Old Hospitals as Shrines: Some Reflections on Baptist Hospital, and Ida Cox

Earlier this fall I got word that Cedartown, Ga., a small town in the countryside about an hour west of Atlanta, is contemplating a marker commemorating the astonishing life and career of Ida Cox. Famous in the 1920s and '30s as the "Uncrowned Queen of the Blues," Cox (1896?-1967) was sharply different from most of her contemporaries in several respects, including the fact that she wrote her own songs. Many of them were on the bawdy side, but they were always bold and realistic lyrics about love, or death, or both: "Coffin Blues," "One Hour Mama," "Monkey Man Blues," "Four Day Creep." Her signature piece was "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues."

Cedartown was her childhood home. She spent most of her performing career in Harlem-Renaissance-era New York, where she was a major star in the 1930s. But she never lived anywhere as long as she lived in Knoxville.

She performed here on occasion, at the capacious old Gem Theater on Vine, long before she ever expected to live here. However, after suffering a stroke, reportedly onstage, around 1945—like some other details of her life, specifics are hard to be confident about—she moved in with her daughter, Helen Goode, a Knoxville College grad who'd stayed in town to get married and teach. Ida Cox spent her last 20-odd years in a comfortable house in East Knoxville. Cox recovered, but didn't get back into the business, at least not right away. She lived here quietly and anonymously. For 15 years, back in New York, many presumed she was dead. After all, many of her contemporaries were long gone: Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith.

Here, she kept performing, just not as a headliner. She sang every Sunday in the choir of the Patton Street Church of God. Barely there now, Patton Street was once an important and well-known street, but its old neighborhood is thoroughly erased. It was just a block or so east of what's now called the Old City.

Who deserves credit for tracking her down and enticing her to make another recording is a matter for debate, but she was living here when she made her only full-length record album. Recorded in New York in 1961, Blues for Basin Street featured the legendary Coleman Hawkins Quintet, backing her.

It was an event heralded in the big-city press at the time, and the resulting album got good reviews. Many hoped she'd return to show biz, make another record, tour, do some TV. But the show-biz life wasn't for Ida Cox anymore. She gave it up again, and returned to Knoxville.

She died in 1967, 46 years ago this month. She's the only Knoxvillian I know of who got a bigger obituary in The New York Times than she did in the local papers. She's buried at New Gray Cemetery on Western Avenue.

The Patton Street Church of God, where she did most of her latter-day singing, was torn down during urban renewal back in the '60s. The Louise Avenue home where Ida Cox lived the longest was demolished, unexpectedly, just a few years ago.

The place where she spent her final days is, for the moment, still standing. It won't be for long.

...

There are some ironies about what we preserve. Birthplaces are considered significant. Tourists can still enter the house where Shakespeare was born, 450 years ago. The houses that witnessed the first squeals of a few dozen presidents are preserved for the public.

We even save some death places. The rooms where John Keats, Abraham Lincoln, and Stonewall Jackson died are preserved, and open for grim contemplation.

Nowadays most people die in hospitals. Most people are born in hospitals, too. But nobody ever saves hospitals. They're too big to maintain as shrines, and almost impossible to find new uses for.

Planned during World War II, Baptist Hospital opened 65 years ago this month. Its designer was Baltimore architect James R. Edmunds (1890-1953). The vertical window arrangement of the original building resembles Edmunds' older Hutzler's Tower building in downtown Baltimore.

Local preservationists have a lot on their plates these days. Knox Heritage hasn't challenged the city's proposal to flatten the entire site to prepare it for the new development.

But they acknowledge that there was, especially after the announcement the hospital was closing, some plaintive interest in saving the hospital's gracefully modernist little chapel. Built of brick with white marble trim, the Graves-Wyatt Chapel is an almost freestanding building on Blount Avenue. Finished in 1962, it's barely old enough to pass for "historic" by National Park Service standards, so some tax credits might be available. People remember the chapel best for its impressive stained-glass windows, which were manufactured in 1962 by the venerable Willet stained glass company in Philadelphia.

Those windows were removed four years ago and are on "permanent display" at several other Tennova hospitals around the region. That seemed to knock some wind out of efforts to save it. Today there's just some translucent material in the windows.

That chapel was there, and fairly new, when Ida Cox died, somewhere upstairs. It's small enough that it doesn't seem as if it would be a major imposition on the big plans.

But what would a big residential development aimed at college students do with a little Christian chapel, where shocked families once prayed for the dying? Make it the private clubhouse, with keyless entry and indoor-outdoor carpeting?

Still, back to our original subject: Maybe there's a place for a little bronze bust, and maybe some lyrics engraved in some of the old hospital's marble.

I'm sure there are others deserving, too, even in these days when we concentrate our births and deaths in big buildings and then erase them. But it seems appropriate that we allow some space in the new development to remember Ida Cox, the most famous blues or jazz performer who ever lived in Knoxville, and one of the boldest women of her era, along the steep riverbank where she saw the last of this world.