Pronounced Krootch

The roots of a park, and a rare family

I didn't have high hopes for it, 16 years ago, when it went in. I was a cynical youth, and I thought it looked tacky, too small, and wildly out of place. A little sliver of a half-park on Market Street, obviously squeezed in to accommodate a private parking lot for bank vice-presidents, which was hidden from the park by an obviously phony faux-natural waterfall, like something you'd see in a miniature golf course, pouring into a phony tiled brook, ending, suddenly, in a pool, like no other stream in Tennessee. In 1985, Krutch Park seemed corny and embarrassing.

But then Krutch Park changed. The design didn't change; the things in it grew. Trees grew tall and green and lush. Recently, The Tennessee Handbook, a comprehensive travel guide published in California, called Krutch Park "the most delightful downtown park in the entire state...an inspired piece of greenery...." Today I'm amazed that I once made fun of it. On a nice day, I take a sandwich in there and ponder things.

Krutch Park represents a once-dynamic family that left no descendants to remind us of how to pronounce their name. That was with a long U—krootch—and even that pronunciation was a compromise with thick-tongued Americans.

There's never been another family like the Krutches. Descended from a pair of immigrants who claimed German aristocratic lineage, they first spelled their name Krützsch. For Knoxvillians' convenience, they graciously deleted a couple of consonants and an umlaut. Raised with a flock of tropical birds in an elaborate house on old East Hill, most of the first generation of them were musicians or artists. Uncle Oskar Krutch, the concert pianist who allegedly played in somebody's White House, died young, circa 1912, just after a show. Aunt Lou wore pants and was a sort of feminist. She went on hiking trips by herself, a century ago, when few men dared to do so. The most famous was Uncle Charles, the impressionist landscape painter that some called the Corot of the South.

Their brother Edward was the only one with any business sense; he worked for years for the wholesale drug firm of Sanford, Chamberlain, and Albers, and did very well for himself. He was also the only one of his generation who reproduced; the eccentric Krutch gene reemerged with the next generation.

Edward's eldest, Alfred, was the wild one, always getting in trouble. The youngest, Joe, was the intellectual, critical one. The middle son, Charlie, was a thin, sickly child; for much of his youth, his parents didn't expect him to survive, and their low expectations surely rubbed off on him.

Alfred and Joe both left home early; after a few years as a bookstore clerk in Knoxville, Alfred took off for New York and more or less vanished. Joe graduated from UT in 1915 and left for New York, too.

Charlie was the loyal, homebound son, living with his parents on West Main, in the shadow of UT's Hill. It's not surprising that he was with his elderly father that day in 1923, at the old Empire building on Market Street. As Mr. Krutch stepped out of the elevator on the second floor, the operator slammed it into motion and pinned old Mr. Krutch between the second and third floors. The operator, a midget, said he didn't know how it happened. That was the way the old man died, Edward, the most mild-mannered and practical of all the Krutches.

By then, Charlie's little brother Joe was famous, as a big-shot drama critic for the Nation, as a psychological biographer of Poe, even as a philosopher, the author of the controversial manifesto The Modern Temper. The world knew him as Joseph Wood Krutch, and he had a reputation as a firebrand, a maverick thinker, later a seminal environmentalist.

But as his tall, thin, big brother turned 40, Charlie Krutch was unmarried, unschooled, still living with his mom in their house on West Main, working occasionally as a salesman or repairman for dictaphones, displaying little outward sign of drive or artistic talent. He wasn't the sort of guy you'd bet would live to see an exhibit of his own work in New York's Museum of Modern Art. Somehow, though, that's what happened.

Probably from his namesake uncle, the impressionist painter who'd made a living as a photographer in Knoxville studios, he developed an interest in photography, and the middle-aged repairman began to freelance for the local papers. In 1934, at the age of 47, Charlie Krutch got a job with the new federal agency in town, TVA, as a staff photographer.

For whatever reason—envy of his famous brother, an urge to make up for lost time, or just some German aristocratic impulse—Charlie Krutch took his work a little beyond his job description. He didn't take institutional shots you might expect of a federal employee with a Kodak. He visited TVA's dams and factories at strange times, at dawn, at night, experimenting with lenses and filters. He returned to headquarters with some of the most dramatic photographs ever taken of industrial sites. In Krutch photos, dams glow. Spillways gush. Generators throb.

TVA was still chic among intellectuals in 1941, and New York's Museum of Modern Art picked a number of Krutch photographs to show the agency at its most dramatic. National photographic magazines praised Krutch's "extraordinary effects." Later, his photos were used to illustrate a nationally distributed opus by New York Times reporter and novelist R.L. Duffus, The Valley And Its People. Krutch photographs would end up in about a dozen books.

Meanwhile, he still lived with his mom. Few claimed to know him well. Rather than joining his TVA colleagues at the S&W, they say, Krutch spent his lunch breaks at the stock exchange, buying and selling. He never talked about how much he was making.

Sometime in his 50s, Krutch felt he was accomplished enough to marry for the first time, to a schoolteacher from the midwest. They lived with his elderly mother. A few years after she died, when he was about 65, Charlie Krutch retired from TVA and moved away from home for the first time, to the nice new subdivision Westmoreland.

By the time his wife died in 1960, Charlie Krutch was the only member of the family in Knoxville. Charlie Krutch spent his last 20 years gardening, tending his 400 shrubs, and, occasionally, speculating on some stock.

Charlie Krutch, the kid nobody expected to survive childhood, died in 1981, when he was 94. All the people he would have surprised by living so long were dead. But he did surprise us with the fact that he'd been a millionaire; and he surprised the city by willing about $1.3 million for an urban park. Since Krutch was a baby, people had complained of downtown's lack of a park. Now it would have one. It would be, he stipulated, "a quiet retreat with trees, shrubs, flowers, and other plantings for the pleasure and health of the public."

Today, several of Joseph Wood Krutch's books are still in print, and he's quoted in hundreds of other books; he's even in the Norton Anthology of Nature Writing. Charlie Krutch's books are out of print. He did leave us a nice park, one thing this city has done right in recent years, even if most people mispronounce its name.

Today there are plans to cut down most of the trees in Krutch Park, which are, admittedly, short-lived Bradford pears, probably a bad choice to begin with. We can only hope they do it with care, and that they remember how weird the place looked without big trees.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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