The Humes House Reappears

Missing for nearly 30 years, a dismantled building recalls a forgotten controversy

This past spring, Knox Heritage staffer Beth Meadows had an interesting mystery on her hands. A man named Ken Parigin at Midsouth Truck & Equipment on Rutledge Pike was retiring and closing down his business, trying to find places for all the bulky stuff on the property. In one of his trailers was a load of interesting construction debris that had been in there for years.

Not everybody who wants to get rid of old-house wood would call the preservationist nonprofit Knox Heritage, but Parigin did. He talked to Meadows, the young assistant in charge of architectural salvage for the group. KH, which is located in the second floor of the carriage house beside the 1890 Greystone mansion on Broadway, makes use of the old carriage space downstairs for possibly valuable parts of demolished houses.

Meadows and a young intern drove out to have a look. The trailer Parigin had mentioned was full of architectural parts: a large, almost grand, door of thick hardwood, ornamented with side windows, and 30 multiple-pane windows, some of them unusually tall and narrow. All Parigin knew, he said, was that the house had been downtown, torn down several years ago. A man had rented his trailer, he recalled, but then he died. Another man contacted Parigin a while back, saying he felt bad that Parigin hadn't gotten any rent on the storage trailer for a while. But Parigin, who sounds like a good-hearted fellow, made room for it and left it alone on his lot. "I could have leased that trailer, several times," he says. "But I hated to do away with all that wood."

Meadows told him she'd take some of it, "Just because I have an obsession with windows." Meadows' first thoughts were modest and practical. She has learned that old windows make interesting tables. "I'm an artist, and building tables, windows are perfect." But she was curious about where these particular windows came from, and the load offered only one clue—a number in metal letters, fastened on the top of the door frame: 413.

Meadows wondered what she had, and started asking around. She got knowledgeable guesses about 413 S. Gay St., the current address of Yee-Haw Industries, and 413 S. Central, the approximate address of an old saloon building razed a decade ago to make way for the abortive justice-center project. Other possibilities were demolitions on the 400 blocks of Broadway, Henley, Church (maybe the old Ross Flats building, torn down in the '70s).

Then the Metropolitan Planning Commission's preservation expert, Ann Bennett, had a look at one piece and said, "That's the Humes House." It was the paint on the trim: "I remember that green turquoise color." Meadows compared it to the surprisingly few images of that house, and was convinced Bennett was right.

The house had been located at 413 Cumberland Ave. Its story seems almost a parable about the vanity of dreams, and stirs memories of a sometimes bitter 27-year-old controversy.

***

In 1983, St. John's Episcopal Church considered plans to expand their 1890s stone church at Cumberland and Walnut. Next to it was an old brick house known as the "old rectory," once the official residence of the parish's pastor. Since the 1930s, the federal-style house had been used only for offices. The architectural firm of McCarty Bullock Holsaple recommended removing the rectory to make room for a courtyard and additional construction.

Battle lines were drawn, within the church and without. Preservationism was still new to town. The nonprofit then known as Knoxville Heritage had no full-time staff and was reeling from the sudden recent death of its charismatic founder, architect Ron Childress. In 1976, Childress had included the house at 413 Cumberland as one of "Fifty Landmarks" published in a booklet as the city's most important historic sites. In early July 1983, KH president Stephen Sumner announced a public "Demolition Alert," that angered the church's leadership.

Research, as published in the papers, was contrary and sometimes confusing. There was agreement that it was one of only four antebellum houses still standing in downtown Knoxville. Those who wanted to save it preferred to believe it was built in 1846 by Thomas Humes (1815-1892), one of the city's most interesting and influential leaders. First a writer and editor, and arguably Knoxville's first city historian, he later became the founding rector of St. John's, the first Episcopal church in the Knoxville area. During the war, he was a particularly bold Unionist who left his secessionist congregation, to be invited back—an extraordinarily unusual gesture—by occupying U.S. General Burnside, an Episcopalian himself. Later still, Humes became president of tiny East Tennessee University, and was president in the postwar years as the college became the official University of Tennessee. (The modern residence hall is UT's second building to be named for him.) Later still, he wrote a notable book about the Civil War and served as the first head of Knoxville's public library.

It was known that Humes owned the property in the 1840s, and that the lot rapidly increased in value during that period, perhaps suggesting that Humes built a house there. "I believe the house predated the 1850s," says Bennett. "I don't see how it could have been built in Knoxville in the 1850s. It was in the Federal style, and people just didn't build that way in the 1850s."

