St. John's Creative History—and the Urban-Church Paradox

Churches occupy a unique place in the prospects of any downtown. They're often among the most beautiful buildings in a city, and that's certainly true of Knoxville, and in particular of St. John's Episcopal Cathedral downtown. The original 1891 corner building, the second-oldest church structure downtown, is an early example of the work of architect J.W. Yost (1847-1923), whose buildings are best known in Ohio and New York.

In terms of the number of historical figures who have attended it, St. John's may be the most historic church in Knoxville. It was the home church of a remarkable pantheon of creative people, from English-born Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of The Secret Garden, to hobo folksinger Harry "Haywire Mac" McClintock, author of "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum." This building itself witnessed the 1910 baptism of author James Agee; due to some other demolitions, St. John's is the only Knoxville building still standing that Agee is known to have been intimately associated with. It also witnessed the 1906 funeral of Gustavus Knabe, the conductor-composer who's Knoxville's only connection to the classical era of Mendelssohn and Schumann. Its longtime rector Thomas Humes, one of the most interesting Knoxvillians of the 19th century, was the city's first historian and later president of the local college at the time it became the University of Tennessee.

But churches are problematic for urban areas, and not just because they're not on the tax rolls, and when they expand, they take more land from potential to be a city asset. A downtown church's success doesn't automatically help a city in a measurable way.

Churches aren't as lively places as they once were, in the era when the hosted bake sales and progressive lectures on weekday evenings. Today, even an active, popular church may be completely empty most of the time. And property that lacks regular traffic, and especially residents, tends to attract crime. For many years, "St. John's Corner" was known to police as an assignation spot. Ten years ago, male prostitutes were conspicuous on that corner in the early evenings.

Pedestrians who frequent this area at night have noticed that the "St. John's Corner" era seems to be over, perhaps thanks to more evening pedestrian traffic and and new residential development. A couple dozen people live on adjacent Market Street, watching at all hours.