A Span of Years
One last look at the Church Avenue Viaduct
by Jack Neely
I meant to write an appreciation of the old Church Avenue Viaduct while people could still go have one last look at its art-moderne stylings, but look: it’s already gone. They’d hardly closed the old concrete bridge last week before they started taking it apart.
When they built it around 1937, it spanned no highways. What it crossed, far below, was a broad creek, and a lush floodplain.
It served as a portal between two Knoxvilles. On the west side were the great bastions of the white establishment, the News-Sentinel , the First Presbyterian Church, KUB, the Tennessee Theatre.
On the east end was no Coliseum or Hall of Fame, but old Mulvaney Street and East Church. Besides the old Post Sign Co. warehouse, there were a few little businesses like the Ritz Beer Garden, an all-black club, which would soon become part of the Bridgeway Inn, a black restaurant maybe named for the new viaduct. There was a Standard Oil filling station, some beauty shops, some coal venders, and the Skylight Tea Room. But mostly it was residential: single-family homes, blocks and blocks of them, back when, just beyond Mulvaney, Temperance and Patton Streets intersected East Church. It was a mixed neighborhood, mostly blacks, but one of the nearest residents to the east end of the new bridge was a launderer named Lee Hong.
Over there was the earliest home of Nikki Giovanni, the poet who was born here when the bridge was about five years old. The Cal Johnson Park she remembered so fondly, a bustling public space with a fountain where mostly black residents rested after a summer day’s labor, bought and sold produce and river-caught fish, and sometimes picked out a song, was right there at the east end of the viaduct.
The bridge connected middle-class black and white Knoxville, but it passed over another population that couldn’t access it quite as conveniently. Deep below the bridge, broad First Creek was lined with modest residences, most of them with no electricity, along crumbling roads.
One sunny Sunday a little over 40 years ago, I was on the sidewalk about halfway across the Church Avenue Viaduct. I was wearing a coat and clip-on tie after church, and probably scuffed my shoes as I peered over the concrete wall. Below me was a parallel world, lush and green, with a big brown creek running through it. Among the mimosas I could see the tin roofs of houses where people lived. For me it was an early clue that my hometown was a little more complicated than the backyards and swimming pools I knew about.
A kid about my age was climbing on the remains of a car on the shore of the creek. He looked up at me. Neither of us waved.
The bronze plaques that gave the bridge’s founding date disappeared a few weeks before they began tearing them down, and local historical authorities don’t know what happened to them. The story of previous bridges at that site is obscure. Until the Civil War and for some time afterwards, Church Street followed the hill down and ended at First Creek. You couldn’t cross the creek casually; traffic ended on its bank.
By the 1880s, there were bridges over First Creek at Clinch, Cumberland, Main, even Vine—but not at Church. The streets that had bridges kept their names as they continued into East Knoxville; the bridgeless streets didn’t continue in name on the other side. So it was that in the 19th century there was another road on the other side of the creek that mirrored Church Street’s course, but it was called Pine Street. It was a little cockeyed, probably because there was what looks in old drawings like a steep ravine opposite Church Street. That may be the reason the city was slow to build a bridge there.
Around 1892, the city finally found the wherewithal to build a bridge across the creek at Church. It’s hard to know what it looked like, but it wasn’t nearly as long as the later viaduct would be. After that, old Pine Street became East Church. About the same time, Church Street became Church Avenue.
You wonder whether white Knoxville could have had a strong motive in the 1930s to build a big concrete bridge stretching almost from State Street toward the Cal Johnson Park. There wasn’t any Coliseum over there, no Marriott, no Hall of Fame. Historian Steve Cotham thinks the viaduct was probably a federal WPA project. And around 1940, at the eastern end of the new viaduct, was the headquarters of WPA’s Community Sanitation Project.
So as not to neglect the businesses and residences left below the viaduct between State and the creek, builders installed a metal staircase. Until it was closed as a safety hazard a year or two ago, I found it useful when parking cheap down on Central.
The bridge has witnessed sea changes in its 70 years. It was 20 years old when the city commenced the urban-renewal-era erasure of nearly everything east of Central except for this bridge. It was about 25 years old at the time of the construction of the Coliseum/Auditorium, and when restaurants and movie theaters on the west end of the bridge began permitting black patrons. It was about 30 at the time of the entombment of First Creek, just before the subsequent construction and seemingly endless mitosis of the James White Parkway.
When all that was done, with the big creek buried and forgotten under the new highway, the old bridge became something a little less dignified, an overpass. But it was used as much as ever. For many people, it was where Dad parked cheap the first time they went to the circus—a tactic remembered years later for a memorable rock show. For a couple of generations of newspapermen working at the nearby News Sentinel /Journal building, the Church Avenue Viaduct was the cheapest place to park downtown. For many years, most parades, the Dogwood Festival, Veterans’ Day, and Christmas, formed along the viaduct.
The concrete bridge’s distinctive embellishments, the angular, art-moderne lines arranged in an uptilt on the decorative railing like sergeant’s stripes or Christmas trees, made it the most distinctive of Knoxville’s older surviving viaducts. The theme won’t be duplicated in the new one. TDOT, more concerned about aesthetics than they used to be, looked into the prospect, but couldn’t find an easy way to do it. However, it’s promised to be as attractive as the new Gay Street Viaduct, with broad sidewalks, a bike lane, and real balustrades. It will be a useful bridge, and probably appealing, as bridges go, but I can’t imagine it will ever be quite as fascinating an experience to cross it as it once was.