The Seven Wonders of Ancient Knoxville

Landmarks, some nearly forgotten, that were built to impressâ"or astonish


by Jack Neely

You may have heard about the international effort to update the Seven Wonders of the World. Someone felt an urgent call to come up with a different Seven Wonders for the 21st century, considering that six of the original Seven Wonders, chosen over 2,000 years ago and now called the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, are gone without obvious traces. Maybe that's a cautionary tale about Wonders in general. In life, and in civilization, amazing things tend not to last very long.

But maybe this new nomination of Wonders, this insistence that Wonders should still exist, is missing the point. Part of the mystique of the old Seven Wonders was that, except for what remains of the pyramids, they don't exist. They are, like the legend of Atlantis, intriguing because they're gone. Atlantis seems to have been reborn in the popular imagination in every generation for the last two millennia. If Atlantis still existed, assuming it ever did, you know as well as I do that it would be an island resort with a Starbucks and a Hard Rock Café, and a lot of people in bathing suits talking on cell phones. It would be unlikely to inspire any pagans anywhere; Atlantis is preserved in the world's imagination by its absence.

Likewise, the enduring appeal of the Seven Wonders is that they didn't endure. That state of goneness is, I think, what kept me shoving the well-worn Seven Wonders slide disk into my View Master, when I was a kid, and kept me thumbing back to the significantly different pictures of them in an old 1940s Compton's Encyclopedia, which was my source of all knowledge.

I remember staring at depictions of the Lighthouse at Pharos and the Colossus of Rhodes, two of the coolest things ever built. They were wonders on two levels. One wonder was how they got to be so magnificent to begin with, what amount of wealth and effort and passion by mortal humans could result in something so spectacular. The other wonder wasâ"wellâ"what happened to them? Stone doesn't disappear. Were they swallowed into the earth's crust, to be worshipped by mysterious mud people in some giant underground lair? Do parts of them exist, unrecognized, as fragments: a Toe of Rhodes serving as somebody's garden bench? Is the giant statue of Zeus now at the bottom of the Aegean, littered with Perrier bottles and a warren for Mediterranean crabs?

Anyway, it occurred to me that there are also astonishing things in our own city's past, wonders found today only in pictures and written accounts. There must be at least Seven Wonders of Ancient Knoxville.

The following are my nominations for that title:

1. The Aerial Cable Car. Installed around 1893, it carried intrepid passengers from a spot on what's now UT's agriculture campus across the river and up to Cherokee Bluffs, then known as Longstreet's Heights, 200 feet above the surface. Two 20 hp generators hauled the car up to a â“pleasure resortâ” at the top. The large clifftop park, apparently intended to be a major urban attraction, may have been the elusive, barely recorded â“Knoxville projectâ” that the elderly Frederick Law Olmsted, famous as the designer of New York's Central Park, was known to be working on in the early 1890s.

Making the best of the gravity advantage, the 16-passenger car made the trip down and across in only 30 seconds. Soon after its opening, Scientific American ran an illustrated front-page feature about the innovative attraction, with helpful details, as if other cities might be tempted by the Knoxville-born trend. It came to a sudden end one Sunday afternoon in February, 1894, when the pulling cable snapped, killing one passenger and injuring a few more who had to be rescued by steamboat from a car tangled 135 feet high above the river's surface. Though the owners announced they would repair and improve the attraction, it's not clear whether it ever ran again. In any case the park seems to have gone to seed afterwards.

2. The Ella Albers Memorial Fountain was once the most striking feature of entering already ornate Old Gray Cemetery. This monument of beaux-arts statuary in cast iron and bronze was   wholesale druggist Andrew Jackson Albers' memorial to his wife, who died young, still in her 30s, in 1889. Erected soon afterward within a pool of marble, it stood 20 feet tall and featured three life-sized statues of women â“lost in silent meditation,â” according to a newspaper account, one of whom constantly poured water from an Egyptian pitcher. The water flowed day and night â“like sweet memories of the past.â” A mist constantly rose from the marble pool.

After some years, the fountain stopped spouting water. Though some respected published sources claim it was sold for scrap metal during World War II, a newspaper photograph proves it was still there in 1949 in â“remarkably good condition.â” On closer examination, though, it was obviously corroding, especially around the upper basin from which water had cascaded; the Albers Fountain was removed by the son of the man who had it erected. The family plot, and its circular arrangement of memorials, is still intact, and has been the location of a couple of respectful garden parties in recent years.

