Under a Bad Sign
Our infinitely moveable historic markers
by Jack Neely
It turns out several folks have been perplexed by the directional signs on Main Street at Henley—especially the one pointing to mysterious Downtown Historic Sites and Public Parking over toward the Henley Street Bridge. Most surprising was a prominent official of the Metropolitan Planning Commission who says she’s been complaining to the city about these nonsensical signs for years.
Yet they remain, still there to fool the out-of-town rubes for at least another week. Somebody somewhere is damn sure there are downtown historic sites somewhere over toward the Henley Street Bridge, and downtown parking, too.
Engineer and organist Bill Snyder tends to agree with my thesis that at least one of the signs probably made sense when it was manufactured, but was placed 90-degrees wrong. I wish I could remember the Laurel and Hardy routine where Stan moves a sign around, not noticing that how a directional sign is placed turns out to be a fairly important matter.
My friend R.B. Morris notes that it’s not the only misleading sign in town. There’s the sign marking one of Knoxville’s most famous historic sites. Historians say the western rampart of Fort Sanders, site of the deadliest fighting in the Knoxville area during the Civil War, was at about the intersection of Laurel Avenue and 17th Street. It’s the crest of the long ridge that forms the Fort Sanders neighborhood.
There’s one of those old-fashioned state historic signs there, near the Confederate monument. Embossed in metal, the sign announces, “Fort Sanders, a bastioned earthwork on the ridge two blocks north of here , was the scene of Gen. James Longstreet’s unsuccessful assault upon the Federal defenses of Knoxville at dawn, Nov. 29, 1863.”
Well. Even if you know nothing about the battle, and care less, you can hardly help but notice the dismaying absence of a ridge two blocks north of the sign. Two blocks north is just a downhill slope toward I-40.
R.B. says an accurate sign there disappeared years ago. He figured out what happened, and it’s a story that’s somehow not surprising. Maybe unable to come up with funds to get somebody to actually write text for a new sign, the state historical authorities merely reproduced an existing sign—the one at the corner of Cumberland and 16th—which with its phrase “two blocks north of here” gestures up toward the site of the fort. Then they installed it at the site of the fort. So now, at the site of Fort Sanders, there’s a sign written for Cumberland Avenue, exhorting the pilgrim to look two blocks farther north still. (I didn’t look to see if maybe there’s a third, somewhere in the vicinity of Forest Avenue.)
I have come to understand that it doesn’t matter so much where the sign is located or what it indicates. The fact that there’s a sign at all is enough. It’s Tennessee Zen.
R.B.’s mention of that place-specific historical reference moving to another place reminded me of one of my favorite peeves.
On the parking lot side of the reproduction of James White’s Fort at the corner of East Hill Avenue and Hall of Fame Drive is a lovely, dark old iron sign. It declares, “JAMES WHITE, FOUNDER OF KNOXVILLE, ERECTED THE CITY’S FIRST DWELLING ON THIS BLOCK IN 1786.”
If an innocent tourist didn’t know any better, he or she might well assume that James White erected the city’s first dwelling on that block in 1786. That’s what it says, without amendment. But as a dwindling number of mortal people know, that sign was originally installed several blocks away, on a building at the corner of State Street and Clinch. That’s where James White’s original house and fort was. It’s now the site of the State Street Garage.
Apparently someone thought it would look better over here, bolted to the log fort they rebuilt over on East Hill around 1970—a spot that, incidentally, wasn’t even annexed into Knoxville until after the Civil War. It does look pretty good there. But if it remains, this plaque needs another plaque explaining the old plaque.
I’ve brought the matter up to a few people involved with the fort over the years, and always just get a shrug and a smile. Somebody important wanted it there, and there it will remain.
About a decade ago I was involved in some of the programming for the Volunteer Landing project. I was grateful there was such an interest in history among the city leaders of the project, and an open-mindedness about how to interpret it. It was generally a very good thing. But there’s one detail that still nags at me when I think about it.
I helped come up with some quotes to be carved into marble down there. Most of the ones I found didn’t matter where they were installed; they were just about the river and Knoxville’s connection to it. However, a couple of them, referred to writers who lived near certain spots on the river.
One was Frances Hodgson Burnett, the English-born novelist who spent some formative years in an old mansion near Henley Street, just uphill from the river. The other, almost a century later, was the black poet Nikki Giovanni, who was born and partially raised on Mulvaney, uphill from First Creek, which was then the black part of town. We found appropriate places for their quotations, near their homes, on opposite sides of downtown.
When they were installed, I learned that the two had been switched. I was told it was an aesthetic decision; one was a horizontal stone that looked better over here; the other was a vertical stone that looked better over there, a quarter-mile away. Of course.
Maybe there’s some poetic justice in it. Nikki Giovanni is famous for her militant Black Power poetry. The stone announcing that her Mulvaney Street home was “near this spot” is right underneath the Henley Street Bridge. It infers that her family desegregated the white part of town a couple of decades early.
In Knoxville, history is malleable. The assumption, I think, is that nobody actually reads our signs, and if they do, the confusion serves them right, because they’ve got too much time on their hands anyway.
Our habit of liberal interpretation presents opportunities for the enterprising. Maybe the precise geographic coordinates of where something happened don’t matter at all. So maybe we can start marketing Knoxville, Cradle of Civilization.