A Minor Sacrifice? Ramsey House Opts to Sell Part of its Side Yard

Thorngrove Pike is a long, narrow country road. Hardly anyone ever goes down Thorngrove Pike except in a car. Not that many do it in a car. There’s not enough traffic along Thorngrove to call for a traffic light at John Sevier. You look both ways and make a dash.

The buildings along Thorngrove Pike are mostly practical: ranchers, mobile homes, storage sheds. It’s pretty in spots, especially when the season’s agreeable and where the trees arch over the road.

The area’s landmark can startle you even though it’s not imposing, not on any sort of eminence, and not really a mansion. If you notice Ramsey House, driving by, it’s because it’s made of stone.

In this rural landscape where almost everything speaks of automobiles, Ramsey House is an elegant glimpse of an era long before railroads. When these stones were first stacked together, Napoleon was just rising to power in Europe and worrying the Mississippi Valley. Davy Crockett was around, but no legend, just a tavern-keeper’s kid up the road.

Ramsey House is one of the few surviving houses in Tennessee built in the 18th century. Architecturally it may be the best preserved of them. Unlike most historic homes, it’s never been altered much.

It’s a rare local treasure. It’s not threatened, and it’s been getting more attention than usual lately thanks to several 1864-rules baseball games held in its backyard this summer. Hundreds of people show up for those.

But big changes are afoot for another big piece of land adjacent to it.

Ramsey House’s board has decided to sell 9.4 acres of its 100-odd acres, the patch along John Sevier Highway. It’s just a big field, probably hasn’t ever been much else. Archaeologist Charlie Faulkner says it was just part of a beaver pond that was later drained for farmland. Thanks to a thick line of woods along the creek, it’s not even visible from the house and its expansive back yard; so big it’s recently been used for those bare-hands baseball games. Most of Ramsey House’s acreage, all of it acquired in the last 60 years, is not obvious from the house.

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Ramsey House was, no surprise, the home of the Ramsey family. Early local history is crawling with Ramseys.

Francis Alexander Ramsey, who built the house, was from Pennsylvania. A little too young to have fought in the Revolution, he trained to be a surveyor and fell in with James White and his pals, exploring the river in the early 1780s. He wasn’t yet 30 when he moved to Knox County, but he’d already been an officer in the abortive state of Franklin, a North Carolina legislator, and a cavalry major. He was getting involved in the founding of a new state—he would be Tennessee’s first senate clerk—when he started building a relatively expensive house in the Forks of the River area, about six miles east of the new capital, Knoxville. It was probably a half-hour commute by horse.

His builder was Thomas Hope, one of the relatively few English-born people in Knoxville, and arguably our first architect.

Ramsey helped found Knox County’s first church, Lebanon in the Forks Presbyterian, but he also hosted the famous English Methodist, Francis Asbury, during an evangelizing visit in 1800. Asbury Road is near Ramsey House. Asbury Park, N.J., is named after the same guy.

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The field along John Sevier, once contemplated as a prospective site for an interpretive center for the Ramsey House, is their most conspicuous piece of property, seen by thousands daily. The highway itself, named for a contemporary acquaintance of Mr. Ramsey, doesn’t make much of an impression. Though named for Tennessee’s first governor, it’s a modern, practical road, with steel warehouses and parking lots. If the Ramsey House people had built something interesting to look at on this stretch of John Sevier, it would be a first. Build anything pretty or eye-catching on John Sevier, and people will think you’re showing off.

County Commission has already agreed to lift the H-1 zoning from three acres of the property. If the use-on-review is approved, it’s likely to go to an Alabama developer and become a Dollar General Store.

Opponents, including a former Ramsey House director, say that selling off that John Sevier land unnecessarily, and removing historic zoning, sets a bad precedent. H-1 zoning does allow development. It might even allow for something like a Dollar General Store. But it has to be in keeping with the historic character of the neighborhood. Parking, signage, materials, etc., would have to be of a sort that wouldn’t be too ugly for the Ramseys.

In other words, something built in an H-1 zone more or less has to be a pretty development. It may be hard to imagine what that would look like, because there’s very little H-1 development in the Knoxville area. Out-of-state developers are known to be especially resistant, loath to be forced to pay to make something pretty for some local yahoos. Presented with that demand, a lot of out-of-state chains refuse to participate and pull out.

Supporters say the sale is necessary to build up the reserves to pay for maintenance on Ramsey House, which is expensive and important.

We assume there aren’t equally effective ways to raise money.

As my family will attest, I’m clueless about fund-raising. But Ramsey House is the oldest rural historic site in Knoxville’s multi-county combined metropolitan area, which is home to more than one million people. You could make a strong argument that it’s the oldest unaltered house in Tennessee, and it could be seen as the finest template of our suburban lifestyle. You’d think it would be something we’re proud of.

I suspect Ramsey’s problem is that most people just don’t notice it. Though not remote, it’s kind of out of the way. Developing this land just for the house, if not as an interpretive center, as a park with gardens or statuary, might have yielded benefits in assuring its permanent visibility.

In a couple of years, we’ll be giving new directions. It’s that cool old place back behind the Dollar General.