It’s easy to think of history as something permanent and absolute, an eternal force that will persist and endure as surely as the past begets the present. For the written word, this is mostly true: the scribblings of our forbearers, some of which have already survived for a millennia or two, rest secure in the physical and digital archives of the world, their continued existence assured.
The future of more substantial reminders of the past, however, is often far more uncertain. For all the supposed permanence suggested by their thick walls and imposing facades, our most historic structures are often our most vulnerable as well. All but the luckiest are subject to the changing tides of economic fortune; no matter how vital they may appear, the concrete legacies of those who came before us are too often haunted by the specter of neglect and destruction.
Fortunately, Knoxville’s own imperiled historic structures have a champion in Knox Heritage, the nonprofit preservation group that identifies buildings that possess significant historical value and works with either the city or private developers to ensure their continued existence. Each May, in recognition of National Preservation Month, the society releases a list of the “Fragile Fifteen,” those historic buildings and sites in the Knoxville area that are in the most urgent need of attention.
1. The Standard Knotting Mill, 1400 Washington Ave.
Founded in 1900, the Standard Knitting Mill went on to become the largest single textile manufacturer in Knoxville by the 1930s, employing more than 4,000 people during the lean years of the Great Depression. At its peak, the mill produced upwards of one million garments a week, an achievement that won Knoxville the dubious title of ‘Underwear Capital of the World.’
A single 400,000 square foot building, constructed in 1945, is all that remains of the once vast mill complex. It is owned by Henry and Wallace, LLC, who intend to rehabilitate the vacant structure. Should their plans come to fruition, the mill’s new identity—as a mixed-use space comprised of offices, retailers, and apartments—will share many characteristics with similar projects involving old commercial buildings in the downtown area.
2. Estabrook Hall, 1012 Estabrook Road
Resting in the considerable shadow of Neyland Stadium, Estabrook Hall boasts one of the richest histories of any building on the University of Tennessee Campus. Built in 1898, the Hall is named after Joseph Estabrook, the fifth president of the University. From 1902 until 1918, it was one of several buildings on campus to house the Summer School of the South, the University’s first suite of courses tailored to students who wished to become educators themselves. The program had a profound effect on the quality of education in east Tennessee, populating its schools with more qualified teachers than ever before. In the 1920s and 1930s, Estabrook was home to the Engineering Department, and it later became the first building to house UT’s School of Architecture.
In light of UT’s colossal redevelopment program, Estabrook faces an uncertain future. University representatives have expressed their desire to preserve it if the price is right, but at the moment it remains to be seen whether the Hall will be retained or fall victim to one of the University’s massive construction projects.
3. Knoxville College Historic District, 901 Knoxville College Drive
A fixture of the Fragile Fifteen, the campus of Knoxville College is perhaps the city’s most important piece of educational history. Founded in 1875 by the United Presbyterian Church to bring higher education to former slaves, the Liberal Arts institution served Tennessee’s African American community for more than 100 years. Owing to its long history, the school has hosted an impressive array of civil rights luminaries: Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Owens, and Jackie Robinson have all spoken at Knoxville College at one time or another.
The school grew steadily until the 1970s, when financial problems and dwindling enrolment brought about its gradual decline. It closed in 2015, when its last two functioning academic buildings were condemned by the City. As of this writing, the entire Knoxville College campus, including the six most historic structures identified by Knox Heritage—some of which were designed and built by the students themselves—is abandoned and decaying. The school is in a great deal of debt, and with no revenue coming in from student tuition, no solution is forthcoming.
4. Fort Sanders Houses and Grocery, 307 18th St.; 1802, 1804, and 1810 Highland Ave.
Clustered on the corner of 18th Street, right on the dividing line between Fort Sanders’ medical and residential areas, these four buildings are a vivid reminder of what the community on the Fort once looked like. 1802, 1804, and 1810 Highland Ave. are Victorian townhouses dating from the 1890s, while 307 18th St., built in 1923, spent most of its life as a grocery store. Originally named the W.T. Roberts Grocery—after its first owner—the store became something of a community icon under its second name: the 18th Street IGA.
The entire block was purchased by Covenant Health in February 2008, and each of the four buildings have been vacant and deteriorating ever since. Though the properties are protected by Neighborhood Conservation Zoning (NC-1), and thus cannot be legally demolished, Covenant has announced plans to do so anyway. They have not indicated what new purpose they intend for the block to serve.
5. Rule High School, 1901 Vermont Ave.
Opened in 1927, Rule High School was named after Captain William Rule, a former Union Army Captain who became a fixture of Knoxville society at the turn of the century. In addition to serving as the city’s mayor on two occasions, Rule was the editor and publisher of the Knoxville Journal from 1885 until his death in 1928.
The school was closed in 1991, and remains the property of the Knox County School Board. In recent years, with the Board looking to move its office headquarters out of the downtown area, consideration has been given to turning the old school building into their new administrative center. As of this writing, however, the Board remains downtown, and Rule High School continues to decay.
6. Sanitary Laundry, 625 North Broadway
Built in 1925 by V.L. Nicholson, the Sanitary Laundry and Dry Cleaning Building was a fixture of Knoxville’s Downtown North district for many years.
Though Downtown North—recently designated as a redevelopment area by the City of Knoxville—has seen an upsurge of new development, the Sanitary Laundry Building remains vacant, and has deteriorated so extensively that it now poses a threat to the structures around it. The city has sent out a request for proposals in hopes of finding a developer to rehabilitate the building, but as of this writing the request remains unanswered.
7. First Friends Church, 2100 Washington Ave.
Built in 1927 to serve an existing Quaker congregation, First Friends Church holds a remarkable distinction: with the appointment of Lydia M. Hoath to the pastoral staff in 1933, it became the first church in Knoxville to have a female pastor. In 1978, the Quakers sold the church, which served two other congregations before its ultimate abandonment.
