by Jack Neely
Write a newspaper column, you'll get unpredictable responses. Sometimes you feel lucky if the response is relevant to your point. But sometimes it's the unexpected, oblique responses that make it all seem worthwhile.
Two weeks ago, in this space, I ran a detailed catch-all column that covered a lot of bases. In it was an update on the admirable Airplane Filling Station renovation effort in Powell; two vigorous efforts to honor the late jazz violinist/mandolinist Howard Armstrong, including the Louie Bluie festival this weekend; and some clues about a rare and old iron lightpole ornament on Union Avenue.
Guess what the first response I got was, waiting in my e-mail In box early Thursday morning before I'd even seen a printed copy of the issue.
Yes, it was indeed a query from Malcolm Shifrin, of suburban London, England, asking what I knew about the history of Knoxville's Turkish baths.
I have since learned that Mr. Shifrin, a retired librarian who has a graduate degree in history, may be the global authority on the history of that Victorian-era luxury popular for several decades in the English-speaking world. Turkish baths, usually a honeycomb system of rooms, each heated with dry air, and each hotter than the last, ending with a cold shower and a rubdown. I've never enjoyed one, but it's said to be something more than merely refreshing. The heyday of Turkish baths, in the West, at least, declined after World War I.
Mr. Shifrin says he experienced his first Turkish bath in the early 1950s, and has been preoccupied with them ever since.
I had mentioned the subject in that catch-all column only in passing, because that iron lightpole, when it was erected on the western end of Union around 1917, may have been adjacent to the front lawn of one Raymond Lovell, proprietor of Lovell's Electro-Turkish Baths. Mr. Shifrin researches the phenomenon on a worldwide basis, and has catalogued dozens of historical Turkish baths in America, but had never previously found evidence of one in Tennessee. He wanted some more information for his elaborate website, victorianturkishbath.org. It contains everything you'll ever need to know about Turkish baths.
You don't see the phrase â“Electro-Turkish Bathsâ” every day. I'd been startled to run across it once or twice before, and made a note to look into it. In my office I have four thick files of notes to look into things, and they never seem to get slimmer. But I made an exception of this one, and did some research.
Raymond Lovell materialized in Knoxville around 1904. He and his wife, Delia, had previously worked as nurses at the famous Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, when J.H. Kellogg was still in charge, and decided to bring what they'd learned to the reviving South. Knoxville was a compact and exuberant city at the time, with a population of 35,000, impressive when you consider that all those people lived within three or four square miles, a density that can support a diversity of businesses.
In the basement of Navarre Flats, a six-story Mediterranean-looking brick apartment building with a prismatic facade, at 513 Walnut, Lovell opened up â“Sanitarium Turkish Bath Parlors.â” A half-century later, the same building would be known, and reviled by some, as the Park Hotel, famous for prostitution and gambling, but in 1905 it was an affluent, healthy place, home to two dozen single professionals, including some doctors, and, in the basement, an amenity unusual for Knoxville. The 1910 Greater Knoxville Illustrated gives us a rare glimpse of the Lovells' operation.
â“There areâwonderful advances in the treatment of disease, and this is being daily demonstrated at Lovell's Massage and Bath Parlors,â” reports the promotional book. â“Some of the cures that are made are not much less than a miracle.â” The treatments available at the Baths were promised to help with rheumatism, gout, anemia, dyspepsia, and diseases of the liver and kidneys; doctors sent patients to Lovell's with prescriptions. They featured electric-light treatments, â“Betz super-heated air,â” Sitz baths, â“Salt Glow, Blanket Packs, Fomentations, Needle Spray, and Spray Douche.â”
Around 1914, Lovell moved the operation to 218 S. Gayâ"a block that doesn't exist anymoreâ"and began calling it, more consistently, a â“Turkish Bath.â”
Around 1917, they moved to the tonier 500 block, to the narrow Sterling Hotel, right between the big new Farragut Hotel and Blaufeld's Cigar store, and began advertising it, in big print, with a rare prefix: â“LOVELL'S ELECTRO -TURKISH BATHSâ” with â“hydrotherapy, massage, and electric-light treatment.â”
Of the term, â“Electro-Turkish,â” Shifrin says, â“It's a bit confusing, really. There was no Electro-Turkish bath as such. The term refers to an establishment which offered Turkish baths and electric baths, or, more rarely, an electric bath located in one of the hot rooms.â”
The same year, the Lovells branched out, establishing â“ladies parlorsâ” at their home at 513 Union. Delia Lovell apparently ran the annex. She's listed separately and co-equally as a business partner, which was not typical in those days.
Judging by the expensive size and boldness of the type used to list Lovell's Electro-Turkish bath, the business was popular through the 1920s, though they eventually dropped the ladies parlor, consolidating, or integrating, around 1926 at 507 W. Clinch, sharing a grand building with an upstairs vegetarian cafeteria.
We know Delia, at least, was a devout Seventh Day Adventist, and the church also ran that vegetarian restaurantâ"a rarity in Knoxville then, as it would be now. The building with the arched front was a little mecca of healthy living, Seventh Day Adventist-style. The handsome building is still there, now the accounting firm of Bible Harris Smith.
Things seemed to diminish for them in the early '30s, as did nearly everything. After the 1932 directory, they dropped the â“Turkish,â” and seemed to start running a more modest operation. They were around 60 when they moved their home and business to Fountain City, which was then beyond city limits, and known as a healthy refuge from the soot and smoke of what reporter Ernie Pyle called â“the dirtiest city in the world.â” Maybe Knoxville was no place for people as clean as the Lovells.
They stayed in some kind of business until Delia Lovell died in early 1954. What happened to Raymond is unclearâ"he vanishes from the records in 1955: no obituary, no local gravestone. The couple had children living in California. Maybe he moved.
And maybe he's still alive, pushing 130. I'm told those Turkish baths did wonders.
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