Sunday, June 3, 2018
The scene was Oak Ridge, Tennessee in 1974-1975. I was working for the AE firm of Crouch and Adams, who made their living as a regional surveying firm which ran a practice of architecture on the side. The architecture department was what both principles, George Crouch and Ben Adams, regarded as a glamour enterprise for their firm. We would lend credibility and an air of sophistication to their mundane projects of things like surveying the Kentucky – Tennessee line.
My position there was as an un-licensed architect-in-training who Ben Adams took under his wing to do a fairly large number of architectural projects that the firm had gotten through his contacts with state politicians, specifically those in Morgan County, the home of Wartburg and Brushy Mountain State Prison.
Ben had gotten C & A into the position where he had written a bond issue for the county, which had passed, and had given the poor (philosophically and literally) citizens of Morgan County the money to do many much-needed improvement projects for their school system. And, of course, we were the architects of the school system improvements.
I went to work for C & A in the spring of 1975, selected by Manny Hertz, one of my professors at UT, to join the group in Oak Ridge. I did a number of independent projects while the rest of the architecture department concentrated on new schools and other large projects financed by the bond issue. Manny/Ben assigned me small projects that included the reconditioning of a 19th century schoolhouse for the revitalized elementary school system. That was about as glamorous as my projects got. The rest were typified by locating mobile classrooms at County schools that required them.
On the other hand, my job was a very interesting entrée into the world of backroom politics, small town power structures, and many other aspects of architecture which are not taught in any school. I spent wonderful days cruising from job to job on my motorcycle, enjoying the gorgeous scenery of Morgan County in the lush hills of East Tennessee.
In the meantime, in the depths of the purgatory of the prison system of Tennessee, there were multiple attempts to murder James Earl Ray, who was being held at a Tennessee State Penitentiary which also included many black inmates, all of whom were vying for an opportunity to take him out.
At the highest levels of the state government, it was decided that a secluded location was needed for Ray to be held. Someone suggested Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, near Petros, as a perfect site. The state of Tennessee made the decision that this would be the new home of James Earl Ray, the murderer of Martin Luther King.
So, the decision having been made at the highest levels of the state, it was left to the functionaries and trolls to perform.
The first thing that was noticed was that Brushy Mountain State Prison was closed. The phone rang at Crouch and Adams, the can-do firm. In no time I was astride my Yamaha, headed for another new challenge – Prison Architecture.
The challenge for me, was to refurbish a part of the facility to a standard – low – where security for Ray could be maintained. Even though there were no inmates, the staff had been reduced to the minimum needed, but the power had been on and it was looked upon as a minimal task to make it fit for its single prisoner.
The facility had been closed in 1972, three years earlier, after a strike by prison guards, and my task was to do the minimum amount of reconstruction required. The state made it plain that this was a pain in the ass and that no frills were needed.
With those instructions, and with a firm conviction that the reopening of the facility was a piece of cake, I waded in. Looking back, I wonder how C & A got involved, how we made the leap from Morgan County architect to State of Tennessee architect is not something that usually happens and is usually accompanied by a huge marketing and lobbying effort. The actual Architect of the state of Tennessee was a guy I had known at UT, but I didn't see how that fit into the equation.
Taking up the task of reopening the closed facility, I had been acquainted with the fact that there had been a guard strike two years earlier and that all the inmates had been removed because of that. But even though I had known those facts, I was not prepared for what I saw when I got there – the polite term is 'deferred maintenance.'
It was a mess. It was spring of 1975, and the two summers that it had been closed allowed the native vegetation to begin its takeover of the site. The skeleton staff included only a couple of flunkies to do outside work, and little had been done. The state promised that they would take care of the landscaping problem. I left that to them.
My instructions had been to do the minimum to get a minimum facility for Ray. When it was done – minimally – I informed the state, but an entity that I had never considered intervened.
We were notified by the Union, the guard's Union, the only prison in the state that had a union, that the work we had done was unacceptable. They demanded that an entire wing of the prison be refurbished and reopened. It was a big bureaucratic hassle, but we knuckled under to their demands, and it was nearly 6 months later that the inestimable Mr. Ray moved into Brushy Mountain.
Soon after this time, late in 1977, I moved to Memphis, and forgot about James Earl Ray.
Before I moved to Memphis, one of my friends, Daryl Sanders, had started dating a freelance artist named Anna Sandhu, a pretty blonde lady who frequently did courtroom illustrations and other work for the Knoxville News Sentinel and other East Tennessee newspapers. She was gaining a reputation for this kind of work and was in demand.
The editor of Hustler magazine, Larry Flynt, got Anna's name from the Knoxville News Sentinel, and hired her as his artist for an article he was preparing. The subject was James Earl Ray in Brushy Mountain State prison.
Larry Flynt published his article, James Earl Ray lead a prison riot late in 1977, and I worked obliviously in Memphis on the usual architectural projects of the time. My communications with my friends in Knoxville were frequently drunken conversations late at night, and it was several months before the name Anna Sandhu was mentioned.
I was stunned!
Anna and James Earl Ray were married.
To borrow a phrase from a commercial that was current at the time, "And I hepped!"