Predictably Unpredictable

Category: News

UT gave Buzz Goss (’87) a “way of thinking” that makes solutions out of problems.
When Buzz Goss was 12, his parents gave him carpenter’s tools, including power saws. “You might not give all that to a kid today,” he says, sitting at a picnic table in the courtyard of the Merchants of Beer in Knoxville’s Old City. “But they did. I cut plywood and made my own furniture. I made a chair, shelves, a table, even though I didn’t know anything about dovetails and joinery.”

From his earliest years Goss had in his mind that he was going to be an architect, and his parents may have known it. “I had Legos and Lincoln Logs,” he says, “but the logs were going to look like a log cabin, and the Legos ended up looking like a block building. The things you made with them were predictable.”
Since Goss graduated from UT’s College of Architecture and Design in 1987, his career has been spent renovating downtown Knoxville properties like the Sterchi Lofts, Burwell Building (the front end of the Tennessee Theatre), Jackson Ateliers, and most of the facades on Market Square, creating innovative living spaces like the 248-unit Marble Alley Lofts, and pioneering urban living in Knoxville.

But never being predictable.

With short gray hair, gray beard, rectangular wire-rimmed glasses, Goss is very much in his element as he holds court with friends at the Merchants of Beer. Tom Ballard, chief alliance officer for PYA management consultants, described Goss in a blog profile as “engaging, slightly irreverent, and dry witted.” Ballard also recounted meeting Goss for the first time in a Market Square restaurant. “What do you do?” Ballard asked him. “As little as possible,” Goss replied.

Wrote Ballard, “That self-deprecating description is clearly far from the truth when one considers Goss’s proverbial body of work and the impact he has had on his adopted hometown.” By Goss’s reckoning, he has been involved in more than 100 renovations involving two million square feet of space, with the development of Marble Alley Lofts being his first venture into new construction.

Plenty of Time to Be Kids

Goss came to UT from an idyllic childhood in Florida. His father ran a heavy equipment and excavations business. His mother was a corporate comptroller. “Being from a city like Miami,” he says, “it gives you a different world view. We had neighbors who were Cuban, Jamaican, and South American. I also went to a private school with Osceolas, the children of Seminole chiefs. We had horses—yes, horses in Miami— so I rode. I sailed Sunfishes and Hobie Cats on the ponds and lakes, just something I grew up with. We had lots of time to be kids.” His parents also had a farm near Gainesville, where Goss finished high school.

“I decided to get an architecture degree,” he says. “I liked the town of Knoxville because it was a little bigger than Gainesville. And I liked the way the staff at UT treated me.” While studying at the College of Architecture and Design, “I got something out of everyone. Fred Grieger helped me settle down. Bill Martella was great. Manny Hertz was the ‘professor who also practiced,’ showing that side of things.

“What I came to love about Tennessee the state and Knoxville the city is that people are really honest here and open. Once they trust you, you can have deep and strong relationships. It’s one of my reasons for choosing to stay.”

Goss started his real estate career as a student in 1986 when he got $1,500 from his father for the down payment on a 1908 Craftsman-style house on East Oklahoma Avenue in North Knoxville, which he bought with classmate Luis Quevedo from Venezuela. “We borrowed another $6,000 to fix it up,” he says. “Working nights and on weekends, we rented out the completed rooms. Towards the end of my time at UT my monthly living expenses were $75 a month. I learned how you can make money in real estate. I was never intimidated in getting a mortgage.”

In 1988 he got a preview of the future of the Old City while interning with architect Peter Calandruccio in his office above Ella Guru’s underground night club (now the Melting Pot). “Ashley Capps, then the owner of Ella Guru’s, handed me a couple of tickets,” says Goss, “and I saw the Neville Brothers. Like it was no big deal.

“When I sold the house on East Oklahoma, I bought the building at 130 West Jackson Avenue now known as the Jackson Ateliers, five stories, 35,000 square feet.” It was 1992. Goss had just turned 30. He had started an architectural firm. In Goss’s life after UT, he drew lessons from architecture professor/new-urbanism guru Mark Schimmenti. “He helped me see a number of things,” says Goss, “how a city ought to be built and the politics of getting things done by having influence on others.”

At the Jackson Ateliers, he planned on renovating the top floor for condos and mixed uses below. He bought one of the condos and sold the others to help raise $600,000 for renovating the other four floors. “I moved into the loft in 1994, then sold my interest in that building in 1999 and started buying a lot of property.” He renovated and sold many derelict properties, working with other developers, playing his part in transforming downtown Knoxville.

The Type of Neighborhood I Want to Retire To

In 2009, he turned to the less predictable idea of developing an unloved property between Central and State Streets with all new construction to be called Marble Alley—with lofts being the first phase.

“There were not that many more buildings to be rehabbed downtown,” and he wanted to design and build a mixed-use community that had the feel of a neighborhood. “I wanted to create the type of neighborhood that I want to retire to,” he says.

In the aftermath of the economic downturn of 2008, Goss predictably did the unpredictable in doubling down on the real estate market. “Luck got me through the recession,” says Goss. “I bought as much distressed property as possible and rented it.”

Marble Alley Lofts opened in 2016 and leased quickly to a population of young professionals and empty nesters.

Swept Overboard

As adept as Goss was at navigating the rough waters of an economic downturn, he is also skilled at skippering large sailboats. For some 25 years he has spent his vacations plying waters all over the world, including the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, and his home waters of the Caribbean and Florida Straits. He even earned a US Coast Guard 50-Ton Master License.

But sometimes the sea has its own agenda. In April 2016, he embarked from Key West with three friends on a 44-foot sloop Pretty Vegas for an overnight sail across the Gulf Stream to Havana, Cuba. The trip is just 90 miles, and 10- to 15-knot winds and six-foot swells were within Goss’s comfort zone. He expected the winds to calm down through night, as they usually do. This time, though, the winds increased with gusts up to 25 knots and the swells grew to 12 feet. Goss decided to drop the sails and run on the motor. But the mainsail-lowering mechanism snagged. As Goss wrestled with the sail and boom, an outlier wave tipped the boat and washed him overboard. His crew mates saw him go over, but it took time to stop the momentum of the boat. Goss had to swim about a quarter mile in rough seas back to the Pretty Vegas. He is most certainly lucky to be alive. But he has not lost his love of sailing. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he had planned to ply the Adriatic Sea waters off Croatia this summer. As it is, he has plenty to keep him busy in Knoxville.

A Way of Thinking

Goss is now working on renovating and expanding a Sevier Avenue apartment complex in South Knoxville. He also recently signed the papers to leave a legacy gift to his alma mater. “This is the first million-dollar gift in the history of our college,” said Scott Poole, dean of the College of Architecture and Design. “Buzz has been instrumental in the amazing transformation of downtown Knoxville. His visionary work is a great example for our students. We are proud of his success and grateful for his generosity.”

Goss says, “UT Architecture taught me how to be an architect, but it also taught me something else, what I like to call ‘a way of thinking.’ It’s a way of seeing any new challenge as a set of issues—some are problems—but you look at them in a creative way and blend them into a solution. Sometimes it’s getting the bank to loan money to you. We created a nonexistent market in downtown Knoxville. I needed the architecture skills to get properties converted and persuasive skills to lease them. But I also needed that way of thinking. I think I’m better at that way of thinking than I am at being an architect.”

Speaking about his gift, he says, “I do have my own agenda. One of the things I’ve learned is that not everybody has the aptitude to be an architect. There is a subset who have the aptitude to take an element of that training and do good in the world. I want to open the door for them and lead them in the direction their creativity takes them, and they’ve got that thing that the college gives you, that way of thinking.”