Ron Allen, 1934-2011

The view from the Burwell: an appreciation of an unusual historian

I don't know what it is about these windows, the windows of the second floor of the 103-year-old Burwell Building. They overlook the intersection of Gay Street and Clinch Avenue. From them you can see the 1912 Holston Building, the 1919 Farragut Building, and at times the 1874 Custom House. They used to look squarely at the mysterious old 1800-something Fouche Block, its absolute age never proven, now the site of the East Tennessee History Center.

These windows have offered a daily view to several people who became preoccupied with Knoxville history. One was Russell Briscoe, who worked for the Lutz insurance company for many years. His urban-primitivist oil paintings recorded scenes of long-ago Knoxville, scenes he remembered and much-earlier scenes he researched. A sometime writer as well, he was, until his death in 1979, known as an authority on Knoxville history.

A little later, his colleague in the Lutz company, Ron Allen, a good generation younger than Briscoe, looked out these same windows. He collected historical curios and began to write his own unusual books about Knoxville history.

Ron Allen died late last week, at the age of 77.

In columns over the years I've referred to Ron Allen as an "antiquarian." My designation amused him, but he didn't deny it. One of very few serious rare-book collectors I've known in Knoxville, he sometimes displayed the curiosities he'd found at the History Center—old sheet music of songs with the word "Tennessee" in the title, for example. He was an insurance man, years ago, but his hobby, meticulously pursued, became the nucleus of an avocation as a historian.

His approach to history was both idiosyncratic and authoritative. Over the last 20 years, he has put out at least 15 books about Knoxville history, mostly self-published treatises on tightly defined subjects. This year opened with a flurry of interesting ones: Knoxville, Tennessee in the Gay Nineties, a painstakingly thorough chronology of a very interesting decade; Gay Street, From Beginning to Bohemi-end (he suggests that downtown Knoxville has become a "Bohemia-ville"); and a revised and expanded version of his magnum opus, Knox-Stalgia.

I might have recommended further consideration of that title, but it's an essential text, a worthy Compendium of the Forgotten, a glossary of sites and communities that have mostly changed beyond recognition. For many years to come, no study of the history of local communities will be complete without at least a glance at Knox-Stalgia. At the McClung Collection's Reading Room, it's near the librarian's desk, one of the handiest and most-thumbed books.

Ron grew up in Knoxville, in the Happy Holler area, was a basketball star at Rule High, 60-odd years ago, and was frankly nostalgic about the Knoxville of his younger years. One of his books is entirely about the year 1948, when he was 14; it's a lively walk around postwar Knoxville.

He was annoyed at the cultural simplifications and stereotypes that often come to dominate our assumptions about the past. He didn't think much of grits, for example, either as a source of nutrition or as an exemplar of his native region. He claimed he never saw grits on a Knoxville menu before the 1960s. I found that interesting, and looked into it. My research, and a couple of columns on the subject, turned up only one exception.

Ron wasn't a quick read. He had strong, melancholy features, with hooded eyes. If he were an actor, he'd be cast as a grizzled rancher or maybe the homicide detective coaxed out of retirement to take on one more case. He had known some tragedy in his life, a talented and accomplished adult son who shared his name, and who drowned.

He didn't show up at all the receptions and festivals; you'd be unlikely to find him at a party or in a bar. He was skeptical about the reinvention of downtown as something other than what he had known, as something that can now seem like it's mainly for kids. The older you get, of course, the more everybody seems like kids.

For two decades, Ron and I swapped phone calls or e-mails. The first time we ever spoke on the phone, sometime in the early '90s, I think, he told me I should come up to the Lutz office and look at the Fouche Block through the windows; he said he could see evidence that the building was built in the 1840s, and was therefore much older than those who wanted to demolish it preferred to believe. Before I made time to take Ron up on looking out his window, the Fouche Block came down.

Ron's research has made my job easier. I've credited him in several of my own books. We've fallen in and out of touch, over the years. How often did I meet him in person? In all these years, I remember only twice.

Seven or eight weeks ago, we had lunch together for the first time. He'd been doing some research at the McClung Collection, and we enjoyed a slow springtime stroll around the Square. The Steamboat Sandwich Shop displays an extravagant gallery of historical Knoxville photographs, several of which I'd never seen. He seemed pleased with the fact of it, though he said he had copies of most of them, himself. It was such a fine day, we lunched on the patio at Café 4. He'd lately been researching the 1890s, and we agreed that the downtown of today, with its upscale residential development and late-night hours and emphasis on liberal varieties of entertainment, bears some resemblance to the downtown of the 1890s.

Finally we walked up to the Metro Pulse office, on the second floor of the Burwell. About all that's familiar to a veteran of the Lutz years are the windows, and he remarked on that, that we've looked out the same windows at the same peculiar town.

We agreed that we'd have lunch again, soon. But that's not always our choice.