3. The Sanford Arboretum. Around 1925, businessman Alfred Sanford, longtime publisher of the old Knoxville Journal and Tribune , retired early and began to plan something lovelier than newspapers, a sort of revenge of the trees felled to produce them: an arboretum. An outdoor museum of all trees native to Tennessee. Sanford enlisted the famous Olmsted Brothers, the successful sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, to design the arboretum, which occupied 20 acres between Kingston Pike, adjacent to Sanford's residence and the river on the town side of Sequoyah Hills. It flourished in the 1930s, but when Sanford fell ill in the early '40s, he offered it to the University of Tennessee's botany department, which reportedly feared that it couldn't afford to maintain the hundreds of trees.

It fell into ruin after Sanford's death in 1946, and was soon subdivided into residential lots. Some stray trees survive, though, and for a few homeowners in the neighborhood, a â“Sanford Arboretum treeâ” or two in their back yard is a mark of distinction.

4. Chilhowee Park's original exposition hall. Known, prosaically, as the â“Main Exhibit Building,â” and later by the mouthful â“Liberal Arts and Machinery Building,â” it was a gorgeous palace of learning in Chilhowee Park. Built for the 1910 Appalachian Exposition, it was also central to the much-larger Conservation Exposition of 1913, and provided 80,000 square feet of space for exhibits. The great white building, probably inspired by the White City of the Chicago World's Fair a few years earlier, lit up at night by thousands of lightbulbs, also presided grandly over the early Tennessee Valley Fairs.

Destroyed by a spectacular fire in June, 1938, it was replaced by the plainer Jacob Building. All the large white buildings erected for the grand early 20th-century expositions were replaced by the mid-20th century, with the exception of one: the marble gazebo that once served as a bandstand for Edwardian-era dances, and where Teddy Roosevelt once spoke.

5. Fort Sanders. The actual fort, I mean, remembered by no one who is actually alive. A large earthwork, commenced by Confederates but completed by the occupying Union army, it extended roughly between 16th and 17th Streets along the crest of the ridge in the neighborhood that bears its name. Fort Sanders fended off a desperate Confederate assault in November, 1863â"accounting for Knoxville's 20 minutes of fame in that warâ"and was by far the largest feature of what Gen. William T. Sherman considered the best network of city fortifications he'd ever seen. A significant tourist attraction for half a century after the war was over, it appeared in promotional photographs for Knoxville. Seventeenth Street, originally called Fort Sanders Avenue, may have been built originally just to offer access. Fort Sanders hosted a major reunion of both blue and gray in 1890, attended by tens of thousands of graying veterans, and climaxed by the illumination of the massive ramparts of the old fort with creative fireworks.

At the turn of the century there was sentiment to save what remained of it as a national park, and a 1910 tourists' guide recommends it among Knoxville's don't-miss-it sites. But Fort Sanders seems to have disappeared by degrees soon afterward, as one developer after another graded it away to build houses. James Agee claimed to remember an overgrown tuft of it, ca. 1915. By 1925 or so, it seems to have been gone altogether. Ironically, the hospital built near it, and the neighborhood, originally called West Knoxville, or later West End, were never known by the name of the fort until after it vanished.

6. Staub's Opera House. Swiss immigrant Peter Staub, lingering in Tennessee after the bitter demise of a utopian community for Swiss immigrants he'd called Gruetli, northwest of Chattanooga, moved to Knoxville, partly to escape the wrath of disappointed Swiss colonists who were expecting something more appealing than backwoods Tennessee. He redeemed himself here, with style. Convinced Knoxville deserved all the amenities of any European city, Staub built a large opera house on Gay Street in 1872, the first big auditorium ever built in a city that still had a few log cabins downtown. With its multiple balconiesâ"four levels of seating, including a â“dress circleâ” and 10 private boxesâ"it may have seated as many as 1,800 and was adorned with a fresco portrait of William Shakespeare, whose works inspired several operas, on its ceiling. Though it hosted more vaudeville than opera, Staub's attracted much of the international talent of the day: Sarah Bernhardt, Ethel Barrymore, Anna Pavlova. Sometimes lecturers like Frederick Douglass appeared there, packing the place.

Under the 20th-century name the Lyric, it languished, hosting wrestling bouts. It was apparently only a shadow of its former self when, in 1956, it was torn down to make way for a grand new Miller's Department Store. Which, of course, was never built. The site served for years as a parking lot before the construction of Plaza Tower, still the tallest building in East Tennessee.  

