The University of Tennessee is arguably the largest entity in Knoxville, and one of the oldest. But how well do we know it? About 100,000 people gather there now and then, especially in the fall to watch a football game, but may not see much of the rest of the university. But UT’s campus presents a pretty fascinating walk. In an afternoon on campus, a visitor can behold a 150-year-old academic building, a prehistoric Indian mound, a Victorian gardener’s cottage, and a building where Russian pianist-composer Sergei Rachmaninoff performed the final concert of his long career—not long after Frank Sinatra sang in the same space—and, of course, one of the largest football stadiums ever built in America. It’s a historic landmark, too.
The Knoxville History Project recently came up with a self-guided tour of campus, with emphasis on history and architecture. This fall is also witnessing the publication of Bearing the Torch, by Prof. Bob Hutton, the first scholarly book length history of UT in almost 40 years.
Located on a river peninsula, bisected by creeks, with its nucleus on the steepest hill in central Knoxville, UT is geographically interesting to begin with. That hilltop is the oldest part of campus, dating back to the administration of John Quincy Adams (1825-1829). UT dates its founding to 1794, when Samuel Carrick established Blount College downtown. His school, then known as East Tennessee College, moved west to the Hill upon finishing its first building in 1828. That building, damaged by Civil War shelling, was torn down for the construction of Ayres Hall—which, completed in 1921, became the university’s signature building. Impressive from a distance, Ayres is extraordinary up close, when you can make out the gargoyles. They say that the checkboard theme on UT’s football field was inspired by the checkerboard pattern on Ayres’ tower.
Nearby is South College, UT’s oldest structure, dating to 1871, when former Unionist Episcopalian rector named Thomas Humes was president. The college was the enjoying the fruits of becoming the first public university in the South to receive major federal funding through the Morrill Act, largely thanks to post-Civil War Republican politics, which positioned what was then called East Tennessee University as the University of Tennessee in 1879. Behind the building, at the bottom level of South College is Ray’s Place, an unpretentious dining place that dates to the 1940s, if you count its predecessors, which makes it one of Knoxville’s oldest restaurants.
Alumni Memorial is not as famous as it might be if it were not dwarfed on one side by the Hill, and on the other side by Neyland Stadium. Many Knoxvillians say they’ve never heard of it. But it should be one of the most famous buildings in Knoxville. Built in 1932, it was one of the most distinctive designs of architect Charlie Barber, who loved the Gothic Revival style evident in the arched stonework. The building served several purposes, a setting for lectures by the likes of poet Carl Sandburg and Eleanor Roosevelt—and, later, Tennessee Williams, James Gregory, and Timothy Leary. It was also a gym where UT’s men’s basketball team played until they moved to a larger facility and turned it over to the women’s team; the Pat Summitt legend was born here, as the aggressive young coach led her Lady Vols to multiple national championships. But it also hosted campus dances, and the orchestras that played for them, and it served, for about 30 years, as Knoxville’s de-facto municipal auditorium. Both as a UT dance venue and as a city concert hall, it racked up a very impressive record for public performances: Glenn Miller, Paul Whiteman, Chick Webb, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey (whose entrancing young singer was Frank Sinatra) all performed for UT dances here. Among those pop performers who made appearances here were Bob Hope, Doris Day, Al Jolson, Nina Simone—and in later years the B-52s and the Clash. Meanwhile, classical immortals Jascha Heifetz, John McCormack, and Sergei Rachmaninoff also performed in the same big room. Rachmaninoff didn’t mean it to be his final performance, but feeling bad, he canceled the rest of his 1943 tour, and died of cancer a few weeks later. A statue commemorates that brave performance nearby in World’s Fair Park.
Probably a few million Americans have been to games at Neyland Stadium, but perhaps not many of them have thought about it as a historic building. It began as a simple gridiron, Shields-Watkins Field, planned and landscaped in 1921 by a big volunteer effort involving students, alumni and interested citizens. It originally had bleachers, like a high-school field. Coach Robert Neyland began his career coaching on that field, and by the 1940s, his teams were so popular they began building a stadium around it. Architects love the fact that the old masonry “horseshoe” is still visible in there, right where it witnessed the Vols’ first big undisputed national championship, in 1951. Once the biggest football stadium in America, Neyland is still in the top 10, whether the Vols are or not.
On rare occasions, Neyland hosts non-athletic events, memorably in 1970, when a Billy Graham evangelical crusade featured both Johnny Cash and President Richard Nixon, drawing hundreds of antiwar demonstrators—and in 1985, when the Jacksons, featuring superstar brother Michael Jackson, performed three nights here to capacity crowds. The stadium had a star turn in 2017, when the west side was a setting for a scene in Burt Reynold’s final movie, The Last Movie Star.
A 2010 statue of Neyland by well-known sports sculptor Blair Buswell is on the western side; a relatively new array of statues of standout African American players is on stadium’s northern end. And Neyland is one of only a few college-football stadiums adjacent to a significant waterway, the Tennessee River, which gave rise to the Vol Navy, a collection of hundreds of pleasure craft, some from many river miles away, who convene at nearby docks on Game Day.
By the way, if you’re looking for another sports statue, go to the corner of Phil Fulmer Way and Lake Loudoun Blvd. Pat Head Summitt, one of the winningest coaches in college-basketball history, was still around with several of her Lady Vol stars in 2013, for the emotional dedication of this statue by Texas-based sculptor Dave Adickes.
Circle Park is a tree-shaded green space with a slow one-way drive around it. It’s the location of modernist buildings designed in the 1960s, including McClung Museum, a compact 60-year-old museum of almost everything, including fossil relics: that’s a life-size replica of an Edmontosaurus skeleton out front. But the disk-shaped park itself has a lot of history, and not just from the counterculture era, when it saw antiwar demonstrations. It actually dates to the 1880s, when this was not part of any college campus, but a suburban residential area. Surrounding the park were once grand Victorian houses, and the Circle Park streetcar would ferry passengers from downtown to this, one of Knoxville’s first public parks. At its fore is the Volunteer statue, also known as the Torchbearer, a bronze of a classical figure bearing a torch before him. The flame has burned almost constantly since the statue’s installation in 1968. The basic design of the statue dates to 1931, but it took many years and a student initiative to get it installed.
UT is one of only three or four college campuses in America to feature a genuine Indian Mound, believed to be a burial mound dating to more than 1,000 years ago. It’s on the Agricultural campus, between Third Creek and the Tennessee River, an area designated around 1870 as the university’s “experimental farm.” Anthropologists can only speculate about the people who built the mound—we don’t know exactly where they lived or what they called themselves—but they built to last. It’s arguably the oldest building in the Knoxville area, and the most intact mound of its kind in the area.
There’s much more to see. It’s a big campus with two centuries of history. If you want to spend a day, or a whole weekend, exploring this old campus, see if you can do everything on Knoxville History Project's UT Campus Walking Tour!