Where Humes actually lived during those years is unproven. While he was rector, the property was sold to a medical doctor who lived there for more than 20 years. Those who favored tearing it down preferred to believe it was built around 1857 by Dr. Otis F. Hill. Though a prominent figure in his day—he founded the Knox County Medical Society—Hill's name rings fewer bells.

The church bought the house from Dr. Hill in the 1880s, whence it did become the official rectory. Over half a century, several St. John's rectors lived there, the last of whom was longtime resident Walter Whitaker, who's believed to have been an inspiration to one of his youngest parishioners, future author James Agee, who mentioned him by name in his autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family. After 1930, the church used the house for offices.

***

Over the summer of 1983, the dispute got only more bitter. Carson Brewer outlined the complicated fight in an August News Sentinel column, concluding, "From now on, I think I'd better stay out of this. I'm not even an Episcopalian."

When it was clear the church would proceed with demolition plans, St. John's parishioner Bill Powell, then a 23-year-old UT student, stepped into the breach, and agreed that he would dismantle the brick house, and catalogue its pieces carefully, to reassemble it elsewhere. The news came as a relief, by the standards of 1983 Knoxville, an answer to the problem. William J. MacArthur, head of the McClung Collection and Knoxville's de facto historian, wrote to his own church, "This house, one of a handful of antebellum structures surviving in downtown Knoxville, should be preserved at all costs." He added, "Mr. Powell will do the members of St. John's as well as the citizens of Knoxville a great service if he can preserve some or all of this building."

Late that summer, Powell and several volunteers worked long days, with their own equipment, to preserve and catalogue what they could, primarily antebellum woodwork. "It was an enormous volunteer effort," says historian Steve Cotham. Much of the brick was broken in the disassembly, but by one news report, Powell paid hundreds of dollars for a quantity of unbroken bricks. What became of them is unclear.

"If Bill Powell has his way, the old rectory of St. John's...will rise again," wrote Brewer. "But so far, he knows not where."

Sen. Howard Baker offered encouragement, and U.S. Rep. John Duncan (father of the current incumbent) wrote, "This is an ambitious endeavor. But that is exactly what makes Knoxville the great place that it is, the young people willing to work to make ideas real.... My office lends its support to Bill...."

But all plans depend on mortal people remembering them.

The parts Powell's volunteers took pains to save were stored in the old U.S. Pavilion. Only partially used for certain events after the World's Fair, that odd relic was eventually torn down itself. Then it was stored in part of the old Brookside Mill on Baxter; that building was torn down, too.

A serious plan, spearheaded by Gloria Neel, director of the city's Housing and Urban Affairs office and chair of the Historic Zoning Commission, would have rebuilt the house in early 1987 on the northwest corner of Gay and Summit Hill, perhaps with intact bricks from another demolished house, to be occupied by the tourist bureau and some non-profits, like that of the Dogwood Arts Festival. TVA, and a Vermont-based Humes Foundation, a charitable organization founded by the rector's diplomat great-grandson, were reportedly likely backers.

Total funding never arrived. By then, historian MacArthur had died, and Powell was ill with AIDS. He died in 1991. "Bill was one of my all-time favorite people," says Bennett, citing Powell's effective work to restore historic Mechanicsville, and in saving West Knoxville's Baker-Peters House.

For a time, his mother, Julia Tucker, helped shepherd the project. But as years passed, the Humes House vanished from the public consciousness. At some point, the remains of the house wound up in a storage trailer. "It's been a long, long time ago," says Parigin, who doesn't remember the names of the two men he dealt with but says Powell sounds right.

And it wound up in a trailer on Rutledge Pike. Part of it—the part Meadows and here assistants weren't able to fit in their storage area—is still there. "They're welcome to all this if they want it," says Parigin. "But if somebody wants it, they need to do something."

Knox Heritage donated a few pieces to the East Tennessee Historical Society. Some preservationist developers have had a look at the parts, but haven't figured out a use. Julia Tucker still lives in Knoxville, but isn't returning calls.

"It is time to let the rest go, I guess," says Cotham, "since without someone like Bill pushing the project on all fronts, it is just not going to happen."

As for the big door and 30 windows, Knox Heritage is entertaining proposals. At this writing most of the wooden parts of the Humes House still await reassembly.

To Bennett, there's a moral to the tale. Taking a house apart with a sincere intent to re-erect it elsewhere is a long shot. "They ought not to be torn apart and floating around," she says. "They need to be saved in place."