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Same Place, Different City

Originally constructed as “the Knoxville Building,” the city’s official pavilion at Nashville’s Centennial Exposition of 1897 was moved in pieces to Knoxville’s Main Street in 1898. Rechristened the Woman’s Building for the women’s groups that sponsored it, the architectural artifact became a lively cultural venue, hosting art shows and scientific exhibits, lectures, and dances. Several women’s clubs kept their headquarters in the building, which also housed music and art studios and a small business college. Every October for nine years, it was central to Knoxville’s fall carnival. However, on Christmas Day, 1906, stray holiday fireworks started the blaze that destroyed the building. The site subsequently served as a skating rink, a streetcar barn, and a Trailways bus station. Today it’s the southeastern part of the Baker Federal Courthouse, in an edifice originally built to house Whittle Communications.

Originally constructed as “the Knoxville Building,” the city’s official pavilion at Nashville’s Centennial Exposition of 1897 was moved in pieces to Knoxville’s Main Street in 1898. Rechristened the Woman’s Building for the women’s groups that sponsored it, the architectural artifact became a lively cultural venue, hosting art shows and scientific exhibits, lectures, and dances. Several women’s clubs kept their headquarters in the building, which also housed music and art studios and a small business college. Every October for nine years, it was central to Knoxville’s fall carnival. However, on Christmas Day, 1906, stray holiday fireworks started the blaze that destroyed the building. The site subsequently served as a skating rink, a streetcar barn, and a Trailways bus station. Today it’s the southeastern part of the Baker Federal Courthouse, in an edifice originally built to house Whittle Communications.

