Cowan's Cottage

A historical building in Fort Sanders and owned by UT still stands (!)

Dear Doctor Knox:

Question #1

What is/was the building on the corner of 16th Street and White Avenue in the Fort Sanders neighborhood? How old is it? Does the University of Tennessee own it? What is inside of it?

Question #2

While browsing the Calvin McClung Digital Collection I noticed a picture titled "Flat Creek Channel Construction." A quick Google map search points towards a site in Mascot. Appears to have been a substantial undertaking. What can you tell me about it? What was its purpose?



Dear Sir:

All four corners of that intersection have buildings of some sort on them, but we bet you're asking about the peculiar old brick house flush up against the southwest corner. It is indeed owned by UT, and is claimed to be one of the oldest buildings on UT's campus: perhaps the second oldest, in fact. The fact that it would ever be on a university's campus would have been a surprise to the people who built it.

It's known as "Cowan Cottage" or the "Gardener's Cottage," but there's actually some mystery about its origins. Hollie Cook at Knox Heritage directed us to an extensive report, completed in 2000, by Paul Avery of UT's Department of Anthropology. The building is believed to have been built around 1879, as part of the James Dickinson Cowan estate. Cowan, one of the "merchant princes" of Knoxville's booming Victorian era, built an elaborate Victorian mansion on this block: One of the most impressive single-family homes in town, it faced what's now Cumberland Avenue. This cottage was back behind it.

If, whenever you see that middle name, you think of a certain notable poet, the association is apt in this case. J.D. Cowan's mother was one of the Amherst, Mass., Dickinsons who moved here around 1830, about the time Emily Dickinson was born. As we figure it, the builder of this house was the poet's second cousin. James' brother, Perez Dickinson Cowan, grew up in Knoxville, but spent part of the Civil War with the poet and her family in Amherst. Her biographers mention him as one of the few who knew about and encouraged her poetry. Perez spent much of his adult life up north, but is buried at our Old Gray, as is his brother James.

The famously reclusive poet is presumed never to have left Massachusetts. Stories circulating here a century ago claim she visited her family in Knoxville on at least one occasion, but her biographers have found no evidence of such visits. Much of her correspondence was burned after her death, and Perez Cowan's own diary of his Amherst years has never been released. But most scholars dismiss the plausibility of a Knoxville visit.

James Dickinson Cowan's estate took up at least a full city block, perhaps more, because his northern property line was "Fort Sanders"—that is, the actual fort, whose earthen ramparts were then still intact.

This cottage, described as one of "folk-Victorian" style, stood well behind Cowan's mansion, to the right. It may have been designed by Joseph Baumann, arguably Knoxville's first resident professional architect. It was considered part of the Cowan estate, one of several outbuildings. It was not listed with its own address until more than 40 years after it was built. However, according to the Avery report, "the exact purpose of this house ... is a mystery." We're not saying Emily Dickinson ever stayed there.

"While no documentary evidence has been discovered that gives any clues as to who lived in the house," admits the Avery report, "a persuasive argument may be made that it was the home of the Cowans' gardener, Michael Hoey," who was in charge of Cowan's gardens and "immense greenhouse." An Englishman, Hoey was described in the local press as "one of the finest florist and landscape gardeners in the country."

When it was built, the tiny "university" was confined to its Hill. The house and cottage weren't even in Knoxville proper; this war-scarred area became a self-governing town known as West Knoxville. The street beside it, what's now 16th Street, was a dead-end street called Temple. Cumberland Avenue was then considered part of Kingston Pike. History can bewilder.

UT was enjoying a growth spurt when it acquired the cottage around 1920. It was originally associated with the university's military program, as a residence for instructors and staff. (Its first UT resident was Maj. William Raborg, who had been with Patton, chasing Pancho Villa through Mexico.) It was later the home of Foster Arnett Sr., and for a much longer time, his widow, Edna, who lived in the house alone for 40 years, and rented parts of it to female grad students.

Meanwhile, the big mansion, which became home to the family of wealthy wholesaler Daniel Briscoe around the turn of the century, became a women's dormitory in the 1920s, known as the original Sophronia Strong Hall. The old James Dickinson Cowan mansion was torn down in 1954 for the construction of Clement Hall, during the university's sprawling postwar era. But somehow the cottage survived that dangerous era as the only remnant of the Cowan estate, perhaps thanks to the popularity of Mrs. Arnett, who was living there. It's a good thing it's still there, despite the fact that it doesn't appear to be used for much in our century. It appears even in UT's latest long-term master plan, which erases many other historic but inconveniently placed buildings on campus.

However, it earned an ominous listing on Knox Heritage's annual Fragile 15 list, announced this past Monday—mainly because it's not well maintained, and the university has made no solid plans for its long-term use.

The answer to your second question is more elusive—and fortunately for us, we do still have a one-question-limit policy, so we don't feel obliged to sweat actual blood over it. But consider the following a bonus. Things in the countryside tend to be more difficult research projects. But we assume it was an attempt to improve navigation on the Holston River. Flat Creek flows south from its origins in Union County and enters the Holston at Mascot.

We can't necessarily be certain Google is pointing us to the selfsame Flat Creek. Though it might seem a geographically improbable name for a creek—wouldn't a flat creek be a pond?—there are other Flat Creeks, like the one between Knoxville and Cumberland Gap which was the site of a major train wreck in 1889.

Inebriate of Air—am I—

And Debauchee of Dew,

Z. Heraclitus Knox

The good doctor is available to answer your historical queries, schedule permitting. Send your questions to: