So I-40 is closed. TDOT’s detour signs mostly direct us up toward I-640, which from Bearden or UT makes for a very long way to get to, say, Chilhowee Park, especially in this era of $4 gasoline. We propose that we endeavor to forge directly through central Knoxville just like our pioneer forebears in the era of the station wagon. Maybe it’s a blessing, for building our sense of community and a way to connect with this still-interesting city as it exists on the ground. I-40 may have its charms (surely it must have), but what it doesn’t have is history, character, and opportunities to pull over and enjoy an ice-cream cone or a barbecue sandwich or the chance to just stand in the spot where something interesting happened.
The temporary shut-down offers a great opportunity to explore parts of the city we’ve all but forgotten. It’s not all pretty, but if you know what you’re looking for, it’s all at least interesting. Herewith, a subjective guide to why we’re enjoying the lack of the interstate option. The routes, as presented, generally follow a west-to-east pattern for no particular reason except that most people live west of the obstruction. They can be easily reversed.
THE ROUTINE ROUTE
Let’s take it first from one standard detour. Take the old Henley Street exit, and counterintuitively—we know by now that highway driving means ignoring our plaintive sense of direction—turn right, following the sign to Western, to turn left on Western.
Western Avenue, previously known as Asylum, marks the northeastern fringe of Fort Sanders, near the Knoxville Museum of Art, before vaulting over World’s Fair Park, and past the 1905 L&N train station, which served as a major passenger terminal for 65 years; it’s described inside and out in James Agee’s Pulitzer-winning novel, A Death in the Family. Rehabbed for the Fair, it now holds mostly offices. Somewhere on the viaduct Western turns into Summit Hill Drive. Summit Hill, a semi-redundancy, is the ancient, pre-Civil War name for the hill the Drive traverses. The hill on the northern end of downtown is the location of Immaculate Conception, the first Catholic church in East Tennessee. Earlier, Summit Hill, the hill, was a site of Jacksonian-era hangings and quickly forgotten burials, sometimes rediscovered during city road-building projects.
The proudest feature of Summit Hill, though, is the big brick building hovering over the intersection of Summit Hill and Henley. It was the old Asylum, for which Asylum Avenue was named. They called the state school for the deaf, a major progressive institution and arguably Knoxville’s chief claim to fame in 1848, the “Deaf and Dumb Asylum.” No disparagement was implied. Asylum means, literally, “refuge.” It served as a military hospital for both armies during the Civil War; during the Union occupation, it became a repository for the wounded from all over the region. After the war, it served briefly as the University of Tennessee, as buildings on the Hill were repaired from war damage.
From 1925 to 1980, the old building served as Knoxville’s City Hall. Lots of major decisions were made within these walls, as the city desegregated, fluoridated its water, and first contemplated a World’s Fair. Cas Walker’s celebrated fistfight in City Council, nationally publicized in a photo that appeared in Life magazine in 1956, took place in this building. Lovers of I-40 should venerate this building because it was in here, ca. 1951-54, that the city planned its first expressway, the Magnolia Extension, at almost precisely the site of the current interstate work.
Summit Hill takes you roughly along General Burnside’s northern line of fortification during the Confederate Siege of Knoxville in November 1863. Where the fire station is, you pass across the long-gone ramparts of Union Fort Comstock. Thence past the concrete headquarters of TVA, now celebrating its 75th anniversary and one of the few surviving legacies of Franklin Roosevelt’s dramatic first 100 days in office; and past Gay Street; WDVX’s unique live-music show Blue Plate Special is broadcast daily at One Vision Plaza, on the right. Soon you’re following the route of legendary Vine Street, the “Big Gut,” the “Black Broadway,” the spinal column of Knoxville’s pre-urban-renewal African-American community, celebrated in story and song: at least one song, anyway, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops’ ca. 1929 instrumental, “Vine Street Rag,” aka “Vine Street Drag.” Hardly anything remains of it now; to get an idea, read Nikki Giovanni’s essay, “400 Mulvaney Street.” The legendary Gem Theater, a black movie theater and performing-arts stage that thrived here for 40 years, was just northeast of the intersection of Central Street and Summit Hill. A local psychotherapists’ office, at 106 West Summit Hill, maintains a small museum to the Gem.
The Old City’s obvious on the left. Central, previously known as Crozier Street, was once also known as the Bowery. Stretching from the river wharf to the railroad yards, from the 1880s to around 1910 it was a half-dozen blocks of saloons, whorehouses, cocaine parlors, gambling dens, and poolrooms. Except for the Old City, it’s all torn down.
