Blount Mansion is Knoxville's only registered National Historic Landmark. Located on the corner of Hill Avenue and a remnant of State Street, the oldest frame house in Tennessee is this 1792 home of territorial governor William Blount. The signer of the U.S. Constitution was the chief presence of the federal government in the region that would only later be known as Tennessee; assuming things go according to plan, the federal government will tender a quarter-million-dollar federal grant that may change the face of the grounds around Blount Mansion over the next three years.
As a historic attraction, Blount Mansion is unique in East Tennessee, but it hasn't caught the wind of downtown's revival. Once central to the original nucleus of town, Blount's neighborhood is now a 9-5 office district of banks, law firms, and government offices, dull and dark after hours. The once-imposing frontier edifice is now dwarfed and screened by the Andrew Johnson Building. On the other side, it's hemmed in by Neyland Drive, permanently insulated with TDOT-owned property, which forbids dreaming of any access to the Volunteer Landing or the river. The grounds still host club and corporate events, plus school tours, which account for about a quarter of the 18,000 who visit yearly. But it's quiet most of the time.
"People who have lived here all their lives ask, ‘Where is Blount Mansion?'" says Billye Chabot. She's the full-time executive director of Blount Mansion, and runs the place with the help of her husband, Cristofe. "We're a mom and pop," she says. Cristofe governs Blount's website and is in charge of catering and possum removal, among other things.
Last year, urged on by the recessionary crises in funding for historic homes, the American Association of Museums pushed for advocacy of such sites on a national level, resulting in a round of grants through Save America's Treasures, a public/private partnership administered by the National Park System. Billye attended meetings in Washington in February, during which time she met with Rep. Jimmy Duncan and staffers from Sen. Lamar Alexander's office. With more help from the local mayors and state Rep. Jamie Woodson, they made a leap at the grant, and came down with $250,000, pending congressional passage of the appropriation. The $20 million earmarked for Save America's Treasures nationwide is part of a major Senate bill that passed the Appropriations Committee, of which Sen. Alexander is a prominent member, three weeks ago.
"Blount Mansion never received anything like this in the past," Billye Chabot says. She moved here almost four years ago—she formerly ran the museum at Southern Illinois University. "One thing I've observed here is that Knoxville seems to get excited about one thing, and then the next thing. Things like Blount Mansion seem to fall by the wayside." Blount Mansion's current budget is $170,000; it's been higher in the last 10 years, but it's also been lower.
The house itself is freshly painted with a grant from Rohm and Haas, but it needs several improvements. The 217-year-old wooden landmark has never had a sprinkler system; that's a priority. After that, it's landscaping, rehabbing Craighead Jackson's formal garden, and leveling the sloping greenspaces adjacent to the buildings to make them more useful for events. Blount Mansion is working with the East Tennessee Design Center on the project.
Blount Mansion has one companion, the brick Craighead Jackson House, an 1818 relic that has been mainly empty since the mansion's visitors center opened in a modern building at Gay Street and Hill Avenue more than a decade ago. The Chabots hope to use the money to find a worthy use for the home. The house lacks Blount's dramatic historical associations, but it is one of the oldest buildings in Knoxville. Today the family-sized house is pretty and well-kept, but empty and hardly used for anything but storage. Billye mentions the possibility of opening a "tea room" in the house. Cristofe Chabot would go even farther, to convert it into a historic bed and breakfast. That's ultimately up to the Blount Mansion Board of Directors, though that proposal is reportedly unpopular with them.
Behind it is a formal garden, or the remains of one, with boxwoods, plus maybe a quarter-acre of grassy space. Billye Chabot would like to see it all converted into an attractive "history park," details yet to be determined.