7. We'll defer to others about what should be the Seventh Wonder of Ancient Knoxville. Several plausible Wonders might fit the bill:

â"The Vendome. (Sweet old ladies have always insisted it be pronounced in the French way, as Vondome .) Designed by Ohio architect Leon Beaver in the 1880s, and built on Clinch Avenue between Market Street and Walnut, it was an impressive apartment building of brick and stone, five stories of variegated porticos, plus a grand turret. It looked something like a half-city-block version of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Funny, all of the depictions of it available at the McClung Collection were drawings, some of them idealized, as if the Vendome were too ethereal for anything as mundane as photography. â“Knoxville's Exclusive Apartment Houseâ” was originally 25 or 30 upscale apartments, but in its last years, it had close to 60 units. When it was torn down in the early '40s, it became a â“Park Rite Auto Park.â”

â"Ross Flats, the large and elaborate marble-and-brick apartment building on Church at Walnut. Three stories combining several old-world architectural styles in brick and stone, it was designed by Illinois architect R.Z. Gill. It was a fascinating place just to look at, one of a few Knoxville buildings of note mentioned in an 1890s survey of American cities.

It was the subject of a rapturous News Sentinel feature in early 1973, about the time it was being sold to East Knox County industrialist Harold Burkhart. At the time, some enthusiastic young people were living in and working out of the building, attracted to the turret and loggia, the skylights in the topmost floor, and the penthouse on top; one had opened an art gallery called Gallerie Omnibus. Very soon after that article appeared, though, it was torn down to become the â“Knox Allright Auto Park.â” The site is still a surface parking lot today. Ross Flats has become kind of a posthumous cause celebre. If it were still intact today, even in less than ideal condition, modern downtown developers agree the building would almost certainly sell for several million.

â"The Empire Building, on Market at Church, introduced elevators to the city; now it's remembered as probably the tallest building ever demolished in Knoxville.

â"The Market House. Built in 1898, it replaced an earlier, much smaller, more conventional Southern market house, making room for dozens of interior stalls, a good-sized auditorium, and connected to an existing City Hall, which contained the police headquarters.

In the novel Suttree , Cormac McCarthy described â“the markethouse where brick the color of dried blood rose turreted and cupolaed and crazed into the heat of the day form on form in demented accretion without precedent or counterpart in the annals of architecture.â” It would be good if Knoxville still had anything that could be described that way, even if it was too big for the space, and even if it would have prevented the open urban plaza that has evolved as Market Square.

â"The Fulton Mansion on Lyons View. Built in 1929 by inventor-industrialist Weston Fulton on a bizarre plan, combining classical and Arabic influences, which reportedly grew more exotic as the visitor ascended its four levels, it was a melange that architect Charlie Barber protested, even as he was making it possible. The house incorporated an elevator, a ballroom, and an observation tower, allegedly built so Fulton could see Highland Memorial Cemetery, where his son was buried after his death in a 1928 car wreck. The family left the mansion after Fulton's death in 1946, and it did time as a dormitory for nuns before it was torn down in the 1960s. The guardhouse is still there, at the entrance to Westcliff Apartments, which replaced the mansion.

â"Belcaro, built on the ridge overlooking Fountain City, was a European-style chateau with elaborate Italian gardens on 81 landscaped acres, so impressive that its first resident insisted the name of the house be engraved on his tombstone: â“Hugh Lawson McClung, of Belcaro.â” It was torn down unexpectedly in 1996 for a new development.

â"Savage Gardens were established on a street not yet known as Garden Avenue in Fountain City, around 1920, by English-born industrialist Arthur Savage. It originally resembled a fanciful little village of odd stone buildings, a medieval-style tower, a Chinese pagoda, a sundial, a rose arch, a teahouse, and several interconnecting ponds. It was reportedly never quite the same after it was heavily damaged by a 1934 tornado. Unlike the others on this list, Savage Gardens still exists, in a more modest version of itself. The fountains no longer run, and the plantings aren't nearly as elaborate.

â"Cal Johnson's fountain. The marble fountain was the centerpiece of Cal Johnson Park, near what was then the corner of Church and Mulvaney . It's not that it was spectacular in design, though judging by pictures, it was a very pretty fountain. What best qualifies it a wonder is the story of the wealthy philanthropist who donated it to the city. Cal Johnson was a black man raised to be a slave. Most of the park disappeared during urban renewal, when it gave way to a recreation center and another building, circa 1960.

No one seems to know what happened to the fountain. Wherever it is, it may be the only one like it in the world.

â"The bronze Indian obtainedâ"or almost obtainedâ"to stand at the head of Cherokee Boulevard in 1925. Reportedly, the developers balked at the $10,000 price tagâ"something like $200,000, in modern dollarsâ"and sent it back. Whether it was actually erected in its intended spot is unclear, but some say the metal emblem on the stone arch at that spot, a depiction of a mounted Plains-style Indian (they were developers, not anthropologists), was meant to evoke or complement the lost statue.

Or maybe there's something else altogether. Fill one in of your own. Or build one. Knoxville could use another Wonder or two.


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