The intersection of Central and Summit Hill is also the epicenter of the deadly riots of August 1919, when an army of guardsmen, called to Knoxville, ironically, to control a white lynch mob, fired machine guns into semi-fortified black citizens, killing an unknown number.
The viaduct that takes you over James White Parkway replaced a much-smaller bridge that took you over First Creek, which is still visible down at the bottom of a culvert, but only if you get out of the car. Somewhere in the vicinity of the intersection with Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame Drive, former Mulvaney Street, where you turn left, was near the childhood home of Beauford Delaney, the versatile modernist who was the most famous artist who ever lived in Knoxville, as well as that of his younger brother Joseph, also a successful artist. The Delaney house was torn down in the ‘60s.
The detour takes you left on Hall of Fame, a new road. It’s functional, as highway links go, and offers an interesting view of the downtown skyline. After you cross I-40, on the left you’ll see an old brick building with a Farmers Mutual sign. It was the longtime home of Confederate veteran and sports philanthropist William Caswell, who donated Caswell Park, Knoxville’s longtime baseball grounds, to the right; from his upstairs bedroom window, circa 1920, he could watch games.
The standard detour is admittedly a tour of things that used to be there. Some other options offer things that are still there, and places to stop without causing a wreck.
GIVE YOUR REGARDS TO BROADWAY
So for some variety, try this: from Summit Hill, turn left onto Henley, which quickly becomes Broadway. Originally known as Broad Street, it was renamed Broadway in a time when Knoxville was trying to catch up with its older sister, New York. It roughly approximates the path of First Creek to its origin in Fountain City.
Right away you’ll cross the ca. 1920 Broadway viaduct; the white brick structures clinging to the left-hand side of the viaduct were once enviable business locations. They housed, among other things, the Hackney wholesale-grocery concern. Now in poor repair, they still offer some clue to a truth since forgotten by most highway engineers, that a bridge doesn’t have to be just a bridge.
At the end of the bridge is Depot Street, and this end of it was the site of the Battle of Depot Street in 1893. A dispute about whether William Gibbs McAdoo’s attempt to build a streetcar line—alongside a previous streetcar line he’d built three years earlier, but which was now owned by someone else—sparked a pre-dawn riot which drew dozens of police and sheriff’s deputies who disagreed about the situation, and at one time had officially arrested each other. Before firemen were able to clear the streets of rioters and law-enforcement officers alike, the riot had resulted in one worker’s death. McAdoo, who was arrested that day, later became President Wilson’s secretary of the treasury, and the first chairman of the Federal Reserve Board—as well as a U.S. senator from California and two-time presidential candidate.
Next is what some call Knoxville’s Mission District, a concentration of services for the homeless. The 1913 upscale row house project originally known as Minvilla Flats, later, sometimes notoriously, as the Fifth Avenue Motel, is an interesting renovation in the works, to be used for subsidized housing.
On the left is venerable Old Gray Cemetery, maybe the most famous burying place in East Tennessee. It’s the final home of Parson Brownlow, the much-admired and much-despised preacher, editor, provocateur, and Whig-Republican Reconstruction governor and senator; impressionist artist Catherine Wiley; Ebenezer Alexander, the diplomat who promoted U.S. participation in the first Olympic Games in Athens in 1896; World War I General and Senator Laurence Davis Tyson, along with his philanthropist wife Bettie and son McGhee, the aviator killed in 1918 who’s honored with an airport; C.C. Williams, the troubled father of the playwright Tennessee Williams; Horace Maynard, the Massachusetts-raised intellectual and diplomat who founded the Republican Party’s unbroken hold on the Congressional seat for Tennessee’s Second District; influential feminist Lizzie Crozier French; all three participants in the famous Mabry-O’Conner gunfight of October 19, 1882, sharing nothing but a death date; and many others.
From the street it looks much smaller than it is; you have to drive in, carefully through the marble funeral-carriage-width gates, to get a good sense of it.
Visible just beyond is one of the oldest national cemeteries in the nation, resting place of hundreds of Union soldiers, as well as Gen. Bob Neyland. The marble tower, alleged to be the tallest monument to the Union in the South, is a rebuild. The original memorial, erected in 1900, made heavy use of cast iron, including the top, an iron statue of an eagle on a giant cannon ball. A couple of years after its erection, a lightning bolt destroyed the monument with explosive force. It was rebuilt, this time with marble.
According to an article published in the National Tribune in 1942, it was here at our national cemetery in 1874 that a Knoxville war widow named Laura Richardson began the national tradition of planting tiny flags on soldiers’ graves on Memorial Day, then known as Decoration Day. She was disappointed in the flower crop that year, and found the flags in a downtown toy store.
