A computer-generated list of Knoxville’s top 10 historical experiences, based on online queries, caught our attention. It’s an interesting list, and would pose a challenge for anyone trying to experience them all in one day or one weekend:
Knoxville Museum of Art
Knoxville Botanical Gardens and Arboretum
Ijams Nature Center
Marble Springs State Historic Site
It’s not the same as everybody’s list. Conspicuously absent are Blount Mansion, the first frame house ever built this far west, the home of the governor of the Southwest Territory before it became known as Tennessee, and, open since 1925, Knoxville’s oldest historic tourism site; Knoxville’s fascinating graveyards, including Old Gray, founded 1850; the University of Tennessee, and its iconic century-old Ayres Hall, ca. 1871 South College, prehistoric Indian mound, and venerable Neyland Stadium; battleground sites like Fort Dickerson and High Ground Park; the historic Bijou and Tennessee Theatres; the East Tennessee History Center, an expansion of the 1874 Custom House and now home of the region’s best history museum; and Market Square, which has retained its original purpose, and its popularity, for almost 170 years. Still, the list offers a fresh way to look at our history, including several sites we know as historic, and some others we may not instantly think of that way. But they are all historic, in one way or another.
Maple Hall tops this list, though the establishment itself still seems new to some of us. The name is that of a bowling alley built in 2016, which got its name from the lumber they favored for constructing the lanes. But it’s located in a historic building, a large late-Victorian commercial building, one of several built adjacent to each other on the same block in 1897, to replace a huge gap left smoldering after the worst fire in Knoxville history. Designed by the firm of Baumann Brothers, notable for several landmark buildings around town, it served as a wholesale house and, for a longer period, a very successful downtown department store, first known as Penney’s. In fact, Mr. J.C. Penney himself visited this building once a year to be sure everything was shipshape, and it generally was. The big department store lasted into the 1980s, well after most of the old-line department stores had closed or left downtown, and for a few years, the empty store served as a rather spooky site for a few open-minded organizations to host Christmas parties.
In the 21st century, some creative sorts looked to add something new to the reviving downtown. Maple Hall is not downtown Knoxville’s first bowling alley, or its second or third. In fact, the first bowling alley on record was on Market Square before the Civil War, and there was another basement bowling alley at the old Imperial Hotel, at the site of present-day Hyatt Place, by the 1890s. But nobody tried it for a long time, and in 2016 Maple Hall was the first one most people could remember. An interesting reconstruction of the interior, redesigned by architect Mark Heinz with Dewhirst Properties, reimagined the area one known as Penney’s shoe department, created not only bowling lanes but a restaurant and bar above it, one used monthly for presentations by the Knoxville History Project. (Free to visit; fees for bowling, with food and drink available for purchase.)
Built ca. 1834, Crescent Bend House and Garden, 2728 Kingston Pike, is one of Knoxville’s oldest houses. The white-painted brick house was originally the home of Drury Payne Armstrong (1799-1856), a farmer and merchant, and one of the largest landowners in the Knoxville area. He was also a slaveowner, and it’s very likely that enslaved labor created the brick of which the house is constructed. Among his many interests was railroad construction, in which he invested as a young man, but he only barely lived to see Knoxville’s first railroad, which arrived in 1855. His son Marcellus Murat Armstrong (known to his chums as “Whack”) succeeded him here, and his descendants remained in neighboring houses along this tree-shaded section of Kingston Pike well into the 21st century. But other successors lived here, too.
By the 1880s, Judge Jerome Templeton, lived here with his lively family, and elaborately entertained here; after a trip to Europe, he was convinced the house should be improved with a corner turret. A later resident, Mrs. A.P. Lockett, had the turret removed, but changed the old name to Longueval, the French town that played a role in World War I. Almost half a century ago, reviving the older name Crescent Bend, a.k.a. the Armstrong-Lockett House, it became known as a museum attraction. It’s especially known for its display of antique silver, and ask about the legend of the ancient wallpaper. But what you remember best may be the part you don’t see from the road, the terraced gardens that lead down to the river, which were rapturously described by visitors during the Victorian era. (Admission is $7 for adults, with other rates for children and special events. It has limited hours, currently on Fridays and Saturdays, so check before you go.)
