by Jack Neely
When you redo a particularly nasty basement bathroom, you don't necessarily expect to discover a stone fireplace that may have been built for Gov. John Sevier. But then you never know.
It was one of several surprises that Pete and Linda Claussen encountered when they took on an unusual project. For reasons they have a hard time explaining, they decided to move their thriving railroad freight concern into a historic house in downtown Knoxville.
â“I like historic stuff,â” shrugs Pete Claussen. â“And it's the right size for our company's purposes.â” Gulf and Ohio has its headquarters here, with a staff of 11. The small company employs about 90 in all, and moves about 40,000 carloads a year of steel, corn, concrete, sometimes Bush Beans, mainly in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama. With daughter Karen's help, it also operates the Three Rivers Rambler, Knoxville's only passenger train, which runs short excursions in warm weather from Volunteer Landing.
The former TVA lawyer originally from New Jersey put G&O together in 1985. Claussen just wanted to run a railroad. â“I did not want to end up kicking myself for not doing it,â” he says. Until a few months ago, they were based in the L&N station. Now they're in the Park House. Starting next, they'll be hosting some open houses to show the place off.
Though it's one of Tennessee's oldest towns, Knoxville's not known for its early architecture. Of the hundreds of buildings built in Knoxville during the onetime state capital's dramatic first half-century, only four are still standing. The James Park house is one.
For years, people have agreed the old James Park house was a pretty place, and a historic place. That much is given. It's just that no one's ever quite figured what to do with it.
Tennessee's first governor wasn't quite sure, either. John Sevier lived for a time in a cabin at lowly Central and Cumberland, but reportedly wanted to build Tennessee's first governor's mansion in a more prominent spot. The story goes that he laid the foundation and began building walls, but ran out of money, or energy.
For more than a decade, it was apparently just a prominent foundation at the corner of what was then Crooked and Fourth. James Park, of County Donegal, arrived in Knoxville in March, 1798, perhaps just as Sevier was despairing about his house project.
James Park, the elder, finished the house in 1812 and lived here with his large family; Park was a merchant, and happened to be the second, and fourth, mayor of Knoxville. He was also a prominent businessman and an early journalist, an elegant writer, perhaps to compensate for what may have been a speech impediment.
The house originally faced east, toward town, on a big lot, but the Parks eventually gave in to the pressures of a growing town and sold their front yard, then built an ell to direct the house more toward the nearest sidewalk, on Cumberland.
The Park family was the only family that ever lived there, and they occupied it for about a century. James Park, the younger, a prominent Presbyterian minister, was born in the house in 1822 and, 90 years later, died there.
It's been so many things since thenâ"an ENT's office, the medical academyâ"that there are few traces of the Park family here. But one is scratched into the Cumberland Avenue window of Pete Claussen's office. The name â“Sallie,â” scratched in a child's hand, perhaps with a diamond, on two panes facing Cumberland. Sallie Park was born in 1855, suggesting this, maybe downtown Knoxville's oldest example of self-referential graffiti, may date from the time of the Civil War. The Parks left the house for a while, during the war; there were shootings right outside their gates.
Claussen means to install an antique railroad semaphore signal in the yard on the Walnut Street side as â“environmental art.â” Sticklers may think it clashes with the house, which was already old, and old-fashioned, by the time Knoxville had any railroad service. In fact, it was considered old-fashioned for most of the history of this habitually unsentimental city. We're lucky it's still here.
In 1910, Annie Booth McKinney, a local literary philanthropist and sometime historical novelist, admired â“its loyalty to the past from which no aggressive modernity has swerved it.â”
She added, â“Today the old house stands staunch, finds itself the admiration, and envy, of possessors of Queen Anne tragedies and bay-windowed monstrosities.â”
What's considered worth saving is a moving target.
In 1918, House Beautiful ran a prominent feature story about the Park house as a â“quaint relic of antebellum days, famed in book and story as the â‘House of a Thousand Memories.'â” The focus of the article was on the fact that the historic house had become central to several war-effort programs led by women for the Red Cross and the National Council of Defense.
â“The old hall with fan lights and well-worn threshold and its sunburst stairway is really and truly the â‘handshake' of the home. No electric button announces the guestâ"but instead a purple cord is jerked and one hears the faintest, sweetest tinkle of a bell somewhere in a back hall. No wonder Knoxville people love this old homeâ.â”
The national magazine referred to the women's â“luncheon parties on the piazza,â” most of them organized around the war effort, and mentions offhand that Jeanette Rankin, the Republican pacifist from Montana who was America's first congresswoman, had been a recent guest.
The interior had been radically remodeled in the 20th century, destroying the original stairway to build one more convenient for business, but using photographs, the Claussens reconstructed the original, including the sunburst woodwork, the â“handshakeâ” that House Beautiful remarked on.
They've taken some pains to be authentic. To fill the gaps in the heart-pine floors, they used planks from a demolished distillery in Kentucky. Urbanists may grumble about the fact that the new entrance is oriented toward a rear parking lot, not to the street; the old and most obvious entrance is still there, except that no gate in the picket fence allows us to approach it. But the current entrance is at least on the same side of the house as the original 1812 entrance. The Claussens add their own marks, always with an eye toward the historic. When they couldn't think of anything to do with the medical academy's 1964 auditorium addition, a large room with a sloping floor and a history of structural problems, they demolished it. Despite the column of new construction, which includes fire stairs, modern restrooms, and an elevator, from the street the house now looks more like it did in the 19th century than it has in a long time.
The renovation's most unusual feature may be the stony flooring in the hallways of the new part. Visitors may take each floor for an odd abstract design, but each is an architectural map of the neighborhood. It was the idea of their architect, Lee Ingram, executed by the flooring contractor Bluejack. The bottom, basement-level floorâ"the only one John Sevier may have had something to do withâ"shows one red rectangle, surrounded by a network of streets. It represents the Park house when it was first built.
It's tough to find detailed records of what stood where in early 1800s Knoxville, but in those days when the frontier capital was centered on Gay and Market Streets, it's possible that this house was here on this less cluttered side of town all by itself. Early 1900s Knoxville is on the ground floor; it's reconstructed from Victorian-era Sanborn fire-insurance maps, which feature painstaking outlines of layouts. The second floor is contemporary downtown Knoxville, taken, appropriately, from Google Earth.
The house is decorated with a combination of bona fide antiques and whimsical folk art (â“People love antiques,â” says Linda Claussen, â“but they do get a little serious .â”) One modern bathroom includes a large walk-in safe.
The basement floor is the surprise, a sort of homage to the house Sevier never built. It includes a long, rugged antique table from a Loudon tavern.
That bottom floor is where there was an ill-used commode with a curious pattern of arched stone above an old metal door for ash-removal. The Claussens discovered it was actually an ancient fireplace. Linda Claussen shows a photograph of another, identical one, with sculpted fieldstone in the same arc. It's in the 1818 Craighead Jackson house, five blocks away, and the Park House's closest contemporary in downtown Knoxville. It suggests the same stonemasonâ"or the same architect.
Outside, two businessmen are walking down Market Street. One, overheard in mid-sentence, gestures over to the Sevier/Park/Medical Academy House, matter-of-factly: â“Pete Claussen's place, we now call itâ.â”
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