Keith Isaacs

When John Sanders, FAIA, and Aaron Pennington, Assoc. AIA, started the process of designing the Dogan-Gaither Flats in the shell of a rundown motor lodge that sat empty for decades, the most reliable clues to the Knoxville, Tenn., building’s original appearance came from an unlikely source.

While searching the archives of the Knoxville News-Sentinel for information on the building, a member of the design team at Sanders’ and Pennington’s Knoxville-based firm, Sanders Pace, came across what Pennington calls “the oldest picture we found that was legible.”

With its zigzag roofline and orange accents, the building has an unmistakable profile.

“We found [the postcard] on eBay, and John [Sanders] purchased it and gave it to the owner,” Pennington says. “So that was a cool find.”

The building that now houses the Dogan-Gaither Flats was the city’s first Black-owned hotel. When originally built, it was listed in the Nationwide Hotel Association Directory and Guide to Travelers, a rival publication to the Green Book that guided African American motorists to safe places to stay in the still-segregated American South. The motel hosted musicians like Ray Charles and Cab Calloway, as well as five Freedom Riders on a trip to the Deep South. During the urban renewal process of the late 1950s, however, the James White Parkway bisected the city of Knoxville and forced the business to relocate. It moved to its present-day location on Jessamine Street, and the then-new structure was completed in 1963.

The building had been vacant for decades before Josh Smith, a local businessman and founder of the charitable organization the Fourth Purpose Foundation, got the idea to turn it into transitional housing for formerly incarcerated men—a demographic that Smith, who served prison time himself, is deeply invested in helping.

“I had a difficult childhood and didn’t finish high school,” Smith says. “At 16, I had 10 felonies, and I was just a kid kind of from the streets.” He spent the ages of 21 to 28 in prison and struggled to find housing and employment after being released. Ironically, some of the white-collar criminals he met while in prison inspired him to pursue legal business ventures after serving his sentence.

“My reality was the same, but my mentality was different,” he says. “From there, I started a business that became very successful, and I invested in real estate.”

The Fourth Purpose Foundation’s mission is to provide reentry support for individuals who are in the same position Smith was in when he was released from prison.

“They say there’s four purposes to incarceration,” Smith notes, explaining how his foundation got its name. “The fourth one is rehabilitation, and we changed the word to ‘transformation.’ Our mission statement is really clear: to make prison a place of transformation. That’s it. That’s what we work on.”

The Dogan-Gaither Flats project was the foundation’s first foray into post-incarceration supportive housing.

“Our foundation has to make investments, right?” Smith says of his motivation behind pursuing the project. “So most foundations invest in the stock market and things like that. I said, ‘Why can’t we invest in local projects that do good?’ So that’s how I set out to prove that we could.” After seeing the project through, Smith now leases the building to Men of Valor, another local organization that aims to reduce recidivism rates among formerly incarcerated men.

New construction on the existing lot would have been difficult due to regulations around the former motel’s location next to a creek, so Smith opted to move forward with adaptive reuse of the existing building.

For Smith, the motel’s downtown location was what made it ideal. “Transportation is key for people coming out of prison, right? Resources are a big issue,” he says. “When you’re in a downtown environment, you can walk to everywhere you need. You can get all the services you need relatively easily.”

Hand-in-Hand Rehabilitation

After decades of vacancy, the building was in less-than-optimal shape.

“It was pretty rough when we first went in,” Sanders says. “I think there was a roofing company that last had occupancy in the building.” Envisioning it as a functional living space was just the first of several challenges the Sanders Pace team faced, including stormwater mitigation issues posed by the nearby creek and making a formerly transient space feel more permanent and welcoming.

“There wasn’t a lot of the former hotel that was still left. I think there [were] maybe one or two suites that were still present that gave us enough clues of how it was originally laid out,” Pennington says.

“Some of these constraints guided what we’re proud of,” Sanders says. “[For example], taking a front door and turning it into something that looks meaningful when it’s not a front door anymore.” To preserve the rhythm of the original exterior entrances to each suite of rooms while limiting the present-day building’s points of exit and entry, designers replaced the doors with orange panels that complement the breeze blocks of the same color that now make up part of the building’s façade. Designers also added new air intakes, light fixtures, and frosted glass windows for privacy to the former suite entrances.

The motel’s previous lobby is now a community gathering place, and a central classroom offers space to convene when the public is invited into the building for special events.

“Reactivating and isolating that lobby in its original configuration with breezeways on both sides, its exposure to the front—which is the public face—and the exposure to the rear, which is the courtyard, became this celebratory moment on the pedestrian level that is now accessible on all four sides,” Sanders says.

Over the years, much of the area around the building had been paved over for parking. The design team replaced as much of the former asphalt as possible with planted green space to create a more inviting and restorative environment. A thoughtfully designed courtyard in the rear of the building features a fire pit and areas to congregate.

Pennington spent two days with a photographer at Dogan-Gaither Flats after the first residents had moved in. The breezeways that had been part of the building’s original configuration were opened back up. In one of them, landline phones have been installed, since residents don’t have cellphones when they first leave prison. People were sitting in chairs, talking, and catching up with family members, using the space exactly as Sanders and Pennington had intended.

According to Men of Valor’s statistics, the recidivism rate in Knoxville currently stands at 70%—20% higher than the state average. However, for men who complete Men of Valor’s 12-month aftercare program, the rate drops to 15%, according to the organization. “The story of the rehabilitation of people and the rehabilitation of this building are very symbiotic,” Sanders says.

Smith hopes to work on more projects like this in the future—but for now, the freshly painted zigzag roofline speaks for itself.

“I wanted the people coming out [of prison] to come into a place they could take pride in, and then carry that same pride onto their next living place,” Smith says.