Local Color: East Knoxville's Magnolia Avenue

The fifth in a series of photo essays by Shawn Poynter exploring Knoxville's neighborhoods

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

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Magnolia Avenue does tend to get in the news for a lot of the wrong things, and truth be told, it probably does witness more than its share of certain varieties of crime. But it's also where we get together once a year for the Tennessee Valley Fair, in one of the city's oldest and most interesting parks, and it's home of several of Knoxville's most beloved restaurants, like Chandler's, the Lunch House, Dixson's Barbecue, and the 53-year-old Pizza Palace, where we go when we're in the mood for something just a little bolder than what's common elsewhere. It has also been, for decades, the home of East Tennessee Public Television, the studios of Missy Kane and Dr. Bob and Marshall Andy. Pellissippi State Community College's main Knoxville campus is on Magnolia. The Knoxville Zoo, the largest zoological park in the Southern Appalachian region, is just off Magnolia.

Architects and planning professionals still see Magnolia and admire its scale, and what remains of its architecture.

Though it has a lot of them, Magnolia Avenue isn't named for magnolia trees. It's named for a woman. Magnolia Branner was from Georgia, the wife of George M. Branner, a cotton planter, whose plantations in Louisiana had made a fortune. Rather than sitting on a veranda down yonder, the Branners preferred to live in Knoxville. Magnolia Branner's son, H. Bryan Branner, was mayor of Knoxville in 1880, when he was only 29, and later served as an executive with nearby Standard Knitting Mills.

The elaborate mansion known as the Branner House faced Hardee Street, later known as East Jackson. "The Branner House," a humorous short story of affluent-class manners by novelist Anne Armstrong, published in the Yale Review in 1938, is likely based on memories the family home. After George Branner died, in 1884, the surviving Branners moved to another house a little farther out, and left their original mansion to inspire the imaginations of the superstitious. By the late 1880s, it was believed to be haunted. When the local papers published an especially spooky story about it, the Branners had it torn down.

During a suburban residential building boom in the 1880s, the recently widowed Mrs. Branner offered some of her land for a broad new street to a new subdivision to be called Elmwood. Mrs. Branner (1829-1907) spent the last 20 years of her life at 1610 Magnolia, the proudest resident of a street named for herself.

At the time, Magnolia Avenue was a purely suburban street, commencing just outside of the downtown area, at First Creek, just east of Randolph. What's now the downtown part of Magnolia was known before 1920 as Park Avenue.

Plantings of magnolia trees along Magnolia Avenue may have commenced while Magnolia Branner was still alive. Back then, it was all residential, address to maybe two dozen families, but becoming famous as the route to the city's most versatile park, one that's been known as Lake Ottosee and Sterchi Park, but for most of its history as Chilhowee.

Chilhowee Park was a popular destination in Victorian-era Knoxville, and the primary reason that Magnolia Avenue became the route of East Tennessee's first electric streetcar, in 1890. It was, in fact, one of the earliest electric streetcars in the South. Before New Orleans had electric streetcars, Magnolia Avenue did.

Chilhowee Park hosted Knoxville's biggest gatherings before the World's Fair, including the National Conservation Exposition of 1913. Everybody from Teddy Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, Booker T. Washington, Helen Keller all came out Magnolia Avenue to speak at Knoxville's big fairs. The park also hosted hundreds of minor league and semi-pro baseball games, a few of the University of Tennessee's early football games, outdoor drama, acrobatic shows, and dirigible exhibitions.

Just across Magnolia from the park, beginning in the 1890s, former slave Cal Johnson ran his famous Speedway, a horse-racing track. At Johnson's Speedway, Knoxvillians saw their first aeroplane, in 1910. Johnson had to cut down a tree in the center to allow the plane to land. Johnson liked that tree, but thanks to his sacrifice, aviator Phil Parmelee landed a Wright Flyer, during the Appalachian Exposition.

James Agee described the streetcar trip to Chilhowee Park in the original draft of the autobiographical novel that became known as A Death in the Family. It was deleted in the famous published version, but resurfaced in UT Press' 2007 version: "It was a long way out to Chilhowee Park but even the ride out there was fun because the streetcar was all open. … They went all the way down Gay Street and out across the viaduct by the Southern Depot and then made a curve to the right and then went straight again, out Magnolia Avenue." Agee goes on to recall how his mother would always remark that her own family had lived on Magnolia when the first moved to Knoxville from Michigan, apparently somewhere in the vicinity of Cherry Street, but that the house had burned down, leaving rubble still visible during the author's youth. What follows is a story about Agee's father's colorful encounter with carnival hucksters in one of the fairs of the era. Harper's magazine published it in 2007, as a story called "Enter the Ford."

Because of the park and popular streetcar ride, Magnolia was a conspicuous place, known well to generations of Knoxvillians, and that may be one reason it sprouted some impressive architecture. By the 1920s, it was an auto route, and one of Knoxville's most traveled, part of Highways 11 and 70, the road to Asheville and also to Virginia and the northeast.

Magnolia was the ca. 1946 birthplace of the earliest (uncaffeinated) version of the soft drink Mountain Dew. The nondescript old Hartman Beverage Co. building is still standing.

It was also the home of Swan's Bakery, one of Knoxville's two best-known native bakeries, and the sponsor of the popular 1940s gospel-harmony group the Swan Silvertones. The Swan building's still there, too.

Magnolia was also, for almost half a century, home to Knoxville's first Catholic High School. There one student named Cormac McCarthy learned some useful words, and published his first known story, in the school paper, about an adventure sneaking into Chilhowee Park. Catholic High moved west, and its original building is now Pellissippi State Community College.

There's much still debated about Hank Williams' last night on earth, but it's known that around midnight on New Year's Eve, 1952-53, his young chauffeur was driving him down Magnolia, on the way to West Virginia.

Just as Magnolia became famous for innovations in transportation in 1890, with Knoxville's first electric streetcar, and 1910, for Knoxville's first airplane flight, a major transportation turning point happened to arrive on Magnolia again in 1951, when the city was planning its first elevated highway. A city project known as the Magnolia Extension, or the Magnolia Expressway, connected Magnolia, at Gay Street, to Middlebrook Pike. It was only a few years before it was acquired by the federal I-40 project. Which, based on the sequence of events in the 1950s and '60s, might have struck some observers as a coast-to-coast extension of the Magnolia Expressway. But it rendered old Magnolia Avenue itself less essential to the regular routines of most suburbanites.

Some scenes on Magnolia, including a glimpse of the old Park Theatre, appear in the offbeat 1996 John Turturro/Sam Rockwell film Box of Moonlight. The Park was demolished a few years later.

Magnolia's still there, one of Knoxville's most interesting and least-predictable avenues.