Sometimes known as Swan Pond, for a now mostly vanished wetland on its property, Ramsey House, at 2614 Thorngrove Pike, on the east side of town, is a real architectural landmark, as a large stone building constructed in an era of log cabins. It’s one of the oldest houses in the Knoxville area to begin with, built in 1797. It’s one of the only two surviving houses by the English-born and trained architect and furniture-maker Thomas Hope (1757-1820). It’s also the first known structure to be built of Tennessee marble, which is quarried nearby, and which decades later became nationally popular and a major part of our economy in the days when Knoxville was known as the Marble City. Several Tennessee-marble-clad monuments in Washington and New York could be said to trace their lineage to this house. (For more on buildings featuring marble, visit the Candoro Building or explore the Pink Marble Trail.)
Ramsey House’s builder was Pennsylvania-born Francis Ramsey (1764-1820), an important political and financial figure in the early days of Tennessee’s government. The house was the birthplace of his son, J.G.M. Ramsey, physician and pioneer Tennessee historian, author of “Ramsey’s Annals.” Long a private home, it was heralded as a “state shrine” in 1952, when it earned some positive national attention (in Antique magazine) and became a house museum, notable for its period antiques. One of the area’s most durable historic sites, it hosts many of Knoxville’s vintage 1864-rules “base-ball” games. (Admission, $10 for adults; open Wed.-Sat., with tours each hour.)
The Knoxville Museum of Art, at 1050 World’s Fair Park Drive, is the culmination of a century of attempts to start a permanent art museum in Knoxville. It stands on the site of the 1982 World’s Fair’s Japanese Pavilion (which featured, among other things, an artistic painting robot), and represents the first major development on the fair site after the big exposition itself. One of the last designs by Chicago-born architect Edward Larrabee Barnes (1915-2004), who has designed major museums in Dallas and Minneapolis as well as skyscrapers in New York, the 1990 edifice has welcomed hundreds of thousands of lovers of art, and hosted hundreds of musical and cultural events. It’s home to the world’s largest collection of the work of exuberant portraitist and abstract expressionist Beauford Delaney (1901-1979). Its “Higher Ground” exhibit presents a chronological and repeatedly surprising survey of the evolution of East Tennessee art, from antebellum landscapes through the impressionist era (represented here by the mysterious and accomplished Catherine Wiley (1879-1958) and others), Smoky Mountains influenced art, surrealism, and abstract expressionism—as well as the legendary music-related Marion Greenwood mural, “History of Tennessee,” once-controversial and concealed for several decades behind paneling of the university’s ballroom. (Admission is free, with donations encouraged. Open Tuesday-Sunday.)
The Knoxville Botanical Gardens and Arboretum, at 2743 Wimpole Avenue, are a 21st century addition, so new that many Knoxvillians haven’t ever seen this free public attraction, but the property and what makes it unique has a deep history. The site is that of the old Howell Nurseries, a 47-acre botanical laboratory and living supermarket of trees, shrubs, and flowers, with peculiar round stone structures that look medieval but date to about 1940. Associated with that property for two centuries, the Howell family was always trying new things to appeal to the ever-changing tastes of the Knoxville-area gardener, and you can see the evidence of it in this astoundingly diverse collection of living things. Look for the “Secret Garden,” a whimsical memorial evocation inspired by the famous novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who lived in Knoxville for several years in her 1860s-’70s youth. (Free and open daily.)
Journalists hesitate to use the word “unique,” which literally means the only one of its kind in the universe, but Ijams Nature Center, at 2915 Island Home Avenue, may qualify. The 315-acre nature preserve began more than a century ago as a riverside bird sanctuary by illustrator-conservationist Harry Ijams (1876-1954), who raised several lively daughters here in what was for them a family paradise. But what makes it especially memorable today is the large acreage of historic land of marble quarries, some of them abandoned more than a century ago, and all in various stages of reclamation by nature. Altogether, Ijams represents some of the most picturesque spots in the city—all the more astonishing considering that this roamable combination of fields, forests, and rocky outcrops (with a small museum) is all a 10-minute drive from downtown. Ijams is known for mountain biking, rock climbing, boating, nature tours, and occasional musical and dramatic events. (Visiting is free, but donations are encouraged. Open daily.)
Marble Springs, one of the more rural experiences on this list, is in South Knox County, and was once the home of the guy honored in the highway that leads to it—John Sevier (1745-1815). Atypical of East Tennessee’s typically British or Scots-Irish pioneers, Sevier’s wandering family had roots in France and Spain. He became prominent on the frontier through his heroism in the Revolutionary War’s Battle of King’s Mountain, and leadership in both the “Lost State” of Franklin, and as the first governor of Tennessee. Sevier was governor when he attempted to build a house for himself in downtown Knoxville, but finances forced him to think better of it, and he and his wife spent their later years on this agrarian property on the south side. Today it’s a recreated compound of historic log cabins, one of which was long believed to be Sevier’s own home, though recent research suggests it was built soon after his death in 1815. Regardless, Marble Springs may present the most authentically immersive pioneer experience in the area. (Free to visit; $10 to join guided tours. Open Wednesday to Sunday; hours vary by month.)
