Fable of the Seven Houses: There's Less of Kingston Pike's Antebellum Heritage Every Day

A few months ago, a filling station on Kingston Pike closed. Filling stations close all the time, and they open all the time. Most of us don't pay much attention unless we're on E.

But a lot of people do remember this one. The empty building, now stripped of all identifying signage, was the most controversial filling-station construction project in memory. It's on the corner of Kingston Pike and Peters Road.

In 1988, Oklahoma-based Phillips Petroleum bought the old Baker-Peters house from the owners. Built in 1849, and one of Knoxville's most conspicuous antebellum houses, it was in good shape, had housed an upscale restaurant for years. It had one unique feature, bullet holes in a door, left from the 1863 murder, by rogue Union troops, of Dr. Harvey Baker, who built the house. The fate of his son, Abner, lynched downtown in 1865 for a murder of unknown motive, makes it one of the most fascinating houses in Knoxville.

Phillips announced they would tear the house down for a new Phillips 66.

Preservation campaigns were then a West-Knoxville rarity, but this one caught on with neighbors. Phillips had already gotten the demolition approved, but after a few months, fearing public-relations damage, compromised with the community. They'd build their filling station in the house's front yard. All that would be lost was one 85-foot tree, a 200-year-old rock elm. Filling stations usually don't last nearly as long as trees, but some found it the price of Progress. That word always appeared in newspaper headlines about historical demolitions.

Phillips promised to build a handsome filling station of brick, with a roof harmonious with an antebellum house. Of course they didn't. Corporations don't keep promises they don't have to. They built an ordinary Phillips 66 with the usual big steel and plastic roof. Despite some brick siding for the station shop, it looked no different from any filling station on any interstate highway. Neighbors felt they'd been hoodwinked, but they couldn't do anything about it. Then Phillips sold it, and for some years it was a Mr. Zip. Then it closed.

All that anguish in the last 24 years: a short time in the life of an elm or an old brick house.

It's a theme up and down Kingston Pike. On rare occasions, we save antebellum houses. But we like to put cheap commercial stuff in their front yards.

Kingston Pike, 20 miles long, is one of Knoxville's oldest streets. A random visitor off the highway is not likely to notice.

It's one of the South's longest unbroken stretches of commercial sprawl, which is saying a lot, because the South has a whole lot of this, a strip of chain stores and chain restaurants and chain filling stations. Every city, and some non-cities, interstate-exit clusters, have something like Kingston Pike, if not quite so much of it on one street.

To the property-rights enthusiast, Kingston Pike is a crucible of free enterprise, untainted by anything oppressive as a plan, undefiled by guidelines, uncorrupted by pointyheaded pantywaist ideas like beauty or heritage. Anything that exists on Kingston Pike must prove itself on the field of American commerce. It's a place for the making of money, and even if many of the millions it generates are bound for Atlanta or Nashville or Kuwait, so be it.

But if you look hard, you can still see some history peeking out behind the bright plastic signage. Kingston Pike still hosts seven antebellum houses. They're all two-story brick, and they're all about the same vintage, ca. 1820-1858. For what it's worth, they all have some distinctive Civil War history, mainly because Longstreet's army passed each of them on his slow advance toward Knoxville in the fall of 1863. It was just a couple weeks, but to a lot of folks, History = Civil War, and buildings need some Civil War to qualify as historic. These pass.

In 2012, they survive in pretty different states. They tend to get worse off as we go west.

The two closest in, Crescent Bend and Bleak House, have been maintained as museum houses and wedding sites for half a century or more. They're well-kept, and I bet they always will be. From Bearden west, all the others are compromised in one way or another. Some of those farthest west are currently threatened with removal.

They're all pretty, or were. Knollwood, once a Confederate headquarters, later the birthplace of an important Air Force general, has found itself part of a commercial cul-de-sac, and has a restaurant built by the Wasabi chain right in front of it.

Another, an 1820 house that has interior bloodstains, reputedly from wounded Civil War soldiers, is now a well-kept office building, but has a Taco Bell in front of it.

And there's the Baker-Peters house, with the now-empty filling station in front.

The remaining two are considered endangered.

One, near Cedar Bluff, is owned by an Atlanta developer who wants to tear it down, or build a strip center within eight feet of it. It's called the Walker-Sherrill house, but it was built by Dr. William Baker, Harvey's brother and also a pioneering surgeon.

Though preservationists thought they'd saved it with an overlay several years ago, the developer who signed a historical-overlay agreement has been superseded by others who are less interested. They're not maintaining it. The 1849 Walker-Sherrill House, as it's known, is in demonstrably much worse shape than it was when I first wrote about it five years ago, disintegrating before our eyes while its Atlanta owner dawdles.

Another one, the 1835 Martin-Russell House in Farragut, is empty and for sale. Proposals to move it, ill-advised from the start, seem to be on hold. I still think it could be a perfect centerpiece for a new concept: Downtown Farragut. But the market's the main ruler out that way.

That's just the way Kingston Pike rolls. It wouldn't be like that if we didn't like it. Right?