So Sadly Needed

Sweating some more details about our departed Electro-Turkish Baths

Secret History

by Jack Neely

Certain phrases belong to Knoxville. Take â“Fellini Krogerâ”: a simple pairing of two respected proper nouns. The supermarket on Broadway was dubbed with that moniker by some Italian-film fan in the '70s, in a supercilious distillation of anthropological complexity. Google suggests that it is indeed the only Fellini Kroger in the world. Another uniquely Knoxvillian term is â“tavernboat,â” a lost Knoxville institution referenced mainly in Cormac McCarthy's novel, Suttree .

I'd like to think â“electro-Turkishâ” is another Knoxville phrase. Though Google discloses a few scattered references to â“electro-Turkishâ” disco music, the most famous and most durable electro-Turkish institution in the world may have been Lovell's Electro-Turkish Baths, which thrived in two gender-separated branches in downtown Knoxville from about 1915 to 1932.

If the tourist center's gift shop claims to be a purveyor of things that are â“Uniquely Knoxville,â” I think, it should include at least one item that's electro-Turkish in nature. Perhaps Knoxville could earn a reputation as an electro-Turkish city. Next time we rename the hockey team, in fact, I propose we call them the Knoxville Electro-Turks. It's all about intimidation.

When I wrote about Raymond Lovell's Electro-Turkish Baths a couple of weeks ago, I hoped to hear more about the man and his enterprise. Because Raymond Lovell was still living in the area as late as the '50s, I was hoping to hear from someone who knew him, and did. Beverly Duckett was just a little girl when she attended the Seventh Day Adventist Church with Lovell, and has some clear memories.

â“He was a very small man,â” she recalls, â“always in a grey suit, and he moved like lightning.â” She says people knew him as R.A. Lovell; he was a member of that generation of men who preferred to go by their first initials.

Physical purity is a big part of Seventh-Day Adventist doctrine, and Lovell apparently also had something to do with Knoxville's first vegetarian restaurant, which shared a building on Clinch, near Walnut, with the last location of the Electro-Turkish Baths.

The restaurant was a going concern in the '20s and early '30s.

About five years ago, I wrote a feature story about that surprising restaurant; I should have remembered his name. It's a puzzle to me why Knoxville can't sustain a vegetarian restaurant today, when vegetarianism seems fairly widespread, and even the Fellini Kroger offers some vegetarian options on its shelves. But back in the '20s, an era of lamb chops and porterhouse steaks, and when Knoxville was a small city of less than 100,000, we did support a vegetarian restaurant, and it seems to have done pretty well.

In that last column I made a joke that, because I couldn't find an obituary nor record of a burial here, Lovell might still be alive, at age 130 or so. I wasn't all that far off. Widowed at the age of 80 or so, Lovell moved to Loma Linda, Calif., to be with his children. At the time he died, his family was planning his 101st birthday party.

I also heard from a private investigator who took an interest in the case. She prefers to remain anonymous, but did some census work on the Lovells and found he was born in Wisconsin, his wife Delia in Minnesota. According to her sources, he died in 1975, four days before his 99th birthdayâ"but the census apparently admits his birth date is approximate.

My friend John Craig, part of the team that's redeveloping the cluster of old buildings still standing next to the new cinema project on the 500 block of Gay, found a photograph of Lovell's Electro-Turkish Bath, ca. 1920. It was advertised with an arched sign on the Gay Street sidewalk, with appropriately exotic crypto-Ottoman lettering that looks plausibly Turkish. The entrance was in the narrow, barely-there space next to the Farragut Building, which was also the entrance to the Sterling Hotel, but it may have been just a stairway access to the upper floors of the building next door.

Knoxville was right fond of Eastern things during the teens and '20s, the era when Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks were playing the Shiek and the Thief of Baghdad, and smartass flappers sang rounds of â“I'm the Shiek of Arabyâ” at parties. During the same period the Electro-Turkish Baths were thriving, developers of Talahi, which would become part of Sequoyah Hills, were erecting Egyptian-influenced monuments, and we were building a new movie palace with a Moorish theme, and industrial tycoon Weston Fulton was building a semi-Islamic-looking mansion on Lyons View.

But it turns out that Lovell didn't introduce the Turkish Bath to Knoxville, after all. Antiquarian Ron Allen, who has done an end run around my research before, sent me a copy of a description of a Turkish Bath on Gay Street in October, 1892, about a dozen years before Lovell's first one. It was apparently an extravagant addition to the establishment of Rudolph Schmid and Brother Barber and Baths, which was located exactly where the Tennessee Theatre is now. The Swiss immigrants had been well-established as Knoxville's best-known tonsorial professionals for years.

â“The beauty and completeness of Schmid's Gay Street barber shop are to be greatly added to,â” went the article in the Journal . â“What Knoxville, a city of 50,000 souls, has so sadly needed for lo these many moons, she is soon to have, namely, a first-class Turkish bath house.â” The fact that Knoxville called itself a real city in the early 1890s, and didn't even have a Turkish bath house, had apparently been some cause for embarrassment.

The article goes on to announce that a Prof. J.D. Bass, â“a gentleman of 18 years experience in the business,â” had moved here from Chicago to set it up. The cost of remodeling a few bathrooms into a Turkish bath house was a reported $5,600â"quite a lot of money for a remodeling back then, probably more than $100,000 in modern dollars. â“Besides Turkish baths, Russian, electric, and vapor baths will also be given by the professor.â”  

So, it was electric, and Turkish, even back then. References to Professor Bass after that startup are rare, and it's unclear whether he settled in Knoxville. I have no idea how long the Schmids kept up the Turkish-bath annex afterward. We do know the Schmids ran â“bathsâ” in that place for several years afterward. Rudolph Schmid died in 1895, but his family kept the barbershop and baths going for about a decade after that.

I got several responses from folks enthusiastic about the idea that the concept of the Turkish bath should be revived in downtown Knoxville. It could be just what the place needs. That and, say, a grocery.


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