Out on Dandridge Avenue, the old Williams house sulks. Painted white and boarded up with plywood, the old brick mansion is a moody old place, with its own moody history.
You might have heard its story: Malinda White, youngest daughter of Knoxville founder James White, built the place around 1825 as a surprise for her husband, Col. John Williams, the veteran and former senator. He was then on a very long business trip as U.S. ambassador to the Federation of Central America, the first U.S. diplomat to a Latin-American nation. In 1828, when he returned to Knoxville after four years in Guatemala City, he was indeed surprised. Instantly he was the butt of downtown jokes, the guy who couldn't control his wife's mansion-building habits. Still, he condescended to live in the handsome place for the last nine years of his life. He died there, allegedly from the bite of a scorpion. A few months later, his high-spirited widow, Malinda, killed herself.
Several of the Williamses' interesting descendants lived in this house over the years. Long after they sold the property, even after it became the campus of what was known in 1885 as the Colored Deaf and Dumb School, they'd visit. In 1957, the playwright Tennessee Williams, great-great grandson of John and Malinda, made a pilgrimage to the old place with his favorite Aunt Ella; he described it in his memoirs.
Today the Williams' old backyard looks suddenly different, with dramatic ravines and little knolls. Some of the knolls have pennants on them. The old Williams place is now a golf course.
Ten years ago, it might have seemed a naive idea. Build a golf course in the inner city: let them eat cake. But Tiger Woods has shifted some preconceptions about the sort of folks who play golf; he now encourages inner-city golf through his foundation, the First Tee Program. It's no longer all that surprising when black kids, even disadvantaged black kids, show an interest in golf and cultivate it as a sport or even a profession.
Developer and sometime politician Archie Ellis says there are 1,100 kids within a mile radius of the old Williams place, Many in single-parent households. He says the game of golf, properly taught, can teach the morals of honesty and integrity. Through his company, Partners and Associates, he's overseeing this project, which is funded largely by the city and county governments, with large donations from Pilot, KUB, Home Federal, Scripps, and several citizens' groups. Grading work has been underway for months; at the bottom is Williams Creek, which gives the 18-hole par-3 course its name. On a 27-acre spread, it has the makings of one of the most dramatic golf courses in town. Use of it will be free to local kids.
The derelict old Williams house itself, owned by Nashville descendants of Malinda and Col. John, is not part of the project. Another old brick building directly behind it is. But nobody knows what it is.
What it looks like is an old-fashioned brick schoolhouse. Its precise age and original purpose has so far stymied the experts, but it surely originated during the 80-year stretch when the Williams estate was the Colored Deaf and Dumb School, or, as it would be renamed in more sensitive times, the Tennessee School for the Deaf, Negro Department. Ellis and company want to renovate it as a clubhouse.
Founded in 1879, the black school for the deaf found its permanent home here by 1885. Just before Plessy vs. Ferguson, it arrived at an awkward era for minority education. Most of TSD's teachers in the 1800s had been white, but in 1901, the race-obsessive state Legislature declared that true segregation meant that no whites could be teachers or principals in black schools. TSD hired black teachers, and some of the whites at TSD changed their titles to "superintendent" or "manager."
Over the years, its buildings got built onto, torn down, shifted around. TSD's "Negro Department" on Dandridge had grown to accommodate 80 kids before 1965, when integration intervened, and its black students joined the white kids at the Island Home campus. Later, the Sertoma Club took over the site, using it as an education center for the mentally handicapped. They used this building as a gym and crafts center.
It fell into disrepair. In 1981, the ell that once connected the old Williams house with the brick T-shaped building farther back collapsed. The sturdy old building out back remained. But it's hard to tell for sure just how old it is, or what it was. The gym interior is cinderblock, and from the inside, it could pass for a post-war building.
But its brick exterior ornamentation has convinced some experts who've looked at it that it's Victorian.
You can make out a brick building here in the grainy background of a 1925 photograph, but it just adds to the mystery. That building doesn't look as big as this one, lacking the broad seven-windows-wide front entrance. Its historical status may influence funding its renovation, but the usually dependable sources for such information offer few clues.
In 1895, the TSD moved its dairy to the black school to take advantage of this rural acreage, and built a "brick dairy house" on the property. Could this building, or some part of it, have originated as that 1895 dairy house? Or is it a circa 1950 auditorium, built in an unusually old-fashioned style? Or something else?
Silent and boarded up, 100 feet away, the moody old Williams house knows, but it's keeping mum.