Back in the summer of 1979, when I was a University of Tennessee undergraduate writing for The Daily Beacon and moving into a $120-a-month apartment on Laurel Avenue, the neighborhood had mobilized around a cause.
On the White Avenue sidewalk, near the old library, was a large sign: “Save the Judge’s House,” it went. “Again.” The old Victorian at 1308 White was then threatened by a proposal to build a medical-office building. It had been threatened before. The organization then known as Knoxville Heritage was behind an effort to save it. Again.
They succeeded. In the 33 years since, the Judge’s House, and the two equally distinguished houses on either side of it on White Avenue near 13th Street, have served hundreds of short- and long-term residents.
All three 1890s Victorians appear to be pretty well kept. Though long divided into apartments on the inside, they’ve kept their external integrity better than most Victorians in the neighborhood. All three have inviting front porches, all three painted in contrasting tones. The large one on the corner, at 1302 White, known as Three Chimneys, has been renovated recently.
By a plan disclosed just this month, as a result of some bureaucratic paperwork, UT intends to demolish all three, just like that. The university, whose student body hasn’t grown in decades, wants to awe us with still another campus expansion, still another new building.
I know how earnest my alma mater is about respecting our heritage, but I feel obliged to mention what we’re dealing with.
Let’s start on the right. Nearest the old Hoskins Library is 1312 White.
One of its earliest residents was Maj. Charles B. Vogdes, a wounded veteran of the Spanish-American War who later became prominent in the citrus industry in San Diego. For a short time in between, he manned Knoxville’s Army recruiting station here during the Philippine campaigns.
Prominent industrialist Hugh Sanford, an executive with Sanford-Day Iron Works, lived there for a while.
But the first resident to live there for more than a decade was its most famous: Charles Ferris, the first-ever dean of UT’s College of Engineering, for whom Ferris Hall is named. He launched UT’s school of industrial engineering. He’d later be instrumental in establishing the first permanent football field and, still later, getting UT involved in TVA’s internationally innovative projects. He lived in this house from about 1907 to 1919.
Next door is the Judge’s House itself. The last couple of times I walked by, like last Sunday, residents were enjoying the summer evening on the front porch. Built around 1893, when this was still “West Knoxville,” beyond city limits, it may be the oldest of the three.
It got its name from a long-term resident, Charles Hayes Brown, who was a much-respected chancery court judge who lived here for many years. He was Knox County chancellor when he first lived here. But he wasn’t the house’s first prominent resident; among the most interesting was James Maynard Jr., grandson of congressman-diplomat Horace Maynard, and himself a Princeton grad, an attorney and prominent politician who pushed for municipal reform. He died in this house, suddenly, on New Year’s Eve 1917. Later residents believed he left a ghost.
In the library I found a few articles about the Judge’s House. One was a column I wrote in 1995, the last time there were questions about its future. In another article from 1979, the late Carson Brewer interviewed the late Ron Childress, architect and leader of the preservationist group, about his efforts to save it.
Finally, there’s the one on the corner, 1302 White, the nicely renovated one. It’s painted a little differently from the other two, salmon and teal, maybe. When I went by the other day, a white ferret was happily dozing away a June afternoon in a tiny hammock.
Its first long-term resident was Cooper D. Schmitt, the popular math professor who became the university’s dean of students in 1907. He played chess and whist and was one of the earliest champions of introducing sports to the UT experience. He was Chairman of Athletics, and organizer of UT’s first Athletic Association in the 1890s, when football was getting started. Schmitt himself preferred tennis.
But he had a heart problem, and in late 1910, he collapsed in a lecture hall in South College, and was carried to this house. His heart didn’t stop beating until he got here. He was just 51. One of the most popular faculty members in UT history, he was the subject of a long series of memorials, by Professors Brown Ayres and James Hoskins and George Mellen, who collectively made Schmitt sound like the finest man ever employed by the university. A plaque in his memory is still prominent in the Austin Peay Building: “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”
For almost a third of his life, he lived in the house at 1302 White. He didn’t live here alone. One of his sons was named Bernadotte Schmitt. He was a UT student before he became a Rhodes scholar. He later won the Pulitzer Prize for history, for his 1931 book The Coming of War, 1914.
In promotional material, UT boasts six Rhodes Scholars and five Pulitzer Prize winners. Bernadotte Schmitt’s the only one who was both. This is his childhood home. He lived here when he graduated from UT.
Though these houses are not referenced in UT’s oft-cited long-term Master Plan of 2001, when the university agreed to respect the Fort Sanders neighborhood, the university has started the paperwork to acquire and demolish them all. Unlike you and me, UT can use eminent domain to take houses from owners, by force if necessary. We have to do what they say.
But there are other places to build. In the immediate vicinity are some big surface parking lots that are unbecoming to a modern university anyway. They’d be improved by buildings.
And these houses have as much value to UT and its distinguished heritage as to Knoxville. As residences for selected faculty members, they would each sprout a long waiting list. Faculty recruits have often told me they were dismayed to arrive in Knoxville only to have UT suggest they live in a suburban setting, some miles away from campus. These houses could offer an enviable option.
Addendum (June 22, 2012):
We got a call from Chris Cimino, UT vice chancellor for finance and administration.
He says there's "nothing official" about the removal of the three houses on the 1300 block of White Avenue; they do exist within the site of a prospective UT classroom/laboratory building, but it is not yet funded. Also, he says, "there's a possibility that the planning committee will come back and say this project won't even fit on that site." He says we'll know more about that in mid-August.
Hence, he says, UT has not begun formal "paperwork" concerning demolition.
However, UT has sent out some "letters of inquiry" to the property owners of the three houses on White Avenue, and has made inquiries to the Tennessee State Historical Commission—a necessity for plans affecting buildings over 50 years old. As a consequence of that discussion, UT approached our own Metropolitan Planning Commission about removing the houses.
Cimino says the property concerned was within the boundaries of UT's 2011 Master Plan, though that detail of the complicated plan came as a surprise to local preservationists who cite earlier promises under other administrations that UT would not encroach any further into Fort Sanders.
Cimino adds that it's possible the houses may be moved.
Institutional developers, including UT, have often proposed house-moving as a conciliatory gesture, but it's a rarity in practice: extremely expensive, it's hazardous to the structure, and always results in loss of any potential National Register listing, or historic tax credits. (A well-heeled proposal to move the large brick Keller house on Cumberland Avenue for the Baker Center project was scrapped after months of preparation, when it was determined that it would require removal of utility poles.)
He also says UT has not discussed eminent domain with the houses, but adds that that is an option.