Now, with the help and investment of the community, we are thrilled to announce that we have secured more than $14 million. We intend to raise the remaining funds needed to meet the goal.

Will this affect the current ticket offerings and price points of the Theatre?

No. Because the expansion space is physically separated from the existing Theatre, construction will not cause any interference with events, tours, or shows at the Theatre. Ticket prices will not be increased to pay for the project. We will be announcing the public phase of a capital campaign very soon to help raise the remaining funds for the project. 

Will the Tennessee Theatre have to close for this expansion?

No! Because the expansion project is physically separated from the existing Theatre, construction can take place with minimal impact to the Theatre. At some point during the construction timeline, however, we will have to construct connection points, joining the Theatre to the 612 space. We will do our best to plan around shows so that patrons and the public are not inconvenienced, and we will communicate that when the time comes. 

How many new restrooms will be added?

We have felt our patrons' pain of having to wait in long lines to use the restroom during show intermissions, and we are very excited to announce that this expansion project will add more public restrooms for everyone, including a 50% increase in women's facilities!

Will concessions be added?

Yes! We are very much looking forward to offering an additional, full-service bar on the Theatre balcony level, as well as a donor lounge with a bar located on the main Theatre level.

Does this building have historic significance?

The building at 612 S. Gay Street is also known as the Mechanics' Bank Building, due to the financial institution that was located here in an earlier structure, built ca. 1880. Mark Twain mentioned Knoxville's "Mechanics' National Bank" in a footnote of Life on the Mississippi, when he was looking for ironic examples of Southern chivalry. Twain recounted wire reports of a legendary gunfight in front of the building that resulted in the death of all three participants.

The current building's first four floors were built in 1907, and the top two floors were added in 1923. In addition to housing a bank, the building was home to a variety of businesses and offices, including a hearing aid company, a ticket office for Southern Railway, the headquarters of the Knoxville Badminton Association, the local chapter of the National Committee for Music Appreciation, the British War Relief Office, and TVA. 

Notably, this building was the location of radio station WROL in the 1950s, broadcasting live the music and voices of luminaries such as Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Archie Campbell, Pearl and Carl Butler, the Osborne Brothers, and the Everly Brothers, among many others.

The 1980s brought hairdresser, restaurateur, and pioneer preservationist Kristopher Kendrick to 612 S. Gay Street to open a private club called the Old City Club. Guests included former President Gerald Ford, former Tennessee Governor Winfield Dunn, statesman Howard Baker, and composer Carlilse Floyd. Knoxville artists Richard Jolley and Tommie Rush were married there.

More recently, the building has served as the locations of several attorney firms and a debt collection agency.

(This information is condensed from research compiled by author and historian Jack Neely of the Knoxville History Project.)

How is this different from the renovation in 2005?

When the Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation was formed in 1996, the Tennessee Theatre was in dire need of renovation to be able to adequately accommodate present-day productions and to preserve its unique and magnificent architectural design. In 2005, public and private sources invested $30 million – approximately $50 million in today's value – in the nonprofit organization by completing a comprehensive renovation and restoration of the movie palace, with the goal of preserving a historic landmark and transforming a venue located in a downtown on the cusp of revitalization. These generous donors cherished their memories at the grand old movie palace, and they wanted to help ensure new memories would be made by future generations.

Since 2005, the Tennessee Theatre has: 