Back on Broadway, on the right is St. John’s Lutheran, a lovely old marble church on Emory Place, an interesting irregular open space between Victorian buildings. In the 1880s and ’90s, it supported an ultimately unsuccessful market square, with a crookedly shaped market house known as the Central Market. Look for Harb’s Carpet and Oriental Rugs, an 80-year-old business opened by enterprising Arab immigrants in the 1920s, and still run by the same family.
Across the street is Everything Mushrooms, Inc., perhaps our only fungal boutique. Watch for the angled crossing of Central and Broadway, and the Flatiron-style building in the middle, roughly the northern boundary of old downtown.
A block or so on the left is the edge of Fourth and Gill, the renovating Victorian neighborhood that can flabbergast you, especially if the last time you were there was 20 years ago or more.
Another quarter mile or so on the left is the wonderful Three Rivers Market, the 30-year-old food co-op specializing in organic and health foods, where you find local cheeses and salsas and breads and where you can scoop fresh coffee, oatmeal, or four different varieties of mustard seed from neat bins.
Then there’s counterculturally iconic Saint Tattoo on the right, St. James Episcopal and First Lutheran on the left.
And unmistakable on the right, just beyond, Greystone. One of Knoxville’s all-time finest homes, it’s been the headquarters of WATE-TV, Channel 6 since 1962. (The carriage house to the side is the headquarters of preservationist defenders Knox Heritage.) The mansion was completed in 1890 for Ohio-born attorney and coal-and-marble-business tycoon Eldad Cicero Camp, an interesting fellow. A major in the Union army, he was U.S. Attorney General when he participated in the first known baseball game ever played in the region, on Gay Street in the summer of 1865. In 1868, during an argument with a former Confederate colonel he had accused of war crimes, Camp shot and killed Col. Henry Ashby on a downtown street corner. A judge instantly deemed it justifiable homicide. (Camp and Ashby are both, of course, buried at Old Gray.)
When Camp built his house, he pulled out all the stops. The designer was Alfred B. Mullett, well-known D.C.-area architect, and former Supervising Architect for the Federal Government. Greystone is allegedly a replica of the D.C. home of another former Union officer from Ohio, ill-fated President James A. Garfield. Mullett recommended the stonemason, a German immigrant named Gustav Gade, who actually moved to Knoxville permanently to work on this and later other projects, including the L&N. Mullett, who may have personally supervised the construction of Greystone, committed suicide the year Greystone was completed. We hope for reasons unrelated to Knoxville.
Fourth Presbyterian, a modest church regarded by architects as an especially agreeable ecclesiastical structure for its size, is on the left.
Glenwood’s a good entry into Old North, another renovating neighborhood, on the left—childhood home of, among others, MGM director Clarence Brown; his family home still stands on Scott, near Central. North Knoxville, on both sides of Broadway, was an incorporated city of its own, with its own mayor, who was always German Jewish immigrant Louis Gratz.
Greenlee’s Bike Shop, the oldest bicycle purveyor in Knoxville, is on the corner, and very conveniently, because the First Creek Greenway, which we’re confident will one day connect to our other bike trails, is just ahead on the right.
Turn right on Cecil, and along the fringe of North Hills on the left. The numbered avenues on the right will take you down into the old mill-town area around the 1921 Holston hosiery factory.
A tour of North Hills, another renovating middle-class neighborhood of eclectic styles developed mostly in the 1920s and ‘30s, might be enlightening to those who are certain those other Hills, Sequoyah and Holston, are unrivaled as neighborhoods representing that era. North Hills was a versatile place, home for a few years to aspiring actress Patricia Neal (1726 North Hills Blvd.), and home for several decades to grocer/impresario/demagogue Cas Walker (2838 Gaston Ave.)
A right on Cherry will take you back to a functional exit of I-40. On the left is the former site of what used to be America’s biggest Levi’s factory. Beyond the interstate, Cherry takes you into what used to be known as Park City, part of which, mainly west of Cherry, is now known as Parkridge, a vigorously reviving neighborhood, and also worth a drive around, just to look at the variety of houses. It’s said to have the nation’s highest concentration of houses designed by Knoxville’s all-time best-known architect, George Barber; he and his family actually lived here in the neighborhood.
Ahead, Cherry intersects with Magnolia, which offers further options (see Magnolia).
