After years of confirmed rumors, Knox County is indeed trying to sell the 17-story Andrew Johnson Building. It’s open to proposals until July 13.
It’s been an office building for 30 years. For half a century before that, it was the Andrew Johnson Hotel. Before that, briefly, it was the Tennessee Terrace. That might have been a better name for it. But our 17th president, denounced in his own day and in ours, enjoyed a sunny vogue in between.
Our views of long-dead historical figures change as regularly as we do.
For a few years Andrew Johnson was a heroic figure, a self-made man who stood up for what he believed. If he wasn’t a civil-rights man, he didn’t think slavery was important enough to split the country over. For some Tennesseans, just not standing up for slavery was considered too dangerously radical. In 1861, a block north of this building, someone shot at him. He was brave.
But today, nobody, certainly not the neo-Confederates, certainly not the Lincoln revivalists or civil-rights historians, stand up for Johnson. He was one of many awkward duck-billed platypi left stranded by the war.
Ours is the tallest building in the world named for Johnson. For almost half a century, it was the tallest building in East Tennessee.
Designed by Baumann and Baumann, the tower overlooking the river was a much-anticipated marvel. However, problems with lessees and contractors caused delays. A new group, the New York-based Knott Hotels Corporation, signed a lease and decided to rename the place. The name should be historical, Knott said. In September 1929, it was announced that it would likely be called the William Blount Hotel, after our territorial governor and signer of the U.S. Constitution. As U.S. senator, Blount shared something in common with Johnson, in that there was a strong effort to get him impeached. But like Johnson, Blount was enjoying a new vogue in the 1920s, being as the recently restored and appreciated Blount Mansion was just across the street. (Half-forgotten, it was almost torn down for parking for the hotel project.)
The hotel’s final name, though, would not be that of an impeached senator, but an impeached president. It arrived late that same month, just after the William Blount suggestion, as a result of a contest conducted by the Knoxville Journal. The suggestion came from Irene Bewley of Greeneville, Johnson’s hometown. Johnson was “now coming to belated fame,” according to one local news report, thanks to a book called The Tragic Era by journalist and Democratic politician Claude Bowers.
Known through the ’20s mainly as a historian of Democratic figures, Bowers had become associate editor of the New York World, and crossed into the political limelight in 1928 when he was keynote speaker for the Democratic National Convention. Bowers was even discussed as a likely “liberal” running mate for nominee Al Smith.
Bowers’ book blamed the post-Lincoln Republican Party for abusing and alienating the South. Andrew Johnson, Bowers declared, “fought the bravest battle for constitutional liberty and for the preservation or our institutions ever waged by an Executive.”
Historians before Bowers didn’t share that point of view. Most historians since then haven’t shared that point of view, either. But when Bowers extolled Johnson as a working-class American hero, his revision was suddenly very popular in East Tennessee. On Sept. 22, 1929, the News Sentinel ran a positive review of the book. The next day, that paper explained the new name of the hotel—and that Knoxville’s tallest building would be not just an homage to Johnson, but also a pro-Johnson museum.
“With mementoes of Johnson to catch their attention, the traveling public will aid in diffusing unprejudiced information about Johnson, who in one speech after he was president said, ‘My countrymen, I have had enough stones hurled at me to pave a road from here to Washington.’” The hotel would even employ Johnson’s elderly former slave, William Andrew Johnson, as a (paid) doorman.
Conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler stayed at the Andrew Johnson in May 1934. He praised the hotel but found its name astonishing. “This is the first time I have encountered anything named after Abraham Lincoln’s vice president,” he wrote in his nationally syndicated column.
“Andrew Johnson seems to have received no honor, even in his own land, prior to the publication of Claude Bowers’ book, The Tragic Era, which squared up many matters concerning Andrew Johnson.”
You may be detect a little arch facetiousness. Pegler was the national columnist most critical of President Franklin Roosevelt, whose ambassador to Spain was then Claude Bowers.
Pegler concluded that if Knoxville could name a hotel for Andrew Johnson, a similar honor—or at least a gas station—was surely due the late socialist activist Eugene V. Debs.
The Johnson mania didn’t last. A wartime patriotic movie called Tennessee Johnson, starring Van Heflin, came out in early 1943 and got its regional premiere at the Tennessee Theatre. Members of the Johnson family, including the president’s granddaughter, were present at the hotel for a reception afterwards. That may have been the end of the 14-year flurry of national interest in Andrew Johnson.
But the name stayed on the building and has puzzled visitors ever since. If it’s puzzling that he deserves the honor, it’s also puzzling that he’d be so honored in Knoxville. Johnson was from Greeneville, 70 miles away. He spent a lot of time in Nashville, the capital. Here he got shot at.
It’s a fine building with a fascinating heritage, just for the people who stayed there: Jean Paul Sartre, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Duke Ellington, Hank Williams, Amelia Earhart. If any prospective redeveloper finds its original name more marketable, I will not protest.
Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville’s cultural heritage—not to mention publishing the Knoxville Mercury. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville’s life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.
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