1. Clinch Avenue Geese
Along Clinch Avenue, between Gay and State, is the big structure that contains the Tennessee Theatre. While the interior is extravagantly decorated with dozens of colorful designs and symbols from all over the world, the outside of the building is much more conservative. But there’s one striking exception. High above the sidewalk alongside Clinch, within a circular stone medallion of sorts, is a stylized long-necked goose, almost cartoonish in style. Seven of them, in fact. The ones to the right appeared there when the theater was completed in 1928. It’s not clear that many people noticed them then, or whether there was any announcement of their meaning—or whether they had any meaning. But they came at the dawn of the movie-cartoon era, and this lighthearted symbol may have been intended to make people think about stepping inside the theater to see a cartoon.
During the massive 2003-5 renovation that included an extension of the theater’s “house” cantilevered over State Street (an architectural rarity in itself), designers chose to replicate the goose designs on the new construction, adding four new ones. By the way, the area above the old retail spaces was once a balcony, an opportunity for theatergoers to step outside for a smoke. It appears that it was used only in the theater’s early years.
2. Cal Johnson Building
At 301 State Street, look up at the building across from Marble Alley Lofts. It’s an old building but average in style, “vernacular,” as they say. But on the front façade, up toward the third floor is a plaque you can read from the ground. Built 1898 / Calvin F. Johnson. That’s the city’s most visible signature of an extraordinary man who built the building, and was well-known in his day, partly because of his remarkable story; Cal Johnson was a Black man who was raised in slavery. Emancipated as a teenager, Johnson worked hard and made wise investments, eventually owning a chain of saloons and a number of thoroughbred racehorses. His racetrack, in East Knoxville, was famous, and to some extent still is—the half-mile oval, now paved, has had houses on it since the 1920s. He also helped the city establish the Cal Johnson Park, now site of the Cal Johnson Recreation Center, not far from here on Hall of Fame Drive. Cal Johnson and his wife lived next door to this building, just to the north, facing State, until his death in 1925. It was demolished not long afterward.
3. Million Dollar Shoe Advertisement
From Jackson Avenue in the Old City, at the intersection of State Street, you can see an eye-catching advertisement for a business that closed almost a century ago: the distinctive cross-hatched logo of the Haynes-Henson Shoe Company. The front façade, at Jackson Ateliers, has been repainted in the style of the original, but on the State Street side, the paint is 100 years old, but still legible: “KNOXVILLE’S MILLION DOLLAR SHOE HOUSE / HAYNES-HENSON SHOE CO. / SHOES AND RUBBERS / THE DOUBLE H LINE.” Rubbers were, of course, rubber boots, a rather new innovation at the time Haynes-Henson carried them. A major southeastern manufacturer and wholesaler, the company went out of business in 1932, early in the Great Depression, after which this building became part of the JFG coffee-roasting complex. But the company left its mark on Knoxville in other ways. The wealthy, philanthropy-minded Henson heirs, especially Martha Henson, supported several major projects, like the Williams-Henson Home for Boys in South Knoxville, Henson Hall on UT’s campus, and the 1910 construction of the still-current St. John’s Lutheran Church, at nearby Emory Place. The Haynes family, on the other hand, suffered a series of tragedies, including premature deaths, the most perplexing of which was the unsolved locked-door murder — or was it suicide? — of widow Lillie Haynes in her Broadway mansion in 1928.
4. Miller’s Building Caryatids
The big Miller’s Building at the northwest corner of Gay and Union is now an office building and doesn’t get as much foot traffic as it did from 1902 to 1972, when it was Knoxville’s biggest department store. Its grand beaux-arts design drew attention even in its own day, partly for the fascinating caryatids—stone images of buxom nude women—holding up the roof high above the sidewalk over the Gay Street entrance. The four women were all different, as if sculpted from different models, one of them markedly unattractive, as if a deliberate exception to the ideals of beauty represented by the others.
In the mid-1970s, during an ill-advised effort to modernize the building by covering it with reflective glass, they all disappeared. Some Knoxvillians who remembered the statuary assumed they were still there, under the glass. More and more, though, people were unaware the building itself was still there, within that glass box.
However, in the late 1990s, when a preservation-minded architect named Duane Grieve redeveloped the building, stripping away the modernist glass covering, he and many others were dismayed to find that the ladies, as well as some of the other period ornamentation, had been cut away. There were rumors that some of them had been acquired for garden décor. Following some hints, Grieve found that one of them had been saved in the basement of another building on Gay Street. He had four fiberglass copies of it made and installed them with the new reconstruction of the façade. After more than a quarter century, they’re still there, and much admired.
5. Ziegler Building on Market Square
Market Square’s buildings date mainly from the 1860s to the 1920s, and beyond their varying brick facades, you can spot a couple of subtle distinctions. On the eye-catching façade at 9 Market Square, above Soccer Taco, is the name ZIEGLER. A German-immigrant butcher who, with his partners Metler and Fanz, ran a business here, Adolph Ziegler (1844-1923) financed the construction of this 1880s building, which shows some of the hallmarks of the stylishly grandiose Richardsonian style. An early leader of Knoxville’s developing meatpacking industry, Ziegler retired around 1900 to live in a handsome Victorian mansion on the north side of town, near Sharp’s Gap.
Another feature worth pointing out, on the other side, is an unusually elaborate arched pediment on the façade of Tomato Head’s main entrance; at its top, until recent years, was the remnant of a stone mortar and pestle. It was originally the façade of George Washington Albers’ pharmacy. Albers was successful here and lived nearby on Market Street. He and his brother, Andrew Jackson Albers, were the Ohio-born sons of a German immigrant. Both learned to be pharmacists while serving in the Union Navy during the Civil War and settled in Knoxville afterward; A.J. Albers was the more ambitious of the two, and founded a major wholesale pharmaceutical company that lasted for well over a century, becoming known as Albers Drugs.
