secret_history (2006-51)

The Chill In the Air

One century ago, the traditional Christmas disaster

by Jack Neely

Christmas was always trouble. Police Chief W.P. Chandler knew that. From police headquarters in Market Square, he announced that, as usual, cops wouldn’t get a Christmas holiday. From midday Christmas Eve until the wee hours of the Feast of Stephen, there would be 25 policemen on duty around the clock, mainly in the downtown area, doubling patrols on Market Square and on the Central Street Bowery.

With so many shoppers in town, pickpockets were on the make. Young factory workers were spending their paychecks in the saloons of the Bowery, and then getting in all sorts of trouble; Christmas Day often saw a rash of murders. Kids roamed the streets with pockets full of firecrackers. Fireworks were an old Christmas tradition, but since the chaotic “Saturnalia” of 1893 had resulted in several building fires, the city had banned all incendiaries, even firecrackers. Mean-spirited Christmas pranks sometimes wreaked havoc on streetcar rails or livery stables.

By Christmas Eve, the city jail, the “callaboose,” was standing-room only, mostly with customers on public-drunk charges. Even kids knew that “too much Christmas” was code for “blind drunk.”

The extra patrols seemed to be working; the week before Christmas had seen only a few saloon shootings. A man in the Bowery, famous for its 30-odd saloons, not counting whorehouses, gambling dens, and cocaine parlors, was arrested for “indulging in promiscuous shooting”—so much of it that “he even disturbed the inhabitants of that anything but placid community.” A man was seriously wounded in a Market Square saloon. One man in the Bowery was luckier. A bullet fired at him in a saloon “cut the lid off his left eye, struck the skull, and glanced off.” It seemed a Christmas miracle.

Man, it was cold, though, even at the police station. The sergeant on duty turned up the gas jets all the way, and stuffed towels along the window sashes, but it didn’t help much. Knoxville had been frozen for days, and now the temperature was down in the low teens. Pipes were bursting all over town, sending water into the street that then froze. The optimistic said any day now we’d be able to ice skate on the river—and that the weather was improving road conditions. Knoxville’s roads were in terrible shape, and mud had been a frustration to all travel for most of the wet autumn.

“Old Boreas is still able to keep the mud on Knoxville streets in subjugation,” quipped the Journal & Tribune’s editor. The sub-freezing temperatures turned the mud into good concrete.

If Knoxville still had 19th-century roads, the booming city had several 20th-century buildings. The city was beginning to have architectural pretensions, with the new L&N Station and the Arnstein and Burwell Buildings, and the yuletide announcement of a “big, modern hotel” on the site of the Lamar House, which they were, in late 1906, planning to tear down. The old hotel’s storied past came up, but more as a curiosity than a regret. It was a modern era.

An article in the Knoxville Journal & Tribune predicted that “flying machines will in a few years be as common as automobiles today…. In the next war, there will be battles between flotillas of airships.”

One of the most strikingly modern buildings in 1906 Knoxville was on Main Street, near Gay. The white temple had a grand arched entryway and graceful wings stretching to smaller rooms on the east and west. It looked a lot like a building built for a turn-of-the-century exposition, and in fact it was.

Designed by young Knoxville architect Albert Baumann, it originally served as the Knoxville pavilion at the Tennessee State Centennial in Nashville.

Most of the buildings at that exposition were torn down afterward, but several Knoxville women’s clubs banded together and raised the money to bring it home; city council found a place for it on the north side of Main, the area the old folks still called “the old courthouse grounds.” It was where the Civil War-era courthouse had been, before the construction of the current courthouse, some 20 years before.

So, in 1898, the exposition building materialized on Main. This modern, inspiring building was an improvement to downtown Knoxville, in an era of the City Beautiful, when everything was about improvement. A committee of women, presided over by Bettie Tyson, wife of the army officer and textile tycoon, were in charge of the place.

It was called the Woman’s Building, and would be used for high-minded pursuits: club meetings, banquets, classical music recitals, art studios, museum exhibitions during the annual fall Carnival. It served as the headquarters of the women’s intellectual club, Ossoli Circle, and of the Knoxville Symphony Quartet, and numerous studios for artists and musicians. In the great hall, there were grand pianos, huge Italian mirrors, and on the ceiling a fresco of long, graceful mermaids in overlaid shades of green.

It had an impressive kitchen, and in 1901, the first and perhaps only Knoxville Cookbook was put together there, by the Woman’s Building board.

In its brief eight years on Main Street, it had hosted lectures by William Jennings Bryan, President McKinley, Admiral Dewey and, recently, prohibitionist Carrie Nation.

One of the last events held in the Woman’s Building before the holiday was an Ossoli Circle presentation from a couple of members who had just returned from a trip abroad. The presentation was called, “Baghdad the Magnificent.” “The most surprising fact in connection with all this picture of Oriental and ancient splendor is that there are today in Baghdad hospitals with up-to-date appliances….”

The Woman’s Building probably looked best from a distance. In photographs, it looks as if it’s constructed of marble. It fact, it made mostly of pine, covered with stucco. Local craftsmen had built it for the exposition in only 15 days.