Although a very old place, Cherokee Caverns, at 8524 Oak Ridge Highway, is still unfamiliar to many lifelong Knoxvillians. It’s older than Blount Mansion, older than the Indian mounds. In fact, it’s older than human life. Still, it’s probably better known now than it was 20 years ago. Located off most beaten paths, several miles from downtown in the northwestern corner of the county, near Solway, the big cave has been waiting patiently for fame. There’s evidence that it was used by Native Americans centuries ago, but its “modern” period begins in 1854, when a farmer named Robert Crudgington explored it and eventually purchased it; his daughter, Margaret Crudgington Gentry, led an effort to make them available to the public. It opened as Gentry’s Cave in 1929. Later, when it was on new Oak Ridge Highway, it was known as Atomic Caverns (there’s a stalactite that resembles a mushroom cloud), then Caveman’s Palace, Palace Caverns, Caverns of the Ridge, Cherokee Firesite Ceremonial Caverns, sometimes serving as a venue for live country music during its mid-century heyday. An attached restaurant was destroyed by fire in 1980, but in recent years a new organization has revived interest in the caverns, with emphasis on motion pictures and annual special events.
It was about 10 years ago that people began noticing the bright and sometimes startling artwork of Strong Alley, which runs between Market Square and Gay Street. It’s named for Benjamin Rush Strong, a vigorous merchant of the 1880s, whose unusual dry-goods store had entrances on both Market Square and Gay Street, connected by a corridor over this alley. It’s rare to peer into his alley today without seeing people taking cell-phone shots. Dubbed “the most Instagrammable spot in Knoxville,” it’s a colorful corridor, currently dominated by a large, professional-looking portrait of Dolly Parton. The service alley between Victorian-era brick buildings still serves the traditional purposes of an alley; it’s where restaurants load in supplies and put out their trash. Its art career started in 2012 (earlier by some accounts) as a crisis of downtown’s success. Maybe as early as the 1990s, the plywood covering windows of empty buildings along then-neglected Wall Avenue attracted both taggers and earnest artists and muralists. It became known as the Wall of Freedom, downtown’s free art gallery. When the buildings of Wall were redeveloped, both artists and their fans missed the plywood, and began eyeing that alley adjacent to it. A coordinated effort, led by artist Jayne McGowan, a local citizen then living at the YWCA, resulted in an alley more attractive than most. She called her effort the Artist Alley Revamp. In recent years, it’s been managed by the more traditional nonprofit Dogwood Arts, which is responsible for most of downtown’s artistic sculpture, and has witnessed everything from “art-slam” competitions to dressy bridal-party shoots. (Free to visit, 24 hours a day; off Wall Avenue between Market Square and Gay Street.)
The Phoenix Pharmacy at 418 South Gay Street is an authentically charming recreation of an old-fashioned soda-fountain, with a real pharmacy that fills your prescriptions, but what makes it a tourist draw is the ice-cream parlor and soda fountain in front. All that opened in 2015, not so long ago, but the name and the building that hosts it are historic, with a story that may be the biggest coincidence in Knoxville’s architectural history. The Phoenix Building, like Maple Hall’s host building, was one of several big wholesale buildings built rapidly after the devastating fire of 1897. It served several purposes over the years, especially as part of Fowler Brothers Furniture Co. But by the late 20th century, it was empty. As downtown just began to revive, ambitious developers took it on to recreate it as a mostly residential building. During the Christmas holidays in 1999, as a result of an error by workers laying the roof, it caught fire, gutting the upper floors, and with significant water damage to the rest of the building. The loss was so extensive that developers first expressed doubt that they could complete the project. After some weeks of mourning the loss, they rallied and decided to go for broke, declaring they would name the building the Phoenix Building, because, like the mythical bird who rose from its own ashes, their effort rose from the ashes of the 1999 fire. Researching the building for historic tax credit purposes, however, they made an astonishing discovery. The same building had originally been known as the Phoenix Building, when it was built in 1897, and even had a statue of a stone phoenix on its roof, visible in some old photographs of downtown. The statue vanished at some point early in the 20th century, and the building’s classical name was forgotten by the 1920s--but somehow fate had it return to the same building more than a century later. (Open daily, with varying hours.)
Head to our History & Heritage page to learn more about these places and others!