secret_history (2006-42)

The Temple House

Downtown’s last single-family home

by Jack Neely

The tall brick house at the corner of Henley and Hill, near the Henley Street Bridge, has been vacant for years, and looks it, a ramshackle place, the paint on its trim peeling. It’s always been one of the most conspicuous houses in town, especially for those crossing the Henley Street Bridge, and was there even before the bridge was.

It was a relief to finally see the inside of it, weekend before last, and see that it wasn’t all that bad and may well be on the way to an earnest renovation. Architect Brian Pittman, who has been trying to purchase the house for some time, with vigorous cooporation from the city and the adjacent Hampton Inn, finally has it in hand. He means to live there.

A couple hundred First Friday revelers drank wine, ate cheese, and climbed the wooden staircases to look at new art hanging on top of old graffiti on the walls. (I won’t quote it here, but there was a general theme of uncouth allegations about policemen.) The third floor, which is something more than a garret, offers a surprising vantage of the river.

Many figured it was surely a goner. It’s on Knox Heritage’s “Fragile 15” endangered historic sites, which is something like a prayer list. Over the last decade or so, the house has been in the way of several developers’ proposals. Architectural drawings for a giant jail or condominiums or a hotel have imagined it gone. Some experts inevitably declared it “unsalvageable.” Developers like to say that about all old buildings, of course, that they’re “unsalvageable” due to “structural problems.” An expert’s always handy to back them up. It’s just part of the pageantry, like the tall hat on the drum major at a football game, and you get used to it.

It’s known as the Mary Boyce Temple House. The lady by that name lived in the place for only seven years, not its original or longest resident. But, considering that she’s regarded the Mother of Historic Preservation in Knoxville on the basis of something she did while she lived here, and this is the only one of her residences that still stands, I doubt many would argue with that designation.

The house was built around 1907. The first long-term resident was pharmacist/businessman Daniel Chambliss, who had moved in with his wife, Rebecca, and son, George, by 1908. Henley was then just a narrow tree-shaded residential street that ran parallel to the next street over to the west, South Broadway.

Many years later, Chambliss would be remembered in obituaries by the bland terms businessmen are usually remembered, a “simple, courteous, and accessible gentleman,” member of all the right clubs, a prominent citizen. But as a middle-aged man, he developed one wild hair.

Young George went off to the Great War, enlisting in the Army Air Corps. He returned safely to ignite his middle-aged dad’s interest in aviation. Chambliss, in his 50s, discovered he loved to fly. In the early 1920s, while he lived in this house, Dan Chambliss became one of the original supporters of the Knoxville Aero Corp., which established an airfield on Sutherland Avenue, offering rides to the public. After several crashes and a hangar fire, the company never made any money, but KAC’s airfield evolved into the original McGhee Tyson Airport.

In 1923, Chambliss moved out to Kingston Pike, within a brisk walk of the airfield. A woman already better known than he was moved in.

The ordinarily thorough resource book The French Broad-Holston Country has a biographical entry for Mary Temple, but it leaves a space for her unmentionable birthdate. It’s rude to reveal a lady’s age, even if she’s been dead for decades.

But with a little math we can figure she was born just before the Civil War, the daughter of Oliver Perry Temple, the prominent judge and Republican politician who was sometimes heatedly involved in Reconstruction politics, and in the early development of the University of Tennessee.

She grew up in prominence and privilege in one of Knoxville’s best-known mansions, Melrose, named for the Scottish abbey where her grandmother was born. The antebellum Italianate house is long gone, a victim of a 1950s dormitory project, but the street named for it is still there.

The judge’s only child graduated from Vassar. With no need for a husband, she committed herself to causes, including the University of Tennessee, her dad’s baby, to which she donated tens of thousands of dollars—gracious of her, considering that UT didn’t admit people of her disreputable gender when she was college age.

She organized the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and was once vice-president of the national DAR.

We don’t always think of DAR ladies as feminists, but Temple was; she wrote a booklet about one of her heroes, Margaret Fuller Ossoli.

She spent the social season, whenever that is, in Washington, staying at the Willard, and made connections. The New York Tribune once remarked on her “genius to preside.” She traveled frequently and extravagantly, representing the U.S. government in world expositions in Stockholm and Rio de Janeiro. She represented Tennessee at the famously stylish Paris Exposition of 1900. She was the only woman on a jury of higher education at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. She was well versed in expositions by the time she served as co-organizer of the big Conservation Exposition in Knoxville in 1913.

Temple’s liberal interests ranged from archaeology and agriculture, but she more or less founded Knoxville’s preservationist movement in 1925. She learned a house five blocks down Hill Avenue was to be razed for a parking lot, and wouldn’t have it. She led the fight to save Knoxville’s most historic home, Blount Mansion. She eventually raised $35,000 to renovate the oldest house in the region; legend has it that it was her personal check of $100 that saved it.

Temple died here in her house, suddenly, in 1929, as Henley was in the process of being widened into a boulevard, and a bridge was going up to cross the river to a new highway to the new park in the mountains. One of the ungentlemanly papers let it slip that she was 70.

Pittman, the enthusiastic new owner, has recently earned some attention around downtown for his pen-and-ink drawings of impossibly detailed imaginary cathedrals; they’ve been displayed at Tomato Head and as graffiti on the plywood Wall of Freedom on Wall Avenue. Fortunately for the fate of the house, Pittman is a seasoned architect with McCarty Holsaple McCarty and knows what he’s getting into.

He’s going to renovate this and the little California-style duplex next door. When it’s done—it may take as much as three years—he and his mother are going to move in. The biggest part of his commute to work will be crossing Locust Street.