Empty Antebellum: One of the Oldest Houses in West Knoxville May be Redeveloped Soon

Dear Doc Knox,

Now that the corners of Cedar Bluff and Kingston Pike are being overrun with more monstrous parking lots and big-box stores, I'm wondering what's to become of the old (antebellum, possibly?) brick house just to the west of The Academy Sporting Goods store. It's been cleared of vines and debris, but please tell me that there are some kind of plans for it and not be torn down, just like so many others of Knoxville's historic properties!

Thanks much!

Janet Merritt

My Dear Ms. Merritt:

This is one of the older queries in our ever-more-cluttered mail bin, and I abjectly apologize for the lengthy delay.

It's an important question, and one that has been the subject of hundreds of hours of work by local preservationists as well as the developers trying to deal with them. When we first received your inquiry, we had intelligence that there were some deals in the works to save the house, but nothing was clear, and we are loath to make hasty assumptions.

The house at 9320 Kingston Pike is indeed antebellum. It is in fact one of the oldest houses in West Knoxville. Formally known as the Walker-Sherrill House (for those with more breath and better memory for names, the Kennedy-Baker-Walker-Sherrill House), it was built around 1849, the year many locals took off down Kingston Pike headed for the gold fields of California, some of them never to return.

When it was built, the house was described as 17 miles west of Knoxville. Though the former state capital, Knoxville was by 1849 a not-quite-forgotten little town of about 2,000 that hadn't yet negotiated a railroad or much industry, but the optimistic found reason to hope.

The house is owned by a rather vague-sounding developer called Kingston Pike LLC, which plans to develop most of the land and will save the house itself, in cooperation with preservationist group Knox Heritage.

They're obliged to save it, in fact. One of the results of the last five years of negotiation is that the house is a rare subject of historic-overlay zoning. However, the house has changed ownership even in its short time as a vacant wreck, with different owner-developers who have different degrees of respect, or lack of same, for the house. Meanwhile, the house has been rapidly deteriorating, in visibly worse shape than it was in when Metro Pulse first ran a story about it some five years ago. While we've been waiting, the house's rare woodwork mantels, worth thousands on the open market, were stolen.

Preservationists hope it can be saved in time to preserve some of its integrity, like its original broad-plank hardwood floors, but don't expect to see it tumble down in the next storm. Its walls are five bricks thick. We do not build houses like this anymore.

The Walker-Sherill House is currently on the agenda of the Metropolitan Planning Commission, in rezoning discussions, and the developer's proposal—which includes local developer Bill Hodges of nearby Franklin Square redeveloping the house for office space—will go before the Historic Zoning Commission this Thursday.

It's been home to several families over the years. Within living memory, the Sherrills ran a handsome 100-acre farm from this house; their unusual barn, large but handcrafted with some interesting woodwork, has already vanished.

The brick house's best-known resident was likely Dr. William Baker (1800-1865). A Transylvania University graduate, Baker was originally from Lancaster, Ky., near Lexington, and trained to be a surgeon. He moved to Knoxville around 1825, and here he and two brothers became well known as physicians. First based on Gay Street, William Baker was noted as a lithotomist, a surgeon dealing in the removal of impertinent intestinal stones.

He may have at least a footnote in medical history; he was the lead surgeon in what is reported to be the third successful hysterectomy in medical history. In that operation he was assisted by his close associate, Dr. John Mason Boyd, the "Beloved Physician" memorialized with a marble corner porte-cochere on the Knox County courthouse lawn.

His brother Dr. Harvey Baker was the first to move out to Kingston Pike, where he built what's now known as the Baker-Peters House. Just before the Civil War, William Baker joined his brother out here to relish the joys of suburban life in his declining years. He called the place Cedar Grove, and was known for keeping some fine horses out here.

In 1864, his brother and closest neighbor Harvey was shot to death by rogue Union troops inside the Baker-Peters House. Harvey's son, Abner, a recent Confederate veteran, was famously lynched in 1865 after killing a man downtown, reputedly because young Baker suspected the man of involvement in his father's killing. William Baker, an elder in First Presbyterian Church, had no children of his own; by 1865, Abner Baker was one of his closest relatives. His influence is believed to be the reason the church offered young Abner an unusual variance, allowing him to be buried under an unusual obelisk in the long-closed churchyard. Dr. William Baker himself died just two weeks later, at age 64.

Yours,

Z. Heraclitus Knox

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