Ghost of Christmases Past: A Rare Commissioned House by George Barber

As Jack Neely observed in last week's column about a Christmas murder mystery, violence was regular part of the holiday's Victorian observance. Today's conservatives might deplore the so-called "War on Christmas," but in 1880s Knoxville, people celebrated the season with jingle bells and shotgun shells, as well as more than a few gunfights.

The gunfire wasn't all that would seem alien about the city sidewalks of 125 years ago. Hanging on my office wall is a print of an old lithograph, a bird's-eye view of Knoxville dated 1886. Panoramas like it were popular back in the Victorian era, the perfect Christmas gift for the Chamber of Commerce booster on your list.

At first glance, it looks familiar. There's downtown perched on the bluff between the creeks, surrounded by the old neighborhoods (then new and not yet served by trolleys). What's truly striking about it, though, is how few of the structures on it are still there. The neighborhoods that surround downtown in that old lithograph are all but gone—urban renewaled into oblivion or buried under highways or high-rises (downtown west of Market was mostly residential in those days). And even the buildings that look familiar might be fooling you. The "Million-Dollar Fire" erased the big retail emporiums along Gay Street's east side 12 years after the print was published. The courthouse, a few churches, and a handful of other buildings here and there are all that remain.

And much of what we think of as the historic parts of town hadn't been built yet. Old North Knoxville, Parkridge, plus Fourth and Gill north of Gill were still farmland. And even the city's western "suburbs" stopped around 15th street, held back by the crumbling ramparts of Fort Sanders.

Although it's hidden behind the wooden hills at the top edge of the lithograph, this house on Grainger was already around 30 years old in 1886. Its owner ran a mill on First Creek (the mill-pond covered much of what's now the Broadway Shopping Center). In the 1890s, the miller's son remodeled the old farmhouse into a much showier home. A rare bit of commission work by Knoxville mail-order architect George Barber, the transformation added the massive double-decked front porch framed by graceful fluted columns as well as the full set of formal rooms behind it—back-to-back parlors and a large dining room with the original built-in china cabinet. More recent additions include a large deck in back, off the kitchen, overlooking a deep lot that slopes down to the First Creek Greenway. m

1319 Grainger Ave.

3 bdrm, 2 bath

2,700 sq. ft.


Bob Evridge

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