The Melancholy Genius of Greystone

A travel coincidence, and the name of an architect we haven't quite forgotten

Some people say they don't believe in coincidences. The idea I think is that Fate comments on our actions in ways beyond our understanding, meaning to help or teach us. I do believe in coincidences, but I appreciate them almost as much as people who don't.

I recently had the occasion to appreciate a pretty weird coincidence. When my wife had a conference in our nation's capital, I tagged along. Tagging along on business trips is the way some print-media guys get to travel. While she was in meetings, I did some homework—a couple of freelance things, including notes for part of a new statewide network of driving tours. I was writing some blurbs describing points of interest visible while driving out of Knoxville via Broadway, and was of course obliged to include a line or two about Greystone, the classic old stone Victorian mansion about a mile north of downtown. It's been home to WATE-TV for the last 50 years. Industrial tycoon Eldad Cicero Camp built it in 1890, and to design it he hired a former government architect who'd worked on some federal buildings, including the original 1872 Custom House downtown. I remembered that much.

I just couldn't remember the architect's name. I didn't have my usual resources handy. I recalled it was kind of an awkward name, a perfect name for a regal fish. On the draft I wrote "TK," which is what we write when we expect to fill it in later. It bugs me until I do.

I got about everything done on that score that I could, and when I wasn't working in the hotel, I killed time looking around town, riding the wonderful Metro, the high-speed subway that links not only Washington but also some points in Virginia and Maryland, like Bethesda, where we were staying. Thereon I found new hope for my favorite business, print media.

I don't know whether the depth of the Metro makes it harder for laptops and iPhones to work, but every time I rode it, I noticed people reading newspapers. Actual, physical, newspapers, with black ink and all. They give out free dailies in big stacks at entrances, and in the mornings nearly all these commuters pick one up, almost as regularly as running their tickets through the slots at the turnstiles.

On one particular morning ride, I looked around a subway car, and of about 40 passengers—teenagers, professionals, everybody—every single rider was reading a newspaper.

I've talked it over with our editor. Metro Pulse officially endorses the construction of subways in Knoxville.

In my walks around Washington, I'd gawked at the architecture but never studied it, and I got a handy guidebook by the American Institute of Architects to take with me. I knew the monumental buildings of the Mall, of course, including the ones that have Knoxville connections, like the National Gallery, clad in Knoxville marble and designed by John Russell Pope, who, maybe not coincidentally, is also probably the best-known architect who left work in Knoxville. He was the designer of the Dulin House on Kingston Pike, and contributed in some way still unknown to the design of Church Street Methodist on Henley Street. Maybe it was that hometown connection, I don't know, but I got kind of preoccupied with the guy, and went around looking for his stuff. I went into the National Archives just to see another Pope building and went to the interior dome, just because I'd heard it was something to see. I didn't know until I was staring at a faded piece of strangely familiar parchment that it was also the room that housed the Declaration of Independence.

This time, on my walks, I made wider circles, sometimes looking for other Pope buildings, like an ethereally enormous Masonic temple that doesn't look quite real. On my way I blundered across buildings that sent me diving into my architectural guide.

A particular Washington building was one my wife and I had wondered about for years. It's right by the White House, and seems always to be in some state of renovation. Altogether unlike everything else in that neighborhood of classical white marble, it's a palatial building that looks like the sort of place the Hapsburgs would have preferred to the simple White House, which it dwarfs. It's called the Executive Office Building. At some point it was renamed after Eisenhower, of whom it will not remind you.

Who the hell designed that thing, and why, I wondered, and made a note to look it up when I had a minute. I didn't have my AIA guidebook with me that afternoon. But when I got back to the hotel, I looked up the Executive Office Building.

I'd wondered why people thought it looked good there, in this neighborhood of simple lines and democratic principles. In fact, at the time it was built in 1888, most people didn't think it looked good. Henry Adams ridiculed it as an "architectural infant asylum." It was only one of the most fussed-about buildings in a controversial architect's career. People hated it, but somehow it's still there, 122 years later, and well used.

It was a fascinating story, but what jumped out at me was the architect's name. The long-bearded English-born architect, once prominent in Washington, was named Alfred Mullett.

That was it. The name I was trying to remember, the guy who designed Greystone on Broadway in Knoxville.

In fact, he designed Greystone soon after the completion of the Executive Office Building. To my knowledge, Greystone has never been hated. In numbers big enough to read from a car, that date 1890 is carved in marble in the front of the house. That year, Mullett was 56, living in Washington, having financial problems and known to suffer from "melancholia." One day that October, he came home early, and as his wife was cooking him some soup, he shot himself in the head. Greystone was one of his final accomplishments.