secrethistory (2007-42)

Collegiate Gothic

Secret History

Hoskins celebrates a birthday, with some anxiety

by Jack Neely

By the time you hit your mid-70s, birthdays can be awkward propositions, all the more so when parts of you are falling off.

Hoskins Library on Cumberland Avenue, formerly the universityâ’s main library, was fascinatingly imperfect even when it was young. With castellated tower and tall cathedral windows, itâ’s the most Gothic building on UTâ’s campus, but itâ’s Gothic in ways beyond mere style. Once planned to take up the whole block, with four interior courtyards, it was never finished, leaving the upper half of the prominent Audigier Tower inaccessible except by climbing through windows. Part of the library that was indeed finishedâ"the simplest, newest, most modern part, as it happensâ"is slowly breaking away from the rest of the building and sinking into the earth. Itâ’s going to be a major engineering problem for the university in months and years to come.

The problem is the result of long-term drought, which has desiccated the soil beneath, and a short-sighted foundation; unlike the rest of the library, the 1966 extension has no foundation but slab. Visible cracks are more than an inch wide, and the floor is atilt in spots. Through some apertures you can see sunlight. â“Itâ’s not a good situation,â” says longtime librarian Nick Wyman. â“If the lights are on inside, you can stand outside and see some boxes on shelves through the cracks.â” Stressed by the slumping building, the elevator is useless because its doors no longer open. The cracks have widened noticeably since spring.

The sinking western part contains the weirdest room on campus, a painstaking recreation of the Washington office of Sen. Estes Kefauver, exactly as he left it the day of his sudden death in 1963. UT is the repository of the voluminous papers of the influential senator and 1956 Democratic vice-presidential nominee. It holds part of UTâ’s Special Collections, and theyâ’re pretty special, at that. Beneath with the odd office of Estes Kefauver in that rebellious wing is the official collection of Kefauverâ’s papers in hundreds of boxes under the unblinking gaze of two deer heads flanking a large portrait of Lyndon B. Johnson. Brass plaques tell us the deer were both shot by Kefauver on Johnsonâ’s Texas ranch in the â’50s. Nearby are collections of papers of former Sen. Howard Baker, presidential candidate Fred Thompson, 19th-century historian JGM Ramsey, and author James Agee, boxes of letters and fragmentary manuscripts scrawled economically in his miniscule handwriting.

Bakerâ’s work, at least, will be moved when they open the Baker Center in the spring, possibly affording an opportunity to move everything out of the collapsing wing.

The older, prettier part of the library is holding firm. This week the university librarians are celebrating Hoskinsâ’ 75th anniversary, but we suspect the ladyâ’s rounding her age downward. The oldest part of the library opened 76 ½ years ago.

â“From Cumberland Avenue you ascend wide concrete steps, past beautiful magnolia trees, whose branches almost brush the entrance,â” gushed a reporter in March, 1931. â“As you enter you are impressed with [the] dignified atmosphere.... The wide hallway of the first floor leads through Gothic arches and rows of large stone pillars....â”

That article doesnâ’t mention architect Charles Barber by name, but Knoxvilleâ’s avatar of Gothic Revival was just finishing work on the notable Church Street Methodist Church, on the next hill over. On the library project Barber and his partner Ben McMurry worked with a consultant, Grant Miller, a Chicago architect who had designed hundreds of libraries in the Midwest.

Architecture was a he-manâ’s profession in 1931; Hoskins may be the oldest building in town that a woman played a significant role in designing. The university librarian, Mary Baker, seems to have been intimately involved in the design process. â“The placing of this reading room was determined entirely by the location and contour of the site,â” she told the reporter. â“Northern light is the best choice for close study, but in this case the location of the lot made it impossible for us to secure it. Eastern light is the next best, and for this reason the reference room was placed on that side.â”

The article continues, â“The room has large Gothic windows, high ceilings, and massive beams, beautifully decorated by Hugh Tyler, of Knoxville.â”

Tyler, whoâ’d spent much of his life just a couple of blocks away, was a good friend of Barberâ’s, and also one of the few Knoxville artists of his generation whose work is still collected. But heâ’s also remembered as a character: the kind bachelor-artist Andrew in the Pulitzer-winning novel, A Death In the Family; Tylerâ’s nephew was James Agee.

These grand upstairs reading rooms were once among the most conspicuous parts of the university, sanctuary-like halls familiar to undergraduates who often had to hunt the crowded tables for an empty chair. Today, that reading room, locked and off limits to the public, is packed with shelved archives. Tylerâ’s beam paintings depicting the history of the written wordâ"Egyptian hieroglyphics, Chinese scrollsâ"are half-obscured by an ungraceful ceiling augmentation. Throughout the library, the Gothic detailing is muffled or concealed altogether by walled-in arches and dropped ceilings, doggedly practical legacies of postwar pragmatism. An air-conditioning system filled in a now-forgotten courtyard. This most ornate building on campusâ"itâ’s the only one I can think of offhand thatâ’s guarded by gargoylesâ"also conceals some of the weirdly blankest spaces in town. (â“I donâ’t like this hallway,â” says archivist Erin Lawrimore, hurrying through a white, windowless, featureless corridor somewhere deep in the bowels of the library. â“It reminds me of some science-fiction movie in the â’70s.â”)

Hoskins has a ghost, of course, but not Kefauverâ’s, that is, unless heâ’s taken to wearing high heels and the name Evening Primrose. â“Sheâ’s supposed to be a grad student who found a way to live in here,â” says Erin. She frequents a little-visited third floor, and leaves behind a subtle essence of cornbread.

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