  • Transformed a movie theater into an outstanding performing arts venue, providing a suitable home for local treasures: the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, Knoxville Opera, and Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. 
  • Created a functional and sought-after location for touring Broadway in Knoxville, adding depth and diversity to the local arts experience. Broadway represents the Theatre’s best opportunity for growth in touring entertainment, by adding more titles overall and featuring longer runs of each title. Broadway at the Tennessee Theatre attracts more first-time (and visiting) theater attendees than any other type of event. 
  • Expanded programming for the underserved by offering some free and low-cost events for families and children and hosting the senior citizen community at monthly Wurlitzer organ concerts. 
  • Established itself as a leading arts organization in the community by maintaining a high public profile, representing Knoxville throughout the state, region, and beyond as the Official State Theatre of Tennessee.
  • Demonstrated thoughtful and determined stewardship by continuing to maintain the restored Theatre, caring for decorative historic details, completing necessary repairs and preventive maintenance in a timely manner, and making appropriate upgrades to systems and equipment to keep the Theatre relevant. 
  • Developed and maintained a sustainable business model that generates revenue to support annual operating costs. The Theatre is performing better than it ever has in modern history, breaking box office and attendance records each year, emerging from the pandemic strong. Because of this success and prudent governance by the board and leadership staff, the Theatre has been able to set aside reserves to carry it through a sudden economic downturn or other unforeseen circumstances. It is a financially healthy non-profit organization. 
  • Made a positive economic impact on Knoxville by creating jobs; attracting tourists who contribute to the tax base; and noticeably increasing activity year-round at nearby restaurants, shops, and hotels.
  • Planned for its future by establishing an endowment for long-term building preservation.

How does this project support the mission of the Tennessee Theatre?

The mission of the Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation is to preserve and operate the Official State Theatre of Tennessee as an arts and entertainment cornerstone for the cultural enrichment and enjoyment of all. When completed, the space at 612 S. Gay Street will:

  • Host education and outreach opportunities for children that will develop future theater-goers and arts patrons, connecting today’s younger generation to the Theatre, just as past generations are connected. 
  • Allow us to host dance, vocal, acting, multi-media, and visual art workshops with professionals. 
  • Provide local instruction and performances that prepare students for national opportunities. 
  • Enable us to continue utilizing the performing arts to improve youth literacy, critical thinking, and leadership skills. 
  • Offer in-depth opportunities to create, rehearse and perform works by and for children. 
  • Introduce non-performance careers in theater (technical, marketing, sales, management, etc.) 
  • Feature enhanced amenities that will help provide an improved experience for all attendees, from the point of walking in the Theatre until the final curtain, whether ordering at concessions, relaxing during intermission, using the restrooms, or enjoying world-class entertainment in the beautiful auditorium. 
  • Add an assortment of flexible and versatile event/support spaces added to the venue’s offerings will help sustain the historic. Theatre with increased attendance and by strengthening revenue sources, keeping the organization financially stable. 

How does the project at 612 S. Gay Street prepare the Tennessee Theatre for future growth and service?

  • Enhances the Tennessee Theatre’s ability to serve and connect with the broader community.  
  • New space for educational programs for youth and/or adults, to promote arts and cultural enrichment and solidify future generations’ connection to the Theatre 
  • New space for additional Theatre programming in a more intimate setting, such as recitals, cabaret-style performances, lectures, readings, visual art exhibits/installations, etc. 
  • New space for resident nonprofits including the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, Knoxville Opera, and Knoxville Jazz Orchestra to use for performances, receptions, education, and patron cultivation. 
  • New space for community arts and culture organizations such as the East Tennessee History Center, The Beck Cultural Exchange Center, Big Ears Festival, and others to use in partnership with Tennessee Theatre events or for independent activities. 
  • New space for other nonprofit organizations desiring a small performance space and/or meeting/reception space located in downtown, such as The Boys & Girls Club of the Tennessee Valley, Emerald Youth Foundation, Volunteer Ministry Center, Knoxville Area Urban League, etc. 
  • Meets logistical/space needs not addressed by the 2005 renovation: additional guest amenities, primarily more restrooms and concessions service, that will be physically connected to the Theatre property, to better serve a full house during a short intermission.  
  • Separate rehearsal space for Broadway orchestras or other small-to-medium-sized ensembles, or for theatrical use (scene blocking, understudy prep, dance warm-up, etc.)  
  • Separate gathering/reception spaces for smaller groups such as sponsors, donors, Broadway patrons, private rentals, etc. 
  • Administrative space to better accommodate existing staff and allow for future growth. 

How can I support the Tennessee Theatre during the construction process?

We will be announcing the public phase of the capital campaign very soon! If you would like to make a private donation or corporate sponsorship, or are interested in learning more about the project itself and how you can help, please reach out to Nicki Collett at

A sincere thanks to our partners