Tangled Ends: A Literary Shrine in Transition, the Tennessee Terrace, and Poor Rose's Lobotomy

Over the summer we lost the Deka Bakari gallery, a nice little art shop that opened about a year and a half before in a tough spot.

It was a charming place, a sunny split-level gallery in the bottom floor of the 1924 Cook Building with an unpredictable array of art. Friendly proprietors Thaddeus and Jane George were unusually gracious hosts.

But it was out of the way. Despite all the new excitement downtown, the 20-odd square blocks south of Church Street—which incidentally includes the entirety of the original 1790s territorial capital known as Knoxville—remain a sort of banker/bureaucrat district that still dies daily at 6 p.m., with only a few admirable exceptions to that rule: the Bistro, Cairo Cafe, Dazzo's Pizza. Plus the Bijou, of course, on those nights when they have a show. Residences remain rare in this district.

With little but parking southeast of Gay and Church, there's rarely practical reason to be on this sidewalk, climbing this hill to walk by 221 Cumberland and be tempted to walk in. Maybe it'll be different if they ever build Sentinel Tower on State. Other off-register condo rehabs like the Glencoe and the Elliott, which appear to be nearing completion, may help some.

But for now this sidewalk on the 200 block of Cumberland gets foot traffic from a trickle of people in the morning and the evening, walking to and from their cars. Even on First Fridays, when thousands of people come downtown to look at art, they gravitate toward busier blocks: Market Square, Gay north of Union, sometimes the Old City. Deka Bakari wasn't near any other gallery; you had to go there deliberately.

Still, they often drew a crowd, and for a year and a half the Georges offered us access to a historic space which is more famous in some parts of the world than Neyland Stadium is. The Huddle, the way-offbeat bar most referenced in Cormac McCarthy's novel Suttree, was right here. The scruffy bohemian refuge had been closed and dark for more than 25 years before the Georges opened their gallery. The Huddle is described so vividly in the novel that an avant-garde German band named themselves for it, and every McCarthy freak who comes to town wants to know exactly where it was.

Fortunately it wasn't empty for long. Organized Play, a new store for comics and games—the first of its kind in my memory downtown—is freshly open, and seems a worthy successor. It offers space for hanging out, which is what the Huddle was most famous for.

Speaking of Neyland Stadium, I've had a look at the grand new neo-moderne Tennessee Terrace section on the west side. I haven't been inside the thing, and don't expect an invitation, but it looks all right from the ground.

As a kid I was a little embarrassed about Neyland Stadium, which always looked unfinished, with no skin on its outside, obviously not built to be seen from anywhere except its own seats.

However, under the influence of a couple of architecture profs who revel in it, some years ago I began seeing it differently, and bragging on it. They admire the fact that it's architectural history made visible, like a cross section. You could see the old Coach Neyland-era masonry stadium, but also the modern steel stadium accommodating upper decks, wrapped around it. An inspired postmodern stadium, I gathered, might be built just like that. That aspect's still intact, at least at the moment.

I'm obliged to point out it's not Knoxville's first "Tennessee Terrace." That was the original name of the Andrew Johnson Hotel on Gay Street, when it rose in 1928 as suddenly the tallest building in East Tennessee. Tennessee Terrace was probably a better name for it, but as its mortar was drying, East Tennessee's only president experienced an unlikely resurgence in popularity, 50 years after his death. It lasted roughly through the 1942 Van Heflin movie, Tennessee Johnson. Then his reputation plummeted to even deeper depths than it had been before and stayed there. But it was during that window of posthumous glory, when Andrew Johnson seemed like a simple hero of the American frontier, that Knoxville jumped on the opportunity to host the tallest building in the world named after an impeached president.

Clarence Brown Theatre's noir production of A Streetcar Named Desire, a memorably complex show with Knoxville native Dale Dickey as Blanche, stirred up an old rumor.

The tragedy of playwright Tennessee Willliams' beloved sister, Rose, an emotionally troubled debutante who was eventually lobotomized, is believed to have inspired some of Williams' darker work. There's likely some Rose in Blanche.

The rumor I've been hearing again this fall is that Rose's lobotomy was performed in Knoxville. Neither the playwright nor his sister ever lived here, though Knoxville was the Williams' old family home, and they often visited. Rose in particular enjoyed extended stays with her aunts in Knoxville. According to her brother's memoirs, it was at a series of debutante balls in 1927 in Knoxville that Rose began exhibiting early signs of insanity.

I've never run across any solid evidence she was institutionalized here, but wondered what was stoking that old story afresh this year—until a friend noted that Wikipedia's biographical entry for Tennessee Williams states as fact that she got the lobotomy in Knoxville in 1937. Typically, they offer no source. According to the scholarly printed-on-paper biographies I know of, the operation took place at Farmington State, in Missouri. There's some dispute about the year—the best-researched biography, Tom, states that it was in 1943—but I don't know of any reputable source that holds it was performed in Knoxville.

It's easy to understand, though, how the rumor got started. One of Williams' best-known plays, which is also a movie, is called Suddenly Last Summer. In it, the New Orleans-area mental institution where the young woman (Elizabeth Taylor in the movie) is to get a lobotomy is called Lion's View—spelled that way. The original name for Knoxville's mental institution was Lyons View. That's probably not coincidence. But it's not biography, either.