In writing about Bertha Walburn Clark, the remarkable violinist who founded the now-75-year-old Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, I became more and more curious about her little-remembered first husband, Rand Walburn. A professional artist, he reportedly took the poignant photograph of Bertha we used on the cover of that issue, the one of her as a very young woman, contemplatively tuning her ancient Maggini violin.
He died 92 years ago. I’m not sure I’d ever heard his name before last year. But here’s the funny thing. All that time, as I was wondering about him, if I saw Rand Walburn walking down Gay Street, I would have recognized him, and wondered where I’d seen him before.
He was a businesslike artist in a businesslike town, for a time employed by the well-known Knaffl photographic studio, in its more pragmatic years. Walburn, who was originally from West Virginia, separated from his wife and children; and not long afterward, he died. He was one of the scores of Knoxvillians who fell to the Spanish flu in the wake of World War I. I tried to learn more about him in the library, without much success. I certainly never found a picture of him.
But I was recently startled to realize, while walking a friend through the Calvin McClung Collection in the History Center, that I’d been walking by Rand Walburn’s portrait for years. It hangs prominently near the main entrance. I probably walked by it a dozen times while I was trying to figure out the story of this young graphic artist who moved to Knoxville to marry the most talented musician in town, but then left her, and then died.
Painter William Sherman Barber, an Ohio-born artist a few years older than Walburn, portrayed him as a stylish young man in a high Edwardian collar. In the picture, Walburn looks quiet, self-contained, perhaps slightly skeptical of the gawkers of posterity.
I’ve heard just a little more about the mystery of the Humes House. The likely former home of influential University of Tennessee president and author Thomas Humes, the antebellum brick house served as St. John’s Episcopal’s rectory for generations before its removal in 1983. A careful demolition by hand by volunteers was led by young parishioner Bill Powell, who believed he’d find some way to re-erect the landmark somewhere downtown as a museum house or history-themed community center. But after some development disappointments, and Powell’s untimely death, the plans to rebuild the Humes house dropped out of the public consciousness. I only barely remembered it, myself; it all happened before I had any particular interest in Knoxville history.
Recently, its fairly massive woodwork turned up in a trailer on Rutledge Pike. The business that was tending it was being sold, and no one was very clear about what exactly this load of unusual wood was, and what should be done with it. It’s now in the custody of preservationist group Knox Heritage, at their headquarters on the Greystone grounds on Broadway.
A couple of weeks after that column came out, Julia Tucker, mother of the now-deceased preservationist who painstakingly dismantled it for reassembly, gave me a call, assuring me she’s not as mysterious and elusive as I tried to make her seem. “I’m not a recluse,” she says, laughing. (It’s an old reporter’s trick; if you can’t get somebody on the phone, at least make them sound mysterious and elusive.)
Mrs. Tucker told me she’d kept track of the trailerfull of parts for years after her son died, paying rent for it for some time. She still has her son’s directions for its reassembly.
Three or four years ago, at the suggestion of McClung Collection head Steve Cotham, she loaned it to Nashville developer Alex Brandau’s frankly heroic renovation of the Col. John Williams house on Dandridge Avenue. The home of the maverick U.S. senator and ambassador had stood for decades as a ruined, dark hulk—declared unsalvageable in a newspaper article about 20 years ago, it seemed to have no friends. People who didn’t have money shook their heads, because it was one of the most notably historic residential houses in Knoxville, and it was just about to fall in, and nobody seemed to care, because in those days nobody with money ever drove out Dandridge Avenue.
It took Williams descendent Brandau to do the trick. At length, and after a huge investment, Brandau finished the job—smartly reconstructed, the house has hosted a few social events and is available for office use. As it turned out, though Brandau did use some of the flooring and baseboards from the slightly younger Humes house, he wasn’t able to use any of the Humes windows and doors in that context. The Williams House sits at the head of a pretty golf course, the Williams Creek “Wee” course. Have a look at it, if you haven’t yet.
Tucker says the trailer full of Humes woodwork was on the Williams site for several months; she lost track of the trailer at that time. Now 80, Julia Tucker says she expects that Knox Heritage, of which she’s a former board member, will find a good use for her son’s dream. KH has been talking to local preservationist architectural designer Brian Pittman—whose renovation of the Mary Boyce Temple house at Henley and Hill was one of the most visible developments downtown in the last year—about potential uses for what remains of the old Humes rectory. “I would like to see what is done with it,” she says. She still has the photographs her son took, 28 years ago, to assist the reassembly.
We’ll miss Joe Bell, who died last week. A small, wiry guy with sharp eyes and a voice like Walter Brennan’s, he wore an engineer’s cap and a bandana around his neck. He attended countless WDVX Blue Plate Specials, usually on his feet, covering the perimeter, letting you know, in case you weren’t certain, whether the performer on stage was any good or not.
He looked so authentic that some tourists probably took him for a hired extra. But he really did know his trains, and he really could play the fiddle. I didn’t know him well, and I can’t say I could follow his geopolitical theories, but he straightened me out on a few issues concerning old streetcar routes and the shadowy early days of country-music radio.
Corrected: Williams Creek is actually an 18-hole course, not nine.