Most of the artists who kept studios in the Woman’s Building were women, among them impressionists Harriet and Eleanor Wiley and nonconformist piano teacher Lou Krutzsch. (Some of her brothers had simplified the family spelling to “Krutch.”) But men were allowed in the Woman’s Building, under certain conditions, and one, an artist named R.L. “Jack” Mason kept his studio in there. He accepted the role of custodian. With the help of a janitor, a black man named Canary Curtis, he watched over the unique monument on Main Street. When he closed up at 6:30 on Christmas Eve, he turned everything in the building off: the furnace, the electric lights.

Next door to the Woman’s Building, alongside Gay, was the Auditorium Skating Rink, a roller-skating palace that also featured films. Not only was it open all day on Christmas, but the rink was featuring exhibitions by pro John F. Davidson, allegedly one of the world’s leading roller skaters. “His Trick, Fancy, and Graceful Skating Has Made Him Famous,” they said.

Rivaling roller-skating as a Christmas Day sport was bowling. The Knoxville Bowling Club, now 225 strong, was so popular the society announced it would accept no new members, and met every Christmas Day at their three-lane headquarters on Linden Avenue, just east of downtown. Proprietor Frank Bundschu always outdid himself, and that Christmas he served his bowlers turkey, possum and roast pig. From 2 to 10 that night, they bowled for 50 prizes, most of which had something to do with cigars.

At the Imperial Hotel, on the corner of Gay and Clinch, R.W. Farr was serving an international Christmas Day menu that included mangos, baked salmon with anchovy sauce, peach fritters au Rhine, diamondback terrapin, shrimp with mayonnaise, saddle of bear with bar-le-duc jelly, Charlotte Russe a la Richelieu, macaroons and bonbons. Farr’s extravagant holiday dinners in the big Victorian hotel were famous and apparently successful, intended to appeal both to well-heeled travelers and to locals who didn’t want to cook at home.

Guests at the Imperial dined as a sextet under the direction of William Crouch performed a very liberal bill that embraced selections from Mascagni and Victor Herbert, and selections from The Man From Now , a new Broadway fantasy extravaganza by British composer Manuel Klein, and “In Old Morocco,” by Albert Von Tilzer, the guy who wrote “Take Me Out To the Ball Game.” No holiday-related music is obvious in the advertisement, and not much that smacked of “tradition.” On the bill were French composer Louis Ganne, American Reginald De Koven—it was an international slate of composers Crouch chose to feature on his Christmas Dinner show, most of them still active in 1906, and most fairly young.

It was a strictly modern show. Down the street at Staub’s Theatre, though, they had a different idea. Later on in the week, Staub’s would feature a major wrestling match and an inspirational drama called Message From Mars . But on Christmas Day, the Ben Greet Players performed a double bill of Shakespeare, adhering strictly to the traditions of Elizabethan England in clothing and presentation.

They performed a Christmas Day matinee of The Merchant of Venice , and later an evening show of the comic farce of gender-swapping and mistaken identity, Twelfth Night .

In the evening show Greet himself played the clueless Malvolio, and the local critic swore there was never a better one. The writer noted that the crowd responded warmly to Malvolio’s drinking scene. “There was some mirth in the audience when they appreciated the change of character,” said the Journal . He called the portrayal of Sir Andrew Aguecheek “poetry in motion,” referring to his “inimitable dance.” Most of the players aren’t named, but one of the actors in Greet’s touring company was a young Englishman named Sydney Greenstreet.

It had been altogether a successful and quiet holiday. “The chill in the air… made it seem like Christmas,” wrote a Journal & Tribune editor, “but the lack of snow on the ground always disappoints many.” Knoxvillians were dreaming of a white Christmas years before Irving Berlin did.

Some of the stores didn’t open at all on Christmas Day, and the several that did open closed promptly at noon. The Catholic, Episcopalian, and Lutheran churches all offered Christmas Day services.

As Christmas Day turned into night, and Chief Chandler’s crisis time neared its end, he must have heaved a sigh of relief. There had been Christmas melees in some other cities—several had been killed in holiday violence in Birmingham—but Chandler and his 25 patrolmen had done all they could to keep Knoxville quiet.

Toward the end of Twelfth Night , around 11 that night, there was a hubbub up in the balcony. Several audience members left.

Thrown off by the distraction, the actors sensed there was some rival drama outside, but wanted to keep the audience’s attention; one of the actors ad-libbed something about “a fight up here.” It was an ordinary thing to happen at Staub’s, and the audience relaxed.

But soon it got around the old theater; outside, something big was on fire. The Ben Greet players gamely kept playing toward midnight, but by the end of Act V, when the clown declared, “And thus the whirlygig of time brings in his revenges,” most of their Knoxville audience was gone.

Outside, barely around the corner, the Woman’s Building was ablaze. Fire trucks were firing six streams of water into it, but the unusual building was burning, as one reporter remarked, “like oil.” Firemen battled the inferno, at personal risk; an avalanche of burning pine descended on two firemen on a ladder; one was “pluckily” able to return.

The fire was under control only one hour after the first report of it. But by then, the Woman’s Building and all its famous artwork and furniture and grand pianos were smoke in the cold air. Only some walls on the west end were still standing, and barely.

The cause of the fire was a mystery. Mason attested that nobody could have been in there, and that everything was turned off. But a couple of days later, Canary Curtis, the janitor, made a discovery in the alley near where the fire started: “the remains of a giant firecracker.”