6. Underground Knoxville
In 1919, the 100 block of Gay Street underwent a major makeover, when the street was raised about 15-20 feet above its original elevation, creating what was in reality and in sometimes-extravagant legend, something called “Underground Knoxville.” The motive for the project, the biggest city-funded project up to that date, was to find an engineering solution to the hazardous “Death Dip” between the southern part of Gay Street and the bridge over the railroad yards. You can walk down the elevated sidewalk today without guessing you’re not on the original level, unless you look down at certain spots on the east side of the street. One of the most dramatic views is at 122 South Gay: the Commerce Building, dating from 1891. If you look down to the left of the entrance, you’ll see three levels of residences below the street level. Two of them feature subterranean balconies, a rarity anywhere in the world. It shows how steeply the topography drops off from the high bluff that forms the platform of most of downtown Knoxville.
By the way, diagonally across the street, at 141 South Gay (where Harvest is today), is what may be Knoxville’s best example of a conceit we associate with the Wild West: a false top floor with a façade that’s only a façade. It’s the site still identified as the Farmers and Traders Bank, built in 1891. It has an impressive high third-floor gable with no third floor.
7. Jackson Avenue Architecture
The Jackson Avenue buildings between Gay Street and Central offer some of the most elaborate ornamentation of the Victorian era, specifically the Richardsonian Romanesque style, which reigned in Knoxville for only a very short time, from about 1887 to 1893. Most of the buildings on the north side of the street, designed by local firm Baumann Bros., were built during that window, and showcase a creative variety of patterns and materials in brick, stone, and metal. Perhaps the most bizarre features visible today are the angry-looking creatures whose faces appear in metalwork high on the façade at 125 West Jackson, above the coffee house known as Awaken. They were presumably only whimsical in intent. These buildings hosted mainly grocery wholesalers who unloaded their bulk commodities from the railroad loading docks in back for sale to customers, mostly store proprietors, in the front.
Incidentally, the name CARHART, embossed in stone at 121 W. Jackson, is the name entrepreneur Henry B. Carhart, who dealt in sugar and coffee. His once-ambitious company was flattened by the Panic of 1893, and he moved back to New York. After 130 years, that marker still advertises a company that went out of business before the invention of the automobile.
8. First Presbyterian Graveyard
The First Presbyterian Church cemetery is one of downtown’s most interesting sidewalk sights. It’s interesting partly for what you see, and for what you don’t see. The graveyard includes only one representation of a cross, a cenotaph in memory of Marguerite Dabney, teenage daughter of UT’s President Charle Dabney; she died of scarlet fever. It’s the newest stone there, added decades after most of the burials. Until after the Civil War, early Tennessee protestants tended to avoid images of the cross, considering them “graven images” forbidden in the Ten Commandments.
One of its most famous graves is so close to the sidewalk you can read it over the fence, when the light’s right. Near the northwestern corner of the graveyard, it’s the modest 1809 grave of Samuel Carrick, a major figure in our history, founder of both First Presbyterian Church, Knoxville’s first formal congregation, and Blount College, which evolved long after his death into the University of Tennessee. All that’s interesting enough without this mystery: The grave is inscribed Samuel CZR Carrick. That CZR has been the cause of speculation since at least 1894. A couple of rare documents suggest that Carrick sometimes signed Czare as if it’s a middle name, but the word is almost nonexistent in the western world; the full story of what CZR means remains a mystery. Interestingly, the lengthy inscription on the lower part of the stone, now hardly legible at all, is not Biblical. It’s an excerpt of a grim poem about death by 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Blair.
9. Custom House Steps
The oldest part of the East Tennessee History Center, on Market Street beside Clinch, is an 1874 building once known as the Custom House. Built by the federal government in an effort to remind us of federal authority in the years after the Civil War, it was designed by Washington architect Alfred Mullett and is probably the first large structure built primarily of Tennessee marble. A couple of generations of Knoxvillians knew the building mainly as the region’s main post office, whose main entrance was here on Market Street, through an aperture now used as a window. Hundreds visited it every day, a fact that becomes obvious when you look at the top step, which is worn down by several decades of shoe leather. The post office moved to its new building on Main Street in 1934. These steps got some more wear in years to come, when the Tennessee Valley Authority used it for many years for offices and records; it later served as the first main entrance of the Museum of East Tennessee History. The Market Street doors have been closed to pedestrians for about 20 years, since they were reimagined as windows when the building was reconfigured with a major expansion with the new main entrance on Gay Street.
10. Marble Eagles
The old post office building on Main Street, designed by Baumann and Baumann and built between 1932 and 1934, has long been admired by architects, especially for its use of pink Tennessee marble. It still hosts a small branch of the post office; its old federal district courtroom, upstairs, which witnessed many dramatic moments in its 70 years before it was replaced by the nearby Howard Baker Federal Courthouse; the beautiful old courtroom is now used by the Tennessee State Supreme Court. Outside, its most distinctive features are high on the front façade: four stylized eagles. Their sculptor was Albert Milani, an Italian sculptor who landed in Knoxville around 1912 to work on the Holston Building. A Knoxville History Project Art Wrap on a traffic box on the other side of Main Street tells their story.
11. Cate Building Gargoyles
At 713 Market Street is a three-story brick building, an early 20th-century residential building, known as the Cate, that’s been used for offices and other purposes since then. Just above the main marble front entrance, are two scowling stone gargoyles, hardly bigger than toys, seated on the ledge. One of them is reading a book. That image made a perfect cover image for KHP’s “Knoxville: A Walking Literary Guide.” The origin of the gargoyles, which are probably not as old as the building (perhaps dating from the 1970s), remains a mystery.