No big fan of chain-link fences to begin with, I especially hate to see that fence go up around the Aconda Court building on Cumberland Avenue and what’s now Volunteer Boulevard, and some other historic buildings just behind it, just because I know what comes next.
The Aconda’s been doomed in the University of Tennessee’s long-term plans since the ’90s. As an office building, it was cramped and problematic—I did some time in there on barely remembered errands, decades ago—but I kept hoping that some new administration would see that Aconda was not an office building at all, but a pretty little apartment building with clay-tile shingles and some interesting stonework, mythological creatures in bas-relief. The demand for efficiency apartments in this neighborhood is obvious, and few are as good-looking as Aconda. I hoped someone would look at it with new eyes and restore it, maybe excavating its long-filled-in courtyard in the process.
Built in 1924, it was, for many years, a fashionable address for professionals who didn’t require yards. Few of these 1920s apartment buildings survive in Knoxville. Even if this one didn’t exist, wouldn’t this corner seem a great place for something just like it? Perhaps a home for select graduate students or assistant professors?
It’s not the only historical building whose fate’s betrayed by the chain-link. Another apartment building next door faces Volunteer. A little smaller, it’s called Temple Court, because when they built it, it faced Temple Avenue, a semi-urban street that didn’t necessarily have anything much to do with the university up on the Hill. It was named for Judge Oliver Perry Temple (1822-1907), a Knoxville civic leader and a major figure in UT’s history, a university trustee for 53 critical years.
Built in 1907, the year O.P. Temple died, Temple Court was originally an upscale residence, very similar in style to the Glencoe on State Street, now handsomely renovated for condos. Among those who lived there were doctors and executives and, a surprise to me, prominent Judge T.A.R. Nelson. By the 1930s, UT had acquired Temple Court to serve as a girls’ dormitory, a purpose it served into the early ’60s. Temple Court may be the last thing named for O.P. Temple.
A couple of old houses nearby are on death row, too. Next to Temple Court is another nice old house, a brick one believed to have been built in 1927. It was the Black Cultural Center when I was at UT. I’ve learned less about its deep history, but it’s a goner, too.
The larger, sprawling one, stylishly modern when it was built in 1913, doesn’t have the fence of damnation around it yet. It was the longtime home of inventor Weston Fulton, one of Knoxville’s two or three most important industrialists of the 20th century. His invention, the flexible metal bellows he called the Sylphon, known by other names since the 1950s, is still widely used in gauges of many kinds around the world. Fulton High School is named for him. He later lived in a famously extravagant mansion on Lyons View Pike, but Fulton and his Scottish-born wife, Barbara, spent their most vigorous years here at 820 Temple Ave., when he was inventing things and building his famous factory and achieving his first national recognition. Of course, that later manse was torn down more than 40 years ago, so this house UT is about to demolish is the only one associated with Fulton still standing—unless you count the Fulton funeral monument, the most elaborately interesting grave at Highland Memorial.
Fulton was an Ole Miss alum, but donated the house to UT as a memorial to his son, Weston Fulton Jr., who was a UT enrollee when he was killed in a car wreck on Kingston Pike in 1929. I don’t know when the memorial obligation suggested by a gift expires.
The house was used for some years to house UT’s Student Counseling Services. But from about 1932 until about 1956, it was known as “UT Hospital.”
Seriously. Maybe it wasn’t much more than an infirmary, but it offered light surgery and overnight accommodations. For a quarter century, if you went to UT Hospital, you went to this house.
During that period, UT’s president lived right down the sidewalk, in a house long gone. In those days, they thought administrators should be close at hand.
Back in the ’90s, when UT administrators revealed they were going to tear down Aconda and the other buildings for an expanded University Center, they told Fort Sanders preservationists that if they could do that, there’d be no further invasion of Fort Sanders, that they were now content within their boundaries for the foreseeable future. With that rationale, they talked me out of trying to stir up a preservation effort about these four buildings.
But that was a couple of administrative generations ago, and the current administration doesn’t recall those promises. They are going to tear down Aconda and Temple Court and the Fulton house and that 1927 house soon—but they’re also contemplating further expansion beyond their old boundaries, in particular on White Avenue. A recent plan calls for removing three genuinely historic houses, all intimately connected to UT’s own heritage, for more construction.
UT has its eye on the Top 25 Research University status, and maybe they can flatten their way to that goal. In spite of all this expansion and demolition, UT’s student body is a little smaller than it was when I was there, 30-something years ago.
I know dozens of UT folks who’d pay a lot to live in a place like Aconda, or Temple Court, or the Fulton house, right where they are. But UT years ago set its suburban-style pattern. Big parking lots on campus, yes. Faculty or administration living on campus, no. I don’t have the impression that UT will stop tearing good things down in our lifetime, unless they just run out of them, which is possible. I just wanted to say: Look at these interesting old buildings, because you won’t see them again.