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  • Knoxville’s National Cemetery, established during the Civil War and one of the oldest national cemeteries in America, is the final resting place of veterans from most of America’s wars, and still sees a burial now and then.
The contrast between these photographs, one taken around 1902, the other a few days ago, shows a century’s accumulation of gravestones, but also, at the top, an odd incongruity. The original monument, paid for by thousands of Union veterans and their families and completed in 1901, featured a bronze eagle—anchored in the monument, perhaps unfortunately, by an iron rod. The monument survived intact for less than three years.
During a summer storm on the early evening of August 22, 1904, a lightning bolt hit the monument, ripping it apart and sending chunks of marble into the neighborhood, damaging houses on Tyson Street. After the bizarre incident, Knoxville Republican congressman Henry Gibson secured federal funding to rebuild the monument, this time with an eight-foot marble statue of a Union soldier, less attractive to lightning. Completed in 1906, it has survived 105 summers.
  • The corner of Broadway and Fifth Avenue, once central to an affluent walking neighborhood of urban townhouses, was especially known for its accumulation of churches. Though several of these church structures saw more than one denomination, as churches grew, merged, and moved, the church in the foreground of this ca. 1905 photograph is best known as First Lutheran Church, originally a German-speaking church to serve Knoxville’s substantial population of immigrants. Just beyond it is the old Broad Street Methodist Church, and the steeple in the distance may be that of Central Presbyterian.
It’s been speculated that this church’s design may be a partial inspiration for a rather mysterious 1947 realist painting by Charles Griffin Farr, “Street in Knoxville,” on long-term display at the Knoxville Museum of Art. 
Though the scene’s now in the shadow of Interstate 40 and on the edge of the “mission district” of services to the homeless, the immediate area is still home to two historic churches, St. John’s Lutheran and First Christian. Recently restored Minvilla Flats, built in 1913, is in the modern photo; the historic photograph predates it.
  • Charles C. Dodson was a jeweler who kept a downtown shop on Vine Street around 1900, within easy walking distance of his home at 404 Patton. Though never famous, he and his family enjoyed a middle-class Victorian lifestyle that was an exception in the Jim Crow South. During that era, white supremacists argued that blacks were incapable of maintaining homes of their own. This photo was one of several displayed in an exhibit at the Paris World’s Fair of 1900, selected by W.E.B. Dubois to demonstrate black American families’ pride in home ownership. 
The hilltop section of Patton Street, once a neighborhood of affluent blacks, was demolished half a century ago, during urban renewal. A little bit of Patton Street still exists just east of the Old City, but this site, a few blocks south of there, is now within the Townview Terrace development.
  • A century ago, Knoxville businessmen who aspired to be Gentlemen could join the Cumberland Club at Walnut and Clinch, a daily refuge from the noise and grit of industrial Knoxville. The public occasionally got a peek inside when the club hosted receptions and dances. The Cumberland Club closed around 1922, whereupon it was converted for doctor’s offices. In the background is the bell tower of the old Second Presbyterian Church. Today, the site of the Cumberland Club and several neighboring buildings are covered by the Hilton parking garage.
  • The old Commerce Street Firehall, once the headquarters of the Knoxville Fire Department, stood just across State Street from the grandiose Palace Hotel, with its notable cupola, one of Knoxville’s most luxurious hostelries of the 1890s. By the time this photo was taken, the Palace had been converted into a YMCA, a purpose it served until the present downtown Y was completed in 1929. Bereft of its turret and modernized beyond recognition, it served as an office building and a low-income apartment house before it was demolished after a fire in the early 1970s—not long before the Commerce Street Firehall was torn down to make way for the wide, sweeping boulevard known as Summit Hill Drive. 
Today, the same perspective shows mainly surface parking lots; in the foreground, occupying part of what used to be Commerce Street, is parking for Bacon & Co. A one-block scrap of once-teeming Commerce still exists between State and Central.
  • This colorful shot of Wall Avenue from near Gay Street in 1904 recently got national attention when it was highlighted on the popular Shorpy.com website, under the headline “True Grit.” The scene includes at least 30 people, old and young, black and white, in a variety of fashions, going about a day’s business. The large concrete building on the right would be best known as the St. James Hotel.
The larger building on the left faces Market Square; it’s still standing, for years the Square’s only remaining vacant building. It’s subject of a major renovation almost completed. All the buildings on the right side were torn down in the early 1970s for the TVA headquarters project.
  • Originally constructed as “the Knoxville Building,” the city’s official pavilion at Nashville’s Centennial Exposition of 1897 was moved in pieces to Knoxville’s Main Street in 1898. Rechristened the Woman’s Building for the women’s groups that sponsored it, the architectural artifact became a lively cultural venue, hosting art shows and scientific exhibits, lectures, and dances. Several women’s clubs kept their headquarters in the building, which also housed music and art studios and a small business college. Every October for nine years, it was central to Knoxville’s fall carnival. However, on Christmas Day, 1906, stray holiday fireworks started the blaze that destroyed the building. The site subsequently served as a skating rink, a streetcar barn, and a Trailways bus station. Today it’s the southeastern part of the Baker Federal Courthouse, in an edifice originally built to house Whittle Communications.
  • This photo, taken from very near the same point as the Wall Avenue photo, shows the 400 block of Gay Street as it looked when reconstructed after the catastrophic 1897 fire. An icon on top of the taller building in the background is a stone phoenix, symbolizing the builder’s resilience after the disaster, still the worst fire in Knoxville history. The building with the stone bird on top was known for a time as the Phoenix Building, but by the mid-20th century was better known simply as Fowler’s Furniture.
In the 1990s, developers set out to renovate the empty building for upscale condominiums, but in 1999, a fire on the top floor threatened to scuttle the project. After their well-publicized travails, they chose to market the building as the Phoenix Building. They found out only later, when looking into its potential for historic tax credits, that its original name had been the Phoenix.
  • Known for years as Girls High School, this palatial 1880s building had transformed into the bi-gender Knoxville High School before KHS’s new building on Fifth was completed in 1910. Future MGM director Clarence Brown graduated from this school in 1905, and said he honored his memories of its interior in the set design for the 1935 movie, Ah, Wilderness! 
The big building served as a junior high for a period before it was torn down in the 1920s and replaced with the early modernist Daylight Building, recently rehabbed for shops and residences.

Comparing two Knoxvilles: the city of 100 years ago and today

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