McClung: The Collection

Unaccustomed to the Customs House

This past week, the McClung Collection, a.k.a.

swell

Just more of us to love.

While you're waiting for the elevator, you might have a look at the new exhibit on the street level, dedicated to

Knoxville

as it was in 1915, the year Agee made famous with his much-quoted piece that became the lyrics for a famous soprano piece by Samuel Barber. The short film, played in a constant loop, reminds us that the 20th century wasn't an era of constant improvement. That, in spite of the mid-century infusion of TVA, ORNL, the expansion of UT, etc.,

Knoxville

as a city, as a thriving, diverse, urban place, may have peaked about 1915.

The gorgeous new East Tennessee History Center, which is really more or less a doubling of the old 1872 Customs House, has been opening in stages over the last several months, like some sort of Chinese puzzle. Most of the newest wing opened over a year ago, while they completed work on renovating the original building.

The third-floor McClung Collection fully opened just last Thursday. This admirable library of local and regional history is located two floors above the Museum of East Tennessee History, and has certain obvious connections to it. But the McClung Collection is not to be confused with the McClung Museum on the UT campus. It's not even named for the same McClung. McClung Tower is named for another McClung still. In being so generous to Knoxville, the McClung family doomed us to endless generations of confusion and grief.

This past week, the McClung Collection, a.k.a. The Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection, sprawled across the third floor, back into the newly refurbished Customs House, reopening the section where the old federal courtroom was.

It's a wonderful place. Besides being a functional reference library of regional history and genealogy that has made this particular column a lot easier, it has also become maybe the best permanent art gallery of local paintings in the region, with almost certainly the biggest one-location exhibit of the work of Catherine Wiley, Tennessee's best impressionist; as well as that of her mentor Lloyd Branson, a more practical sort of artist, but one with a jag of talent that didn't always come out in his day job as a portraitist. Plus, there's a new collection by local artist Paul J. Long, who had a mighty broad career; I'm still not sure what to make of him. One large surrealist piece, depicting a nightmare landscape that Dali and Bosch somehow missed, is the sort of thing I never expected to see at the McClung Collection.

Much of the art's on the second-floor Great Hall, where offices of the East Tennessee Historical Society are. The former home of the Knox County Archives looks swell, but it's not yet open to the public. The problem is that they haven't yet found a way to secure the hallway, but McClung Collection Director Steve Cotham says they'll work it out somehow.

It's all bright and well-organized and peaceful. I haven't found my way around it yet, but it looks like it won't be hard. At the core of it, the nucleus—the place that, if this were an anthill, the queen would live—is the old reading room. Of all the rooms in downtown Knoxville that don't dispense either pale ale or redemption, it is my favorite. The vaulted courtroom ceiling and natural light always gave it a holy peace. It's like a monastery.

It's useful to study history in a historic place. I don't know all that has happened in this room, but in the early years of the last century when it was the federal courtroom, the outlaw Harvey Logan, a.k.a. Kid Curry, train robber and killer, was tried here. A fat lot of good all the motions and arguments carried on in this room did; the subject of the deliberations escaped from jail on a stolen horse, and was never seen again. I'm sure the room hosted some useful trials.

The ceiling, which used to be a sanguine red, is repainted in a soothing blue. Any sane person would say the light is perfect now. If I didn't remember the old place, I would say so, too. But I do miss some of its monastic gloom, the shade that allowed you to see individual shafts of slanting sunlight soaring in from the Market Street side in the afternoon. There was something conspiratorial about the place, and because most of the light in the room was sunlight, I never felt too bad about spending a sunny afternoon in there. You could tell what the weather was like.

The windows are still there, and the incandescent electric light's appealing; there's just more wattage of it than I'm used to. I'll get used to it. When I'm about 80, I'll appreciate it very much.

My main criticism of the whole building, and for me it's a big, ideological one, is that there's no longer routine stairway access to the third floor, where the McClung Collection is. You want to go up, you have to call the elevator, and stand there and wait. It's required for admittance.

Even if you want to go down, just two floors, you have to call the elevator, and stand there and wait again. And trust that the elevator will come. And trust that once you are inside it, it will not trap you, like a big steel sarcophagus.

I have some personal issues with elevators. The old place had an elevator, but in the dozen years I was a regular, I don't think I ever saw the inside of it. But in encouraging routine exercise for health and obesity prevention, many guidelines advise that we all take the stairs whenever possible. There seem to be fewer and fewer places in Knoxville where that's even allowed. Cotham tells me the elevators-only was mandated by a combination of codes that require fire exits to the outside, and collection security issues that frown on routine exits to the outside, all leveled out and compromised by a committee.

Anyway, if you notice librarians, historians, and newspaper columnists getting tubbier, there's your reason for it. Just more of us to love.

The current floorplan seals off the gorgeous old cast-iron and wood stairway that used to lead up from the Clinch Avenue entrance. It's refurbished, visible through some windows as if it's another exhibit of the way ancient Knoxvillians used to live, operating their legs to achieve new elevations.

While you're waiting for the elevator, you might have a look at the new exhibit on the street level, dedicated to Knoxville as it was in 1915, the year Agee made famous with his much-quoted piece that became the lyrics for a famous soprano piece by Samuel Barber. The short film, played in a constant loop, reminds us that the 20th century wasn't an era of constant improvement. That, in spite of the mid-century infusion of TVA, ORNL, the expansion of UT, etc., Knoxville as a city, as a thriving, diverse, urban place, may have peaked about 1915.

It's a provocative point, if you think about it, and one that may confound some theories of Knoxville's modern progress.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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