From several points of view, the columned old brick building looks agreeably out of place, like a Greek Revival spirit levitating over a less orderly city, having decided against a landing.
Lincoln Memorial University will open its new law school in that old building on its hill overlooking Henley and Summit Hill. That’s welcome news. It wouldn’t be quite right to put another condo there, and I’m not sure it would work as a disco or a boutique.
It’s good, of course, that Knoxville’s largest antebellum building will be used, and therefore preserved. It’ll be good to have law students downtown, even if they don’t spend as much on booze, per capita, as undergraduates. Hope they’re careful on those front steps.
And, with considerable luck, we’ll stop calling it “Old City Hall.” It’s a historical misnomer, kind of a careless shorthand for a complicated site.
It did serve as Knoxville City Hall for about 55 years, sure enough, and could still pass for a city hall in a movie set. But it wasn’t built to be a city hall, and it served that purpose for only about one third of its distinguished history. It was built to be the Tennessee School for the Deaf; or, as it was known in the 19th century, the Deaf and Dumb Asylum.
The word asylum has suffered some connotative inversions in the last century or so, but when they built this building 160 years ago, that noun implied nothing about insanity; it was a synonym for “sanctuary” or “refuge.” It was something you wouldn’t mind having downtown. The institution was a progressive icon, one of the first few schools for the deaf in the nation.
Construction commenced in May, 1848, with admirable pomp. The imposing building was built on what were then the outskirts of Knoxville, then a town known mainly as a defunct state capital, former home of several dead senators, now stranded without rail connections and only seasonal steamboat traffic. At the time, the other school on the other Hill, East Tennessee University, was a strictly regional college with no statewide status and only a few dozen students. The legislature-endowed school for the deaf, then one of only eight in the United States, was a bigger deal. The Deaf and Dumb Asylum, a permanent institution of some progressive national renown, was the first sure proof the town hadn’t been forgotten, and an investment in Knoxville’s previously sketchy future.
A parade formed at the courthouse, as the Knoxville Brass Band, a concession to the unimpaired, led hundreds of marching participants: clergy, politicians, the Young Men’s Literary Society, the Mt. Libanus Lodge of Freemasons, and scholars—both of ETU and the recently organized Tennessee School for the Deaf, which had previously met at a house in East Knoxville.
The procession marched north on Gay Street, as all parades still do, but then hooked to the left into the woods, to a spot “in the midst of a beautiful native grove” in the northwestern corner of Knoxville.
The young Rev. Thomas Humes, the Irish immigrant’s son who was one of the few spirits that kept Knoxville from sinking into oblivion after it had lost any particular reason for existing, was the keynote speaker.
“Here is to rise no splendid temple to a heathen deity,” he declared, “in which an altar shall be enshrined to thundering Jove, or graceful Apollo, or laughing Bacchus; or where a shrouded oracle shall utter its mysterious mummery to anxious questioners, and wily priesthood delude the crowd. No! Instead of these, the useless or the superstitious, Science will find a home and Religion a resting place....”
At the site, the audience sang hymn-like songs to the project. “Let notes of gladness tell / Thoughts that each bosom swell / The work’s begun!” We don’t join in and sing hymns to construction projects anymore. Maybe we should.
The Greek Revival building they built was the most imposing building that had ever been constructed in Knoxville. Present at the cornerstone-laying was a mysterious unnamed “architect.” Local brick mason Jacob Newman was the contractor, and some speculate he was also the architect, based on aspects of the design that are contrary to school-taught architectural principles. We assume he had help building the thing, but maybe it wasn’t much. It took him four years to complete the main building and both its wings. When it was finished, it was the most impressive building in the half-dead town of mostly cheap wooden and brick structures. It was often mentioned as if it were the city’s chief asset.
By the time it was just 20 years old, it had already had a fascinating history. It’s not unusual for an old building to get called a “Civil War hospital.” If a public building near a battlefield had a roof, chances are one or more wounded soldiers got dragged there to recover or die. The Asylum really was a hospital, with surgeons and a nursing staff. Especially during the Union occupation, Knoxville was a major depot for wounded soldiers from all over the region. The Asylum sometimes accommodated more than 2,000 patients.
And this will be at least the second time the Asylum’s ever served as a hall of higher education. Because the university was heavily damaged by the war, and the deaf school hadn’t reorganized yet, in March, 1866, East Tennessee University reopened in the Asylum, with just about 20 students. The university’s president was the same Thomas Humes who’d heralded the building’s future at the dedication 18 years earlier.
After TSD moved to Island Home in 1924, it became City Hall. Among the first municipal issues contemplated in the building by city manager Louis Brownlow was an astonishingly forward-thinking plan that would have redesigned downtown to control sprawl, blight, pollution, and laid out a campus of public buildings that would have allowed for something like smart growth.
Like most ambitious plans considered in that hall over the next 50 years, it shriveled when certain factions fretted about the cost. About the only reason not to regret that the City Planning Commission’s “Comprehensive City Plan for Knoxville” didn’t happen was that it would have called for the demolition of the old Asylum.