OLD CITY SPUR
Another optional route is to go back to the Old City spot in the standard detour. Turn left through the Old City, and stop for a beer or a cigar or a cup of mocha latte if you feel like it. There's almost too much to talk about on these couple of blocks, but you can't miss Patrick Sullivan's impressive saloon, built in 1888 by Irish immigrant and Union veteran Sullivan, who lived in the building with his family for a time.
Cross the train tracks—and this is the original railroad line ever built in East Tennessee, built in the 1850s across a formerly swampy area called the Flag Pond—the arrival of the first train in Knoxville is commemorated by a mural. Immediately on the right is the doomed White Lily Flour factory. More than 120 years old, White Lily is, as far as bakers across the country are concerned, Knoxville's only claim to fame. It seemed to add to the legend that one of America's greatest flours was still manufactured in a Victorian factory building. And the building is shutting down forever this summer, and the operation is moving to Ohio. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Republicans will feel obliged to remove their hats at the corner of Central and Magnolia, for it was the site of DePue's drugstore where, in 1891, the Second District's beloved congressman, U.S. Rep. Leonidas Houk (R-Knoxville) reached for what he thought was a glass of “nerve powder,” and drank a mortal dose of arsenic. He died at his home nearby a few hours later, and is buried around the corner, at Old Gray.
At the corner of Fifth Avenue is old Knoxville High. Built in 1915, it was for 46 years the main high school for all the white kids in town (black students attended Austin High). Future writer James Agee attended for a little more than a year in the mid-1920s; some of his first published stories were thinly disguised satires of life at “Knoxton High.” About a decade later, it was the site of young Patricia Neal's very first dramatic performances, a quarter-century before her Oscar. Future Broadway star John Cullum attended Knoxville High, too. The Doughboy statue in front commemorates Knoxville High School alumni who died in World War I.
On the left is the other end of Emory Place, also accessible from Broadway. Further on the left is what's popularly known as the Flatiron Building, which houses both the Fluorescent Gallery, and Gypsy Hands, the belly-dancing and massage studio.
Now turn right on Broadway and rejoin the Broadway detour...
BACK TO BAXTER
By a third variant, take the interstate signs north toward I-640, but get off at the first exit, Baxter Avenue. Turn right on Baxter; in the big field to the left was Brookside Mills, one of the largest and, believe it or not, beautiful factories ever built in Knoxville. MGM director Clarence Brown's father was superintendent there, and Brown wrote his engineering thesis on efficiency at Brookside. When he returned to dedicate his new theater in the 1970s, he insisted on returning to the site, where the famous smokestack, which he had once climbed, was still standing. It has since been demolished.
Ahead is Central Street, and on the left the Holy Ghost Catholic Church. The original 1890 church still stands next to it, operated as the Sisters of Charity Thrift Store. Down the hill to the left is what was known as early as the 1920s as Happy Hollow, a millworkers' mecca once famous as a neighborhood of unpretentious saloons. It appears to be reviving today as a sort of mini-downtown for the north side, with wonderful motorcycle museum/arcade/cafe known as the Time Warp Tea Room, which is unique in all the world—and the Original Freeze-O, a rare walk-up ice-cream and lunch place that looks like it belongs in Myrtle Beach in the 1940s. By an agreeable coincidence, you can find good tamales in both places.
When Baxter runs out, turn left on Folsom, into the edge of Old North, then right on Glenwood, to pick up Broadway.
Magnolia Avenue is a street that gets some bad press for its mostly nocturnal propensity for vice, or at least vice arrests—but it’s one of Knoxville’s loveliest routes, with a lot of historic architecture intact. You may notice it sports more magnolias than other streets do; that’s a municipal pun. Magnolia was named for Magnolia Branner, the widow who donated a large part of the land which made a straightened completion of the road possible. The Branner property included what’s now Pellissippi State.
It’s a road that, ever since its establishment in the 1800s as the route to Chilhowee Park, has been associated with Fun, and you still see it today; it has more barbecue than any other lane in town, but also Knox County’s only restaurant that specializes in tamales, the region’s only drive-in pizza place, Knoxville finest soul-food cafeteria, and our most reliable purveyor of pigburgers. The last is Dixson’s, at 1201 Magnolia, back behind a bar. Mainly a takeout place, it’s just open on weekend evenings.
Just a couple blocks off to the left is Caswell Park, named for Col. William Caswell, the early baseball player, and philanthropist who donated the park in 1917, in part to provide a permanent space for the city’s professional ball club, a purpose it served for more than 80 years. When the Smokies moved to Sevier County, Caswell Park was reconfigured as a multi-purpose public park with softball fields. It’s been completed for a couple of years, but if you haven’t seen it, it may surprise you.
