Local Color: West Knoxville's Sutherland Avenue

A photo continuing series by Shawn Poynter

In the fourth installment of our series on Knoxville neighborhoods, photographer Shawn Poynter walks along Sutherland Avenue in West Knoxville to create a wide-ranging portrait of this surprising community. Previous installments examined North Central, Vestal, and Fort Sanders.

Sutherland Avenue is West Knoxville’s cluttered back porch. It has a lot of important stuff on it, some cool and even beautiful stuff, but all pretty much jumbled out there, and we’re not always eager to show it to guests.

It hosts the Children’s Dance Ensemble, which has international credentials; an Asian grocery and Knoxville’s most complete Middle Eastern market; Knoxville’s only Ethiopian restaurant; West High School, one of the city’s largest and most diverse; the area’s biggest concentration of farmers’ markets and outfitters, and the region’s biggest climbing wall; a foreign-car-repair shop; an oft-crowded Italian restaurant; the National Guard Armory; a Hispanic bar; a huge cemetery; one of Knoxville’s few scuba-training centers; some industrial remnants of the stone-cutting era that gave part of it the nickname Marble City; and a pretty wide variety of residences, from apartments to suburban chateaus to trailers.

Just about three miles long, the street sprouted toward the west a little more than a century ago, bisecting the acute angle formed by older Kingston Pike and Middlebrook Pike. First materializing as Sprankle Avenue, it arrived largely by the will of developer Benjamin Sprankle, originally of Altoona, Pa., who’d had recently built a large apartment building on Union Avenue downtown. In years to come he’d build the downtown buildings we know now as the Pembroke and the Daylight. At a time when hardly anyone lived so far west, Sprankle planned a suburban residential section known briefly as Sprankletown, a couple of miles out on the new street, near Bearden. A neighborhood reachable mainly by automobile might have been about 15 years too early. And perhaps a colleague had a word with Sprankle, that there were more euphoniously marketable names than his.

So, by 1910, he’d renamed the new street in honor of his favorite cleric, the Rev. Robert R. Sutherland. A balding man with an impressive walrus mustache that concealed his expressions, Sutherland (1845-1915) was a Canadian, graduate of Toronto’s Knox College. He had served as pastor of several northern churches before moving to Knoxville in 1887 to serve as chief of Second Presbyterian, back when it located near Market Square.

In 1896, Sutherland bolted from Second Pres, for probably interesting but unremembered reasons, to serve as pastor of a small independent church called Ramsey Memorial. For a while he lived on East Front Street, a very humble neighborhood along where the Volunteer Landing Marina is today. As he approached 60, he was working in real estate. It sounds like a parable with an unknown moral.

By the time Rev. Sutherland received the honor of his name on a long street in Knoxville, he was 65, retired and living in New Jersey, where he’d been working with the Presbyterian Synod. Did Rev. Sutherland ever see Sutherland Avenue? Who knows. About five years after it was named, Sutherland was buried in Doylestown, Pa., just north of Philadelphia.

Around 1911, the stretch of Sutherland east of Third Creek, generously defined, became known as Marble City, a “western suburb” that wasn’t incorporated into the city until 1917. It was a natural name for a street with so many marble and other stone mills on it, but it was also a bit confusing. “Marble City” had been one of the best-known nicknames for the whole city of Knoxville. Before World War I, businesses with “Marble City” in their names—like the Marble City Saloon—had been downtown. But in the 1920s and ’30s and ’40s, Marble City was a small, working-class community of stonecutters and skilled artisans, most of whom could walk to work. Among them was Italian sculptor Albert Milani, the most commercially successful sculptor who ever lived in Knoxville.

The phrase survives in Marble City Baptist Church, not to be confused with Sutherland Avenue Baptist Church, a few blocks down the sidewalk.

Sutherland Avenue kept a little bit of a rough edge; in a city that banned package liquor for 54 years, the avenue named for a Presbyterian minister was known as a handy place to buy it, at discreet shops. Sutherland’s adaptable to every eventuality.

In the early 1920s, Sutherland became home to Highland Memorial Cemetery, eventually Knoxville’s largest burying place. Perhaps older than most people assume, it’s not as old as its oldest gravestone. Influential politician Marcus DeLafayette Bearden, for whom Bearden is named, and who died in 1885, is memorialized here.

About the same time Highland was established, another part of Sutherland was becoming a field of dreams. Soon after World War I, Third Creek’s floodplain became one of Knoxville’s first airfields, formally designated McGhee Tyson Airport in 1929. In March, 1933, Sutherland Avenue made national headlines when well-known aviatrix Bettie Lund crashed there, killing her passenger, a local cub reporter, Barney Forrester. Lund and another reporter survived.

In spite of that shadow, the airport’s short tenure on Sutherland sometimes inspired careers. Bruce Holloway, who lived nearby on Kingston Pike, rambled around his Bearden Hill home as a youth, and finding himself on Sutherland, became fascinated with flying. During World War II, he became a fighter ace in the Pacific, and later a four-star general in the Air Force, finally commander of the Strategic Air Command. His name is on a stone at Highland Memorial.

In 1937, McGhee Tyson departed for its roomier new home in Blount County. Part of the old air field became West High School. Another part became a golf range; later a site for university housing. For decades, Sutherland housing was favored by foreign students, many of whom lacked cars, but who appreciated the bus routes and, in the 1970s, Knoxville’s first greenway that connected the Sutherland housing to campus. Upon first moving here, many foreign students remarked on Knoxville’s astonishing ethnic diversity, assuming the whole city looked like Sutherland Avenue. They supported what became almost a Little Fertile Crescent, which supported Knoxville’s first ethnic groceries. Indian and Pakistani stores have since closed, but Arabic and Asian groceries survive.

Now the area’s source of foreign students gone, turned to athletic fields, Sutherland’s waiting for whatever’s next.

For more than a century now, Sutherland’s been constantly in flux and may always remain so, lively, dependable, sometimes dynamic, but never in the public eye, except when we send a photographer down to have a look at it.