Upon buying a hundred-year-old house, one of the first things many people do is start digging into its history. When was it built? Who built it? What did they do? Many hours at the Knox County Public Library's McClung collection may follow, squinting over microfilms of old city directories, or trying to decipher the fanciful script of old deeds.
What you find might be surprising. For instance, our old Victorian on Washington Avenue was a spec house, built as an investment by the owner. The first occupant was a renter. And it turned over steadily for the first 15 years of its existence.
Other than the streetcar that ran down the street and the number of renters (long-term mortgages were rare back then, so it was common for even middle-class families to rent), the neighborhood wasn't all that different from a modern middle class suburb in, say, West Knoxville. Or, for that matter, the Fort Sanders of James Agee's Knoxville, Summer 1915, where neighbors were primarily nodding acquaintances who engaged in evening small talk over yard work while their children played.
The first long-term owners actually turned out be the same family who subsequently divided it into apartments. We met their daughter once, an elderly lady who dropped by one day while we were working to turn the place back into a single-family home, essentially undoing what her family had done way back in 1920s.
Typically, when we talk of "researching our house's history," we do it with a rather narrow and romanticized concept of what counts as "history." Our house had been a single-family home for less than a third of its hundred or so years, but it's those years we tend to dwell on, not the subsequent 60-some-odd.
Stranger, still, the rediscovery and revitalization of these old homes has taken on a historical significance of its own—not to mention a fair amount of history. Consider this weekend's home tour in historic Fourth and Gill. The tour itself is celebrating its 20th anniversary. And the neighborhood's renaissance dates back even further, to early '70s social activism and the mid-'70s "back to the city" movement.
That history is evident in the homes on the tour. Several, such as this house at 1023 Eleanor, are repeats from that first tour 20 years ago. Originally renovated back to single-family in 1989, it has passed through a series of subsequent owners. Another house on Luttrell, renovated back to single family circa 1982, dates back even farther, to the earliest days of Fourth and Gill's renaissance. In that regard, the Fourth and Gill tour represents a time capsule of two different turn-of-the century eras in Knoxville's center-city history—its explosive 1890s growth and subsequent 1990s rebirth.
Historic Fourth and Gill 20th Anniversary Tour of Homes
Sunday, April 18 from 1-6 p.m.
$10 per person
(children under 12 free).
Begins: Central United Methodist Church, 201 3rd Ave.