Beginning here, around Jessamine, Magnolia runs approximately a block south of Confederate trenches during the siege. General “Fightin’ Joe” Wheeler was in charge of the cavalry beyond it.
The plain blue-gray building on the left is the site of WETP’s studios, where Missy Kane exercises for the camera and Marshall Andy sings and spins his six-shooter for his weekly cowboy shows.
Magnolia was also the birthplace of the concept and original recipe of Mountain Dew, ca. 1946, by the Hartman Beverage Co., in a building still standing at 1921-25, now in part home of Economy Auto Service. When you get out to pay homage, be sure to try one of Mary’s Tamales, at 1931 Magnolia, preferably in a Full House.
A little farther down on the right, at 2112, is the headquarters of Tribe One, an admirable organization for inner-city youth and, on the left, the Magnolia Cafe at 2405, which is worth a visit if you can catch it open.
Of course, by the time you get to Cherry Street, you can get back on the interstate, if you really want to. But you’ll miss several interesting spots and there’s another exit down the road. I-40 can wait. Look for the stately big old brick apartment buildings on the right, like the Shenandoah, the Lakewood, and the Aston. Things just seem to get more fun as you see places like the Red Fez, the Philippine Connection, and Chandler’s Deli, a welcoming no-nonsense soul-food place on the left at 3101, and the Pizza Palace, the only pizza-and-beer drive in we know of, on the right at 3132.
A passage by James Agee, known only to scholars until its publication last year in Michael Lofaro’s new edition of A Death In the Family, includes a passage describing the streetcar ride out Magnolia, ca. 1915: “even the ride out there was fun,” he wrote.
“The first that he could see of the Park was in some ways almost the most exciting because there it was coming to him, or him to it, and soon he could be going right into it. High up beyond the green treetops he could see curves of white painted wood and he knew that one was the rolly coaster and the other was the fairy’s wheel. For the first little while there was only the very top of them; the top of the popcorn white wheel, moving up from the treetops and down into them again...Then the streetcar came nearer, the trees began to come flakily apart and through them he could see the high white fence...and beyond it almost the whole wheel and nearly all of the rolly coaster, looping way up and way down and in and out and round and round itself like an enormous frozen white worm, and when a car was coming down why even when the streetcar was still moving you could hear the wonderful black roaring of the little car and even the yells of boys and the screams of ladies...”
Chilhowee Park, once known as Sterchi Park, and earlier as Lake Ottosee, is about 130 years old. Its importance to Knoxville is demonstrated by the fact that the first electric streetcar line in Knoxville, one of the first in the South, even before New Orleans had such a thing, was built in 1890 from Gay Street to Chilhowee Park. Nearby, on the south side of Magnolia, was Cal Johnson’s raceway, a horse-racing track with later became an automobile racing track, before it was redeveloped as a neighborhood with an oval track.
Semi-pro teams played baseball out here, and people played in the lake, even played baseball in the lake, swimming between the raft bases. The early Labor Day picnics were here, where working men competed to prove how fast they could set type, or shoe horses.
Every seasonable holiday, especially Fourth of July and Labor Day, Knoxvillians loaded down the streetcars to come to Chilhowee Park to ride rides, see plays, dance in the ballroom, and watch fireworks. Early dirigibles moored here. The first airplane ever seen in Knoxville landed at Cal Johnson’s, a barnstormer who set down his biplane in the infield.
It was the site of some major expositions, from 1910 to 1913. The national Conservation Exposition of 1913 drew a reported one million people, including Teddy Roosevelt. All that remains of that era is the little lake itself, and the marble gazebo in the middle of the park.
Just behind it, of course, is the Knoxville Zoo, one thing we by-God have that Chattanooga doesn’t. It’s accessible via Prosser Road.
Magnolia turns into Asheville Highway, and you can turn left on 11W and catch I-40, or go on out another couple miles to another I-40 exchange. Or you can just take Asheville Highway all the way to Asheville if you want. With a dearth of tractor trailer trucks, it’s a much more civil drive than the interstate is; it goes through historic Dandridge, then Newport, then along the gorgeous French Broad River, through charming downtown Hot Springs, a great place to stop for a cup of coffee. The bonus is that old 70 is a more direct route than the interstate, actually seven miles shorter, Knoxville to Asheville, than taking I-40. Due to slow spots through towns, it may take longer, but if there’s construction on I-40, a not-infrequent circumstance, 70 is sometimes actually quicker.
But is quickness really the point? Next time you need to pass through town, stop for a tamale or a coffee or just a story somewhere, and you may decide not necessarily. We may well decide we like Knoxville better without the dadgum interstate... m