secret_history (2006-31)

The Stately Walls of Old UT

A new grant may signal a sea change in the university’s attitude toward preservation

by Jack Neely

The University of Tennessee is, or claims to be, 212 years old, which would make it the 28th oldest college in America. But look at other campuses. The University of Virginia, for example, which doesn’t claim to be as old as UT does, has a carefully preserved campus; UVA has even preserved the dorm room where Edgar Allen Poe studied fitfully in the 1820s.

Old UT, by contrast, doesn’t own a single building that was standing during Poe’s lifetime. If there’s one brick that’s been on campus since the Civil War, nobody knows about it. 

If UT doesn’t seem all that old, it’s easy to understand why. Much of its campus, including the parts most accessible to the public, was built in a rapid expansion in the 1950s and ’60s. Even the hallowed Hill isn’t as old as people often assume; most of its eminent brick buildings, including Ayres Hall, were built in the 20th century.

UT occasionally makes an effort to preserve a building, or part of a building; the old Alumni Hall, an early 1930s structure at the foot of the Hill distinguished for the fact that it was the site of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s final concert, was reamed out and rebuilt from the inside, preserving only its outer walls and its function as an auditorium.

But for the most part, the university has celebrated its “stately walls” mainly in song. Unlike many of America’s older colleges, which have found reason to value a veneer of venerability, UT has never made a priority of historic preservation. In recent years, UT has even acquired plausibly historic houses on its fringes just to demolish them, sometimes invoking eminent domain over the protest of owner-residents. UT’s association with Knoxville’s architectural heritage might best be described as predatory. 

There’s reason to hope that state of affairs may be changing. Tim Ezzell, director of UT’s Community Partnership Center, announced last week that the university has earned a $150,000 Getty grant to study the issue of campus preservation.

“We got it on the first try, which is really remarkable,” Ezzell says. “It’s a really competitive grant.” He says the Campus Heritage Grant, endowed by the J. Paul Getty Trust, bestows about 10 of them a year.

The prospect of historic preservation, and this envied grant in particular, has come up before, without much support; Ezzell credits a faculty senate task force and the leadership of Chancellor Loren Crabtree for spearheading it.

The grant is earmarked for identifying and prioritizing the buildings on campus most worthy of preservation.

“The campus is a tradition,” Ezzell says. “Generations come to this campus, sometimes generations from the same family. We need to preserve the look and feel of the campus to bring the tradition alive.”

UT is not widely known as an especially lovely campus, as campuses go. Administrators have traditionally blamed the acreage constraints of an urban campus, and the daily traffic along Neyland Drive and Cumberland Avenue, major commuter arteries that frame the campus.

And UT has already lost a great deal. Old College, the original battle-scarred 1828 building atop the Hill, was the subject of the first of many failed preservation efforts before it was torn down in 1916 to make way for Ayres Hall. The oldest building on campus today is the 1872 South College.

Many more have been lost over the years, torn down for UT projects, too many to mention in one column: the grand mansions of Circle Park; Melrose, the Italianate villa for which the avenue is named; the home and studio of Catherine Wiley, Tennessee’s best-known impressionist artist; most recently, the Keller House on Cumberland, felled for the new Howard Baker Center for Public Policy.

But there’s also a great deal still there. Ezzell mentions the Indian mound on the agricultural campus, which will be part of the study.

“People like the Hill, the campus-gothic style,” Ezzell says. He mentions Ayres Hall, of course, the symbol of the campus since 1919, so collegiate-looking it was used to represent a Northeastern college in a scene for an Ingrid Bergman movie, A Walk In the Spring Rain .

He also mentions the old Hoskins Library, rarely visited these days. “The gothic vaults inside, the painted ceilings, all those quotes upstairs, the etched glass—no one would ever build that kind of building again—the marble steps worn down by generations of students going up and down.” Once the main library, it’s now home to offices and special collections.

The campus includes not only university-built structures with some architectural character—the old Hoskins Library, Estabrook Hall,  the Austin Peay Building come to mind—but a good many former residences. The home of millionaire inventor Weston Fulton is now an office building; the home of World War I General and U.S. Sen. Lawrence Davis Tyson is now an alumni center; and Hopecote, the unusual Medieval-styled former home of a prominent Knoxville jeweler Albert Hope, is a guest house.

Ezzell mentions some plausibly historic buildings that are less than obvious.

He’s been told the modern parking garage behind the University Center is associated with a well-known modernist architect. It’s something to study, at least, with the Getty project. “We’ve heard stories; we don’t know if they’re true or not.”

Also, a couple of old carriage or servants’ houses are still standing on White Avenue, buildings that once stood behind Cumberland Avenue’s famous mansions. One, the textile center behind Hoskins, is actually an 1880 carriage house, and technically the second-oldest building on campus.

“The houses are gone, but the little outbuildings are still there,” Ezzell says.

He also mentions Aconda Court, the circa 1920 apartment building at Cumberland and Volunteer. Its old courtyard was built over during UT’s reckless expansions for conversion to UT offices, the purpose it serves now. But the griffins embossed in its facade are still visible. “There’s got to be some stories there,” Ezzell says. But he acknowledges that it’s slated for demolition in UT’s master plan. “You can’t save everything,” he admits. “Aconda probably won’t make it.”

It would be nice if it did. There may well be a demand for apartments right about there.

The Getty grant offers no brick-and-mortar assistance for actual renovation projects. Ezzell hopes it will establish a clear preservation policy for a university that has suffered without it, and perhaps inspire a new way of thinking for the old school.