The current owners possess a great many abandoned properties in the Parkridge area, which has put them in hot water with both the City of Knoxville and the Parkridge Community Organization Board of Directors. The Board would like to see the building preserved, but its structural issues and the owner’s noncompliance make that unlikely as of this writing.
8. The Eugenia Williams House, 4848 Lyons View Pike
The daughter David H. Williams, a physician whose financial backing helped bring Coca-Cola to Tennessee (because, as all doctors know, Coke is a veritable elixir of good health), Eugenia Williams commissioned her friend John Staub to design a new home for her in 1940. Staub, who also designed the University of Tennessee’s Hopecote House, crafted a Regency-style home that sits squarely in the middle of a 24-acre property bordered by the Tennessee River on one side and Lyons View Pike on the other.
Upon her death in 1998, Williams willed her home to the University of Tennessee as a memorial to her father. The University has dually neglected the gift, allowing it to fall into decay and leaving it vulnerable to vandalism. As of this writing, they have no plans for the property.
9. Burlington Commercial District
Once the bustling center of North Knoxville and gateway to Chilhowee Park and Cal Johnson’s racetrack, this small downtown district is mostly abandoned today.
Knox Heritage has high hopes for the area, however. After receiving a grant from Knoxville’s Historic Preservation Fund, Heritage has applied to make Burlington a National Register District. Should the area be awarded this status, tax credits and other incentives will be available for businesses that chose to come to Burlington.
10. Lucky Inn, 4625 Asheville Highway
The Lucky Inn was one of thousands of motels that sprang up to dot America’s highways in the decade following World War Two. Built in 1947 along Asheville Highway, then a vital commercial artery, the Inn endured into the 1980s, well past the construction of the Interstates that often bypassed the old highways and doomed thousands of similar motels to closure and demolition.
Though abandoned, the Lucky Inn is still structurally sound, and its distinctive post-war design elements—such as the awning that adorns its entrance, which evokes the upturned end of an airplane wing—remain intact. Knox Heritage is hopeful that the Inn will find a second life as affordable housing, a future that seems ever more likely as the downtown area, now only ten minutes away, expands along the highway towards it.
11. The Sterchi Mansion/Stratford, 809 Dry Gap Pike
Designed by Richard F. Graf, Stratford was built in 1910 as the residence of James G. Sterchi. The Sterchi family looms large in Knoxville’s economic history. Together with his brother, James Sterchi founded the Sterchi Brothers Furniture Company. At its height, it was the largest furniture company in the world, and in 1946 it became the first Knoxville-based company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Sterchi lived at Stratford with his wife until his death in 1932, and she maintained the residence until her own passing in 1973. The current owners are locked in a foreclosure battle with their mortgage holder, and the home has been abandoned for some time. It’s for sale, and Knox Heritage’s hope for Stratford’s future rests with the currently hypothetical new owner.
12. The Paul Howard House, 2921 North Broadway
Built in 1910, the Paul Howard House is one of the finest examples of the Craftsman architectural style in Knox County, and a remnant of Broadway’s glamorous days as the street that Knoxville’s most affluent and powerful people called home.
Unlike other buildings on this list, the Howard House was well-maintained until recently by its owners, Mr. and Mrs. Paul E. Howard, who were twice honored by Knox Heritage for their efforts. However, the Howards have both passed away, and their will requires their heirs to sell the house; as of this writing, the only buyers who have expressed interest are those who wished to demolish it.
13. The Knaffl-Stephens House, 3738 Speedway Circle
The Knaffl-Stephens is a uniquely well-traveled house. Built in 1880 by artist and portrait photographer Joseph Knaffl, whose 1899 portrait of the Madonna graced many a Christmas card in the following decades, it was originally a fixture of Gay Street, 918 Gay Street, to be exact. The Knaffle family moved out in 1926 after selling the property, assuming that their old house would be demolished to make way for the current occupant of that address, the Andrew Johnson Building. The Knaffl was saved, however, by Steel Contractor James Stephens, who bought it and had it moved three miles east to Speedway Circle, where it remains to this day.
The house has since become derelict at the hands of its current owners, who upon purchasing it in 2013 stripped the interior of its original Victorian woodwork and abandoned the rest of the house, returning to their home in Greeneville. Knox Heritage has petitioned the City of Knoxville to seize the house and resell it under the authority of the Homemaker’s Program—which holds that the City can seize a house to prevent its “demolition by neglect”—but nothing has come of it as of this writing.
14. Greyhound Bus Station, 100 East Magnolia Ave.
Like many of Greyhound’s most iconic stations, this one was designed by W.A. Arrasmith, whose sleek, modern aesthetic was adopted wholesale by the company in the decades after World War Two. Built in 1960, the station remains operational to this day.
Greyhound recently announced plans to leave this location, and Knox Heritage has set about looking for other potential tenants. They hope that the station will become the latest addition to downtown Knoxville’s sprawling urban development, and point to another former Greyhound station in Savanna, now a restaurant, as an example worth following. As of this writing, however, Greyhound has yet to find another location, and the station remains operational.
15. French Broad River Corridor
Unlike other items on this list, the French Broad is not so much a building as it is a historic site. Nestled deep within the Smoky Mountains, the corridor was home to some of east Tennessee’s earliest European settlers, and much of the infrastructure they built, such as mills, churches, homes, ferry landings, and cemeteries endure to this day. Some buildings are in better shape than others, but on the whole the corridor’s isolation has kept it pristine and untouched.
At present, the corridor is protected by the Knox County Commission’s East County Sector Plan, and Knox Heritage is intent on helping ensure that it stays that way.
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