You don’t notice the Greek classicism of Fifth Avenue from the ground. It comes as a surprise when you look to the north from the top of Vine Street. You might think you’ve just sighted Knoxville’s forgotten Acropolis.
Seeing it from that lofty distance, people always ask: What is that? Collectively, it’s the old Knoxville High School, with its four towering Doric columns; the columns of the stacked porches of Sterchi Oaks; and, most impressively, the six Ionic columns of First Christian Church.
Beginning slightly more than a century ago, that building served the local congregation of this politely rebellious denomination, also known as Disciples of Christ, that avoided divisive creeds and hair-splitting schisms, and welcomed all Christians to its communion table. The goal was to unify the Christian church. That hasn’t happened yet, but they’re still working at it.
After a century, its congregation is moving to a newer building that’s easier to maintain, a former Baptist church on Basswood Road in Norwood. They’re selling this old landmark to a group led by preservationist developers David Dewhirst and Mark Heinz. Lately Knoxville’s busiest preservationist architect, Heinz has a personal connection to the church; he and his wife Laura were married there.
An announcement about an interesting future use seems to be near.
In 1915, Fifth Avenue was the newest and grandest part of Knoxville. Its name is a remnant of a puzzling numerical scheme tried just before the Civil War. First and Second Avenues lasted only a year or two, and the other avenues were too bent to make much sense, in the Manhattan pattern. Although its existence in Knoxville may have been the accidental remnant of some poor thinking, everybody knew that any Fifth Avenue was bound to be special, and by 1915, it was indeed a fashionable street that attracted affluent couples and singles. It also attracted churches, and in 1915, First Christian joined several other churches in the immediate vicinity: Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, the German English Evangelical Church, the Church of the Epiphany, Broad Street Methodist, Cumberland Presbyterian.
That was probably East Tennessee’s highest concentration of churches, a century ago. Now only First Christian and St. John’s Lutheran remain.
First Christian was one of the first designs by architect Charles Barber, who was just about 25 when he started working on the project, apparently with some assistance from his father George Barber, famous for his house designs, and associate Dean Parmelee. It was completed the year he formed the firm known today as BarberMcMurry, and just days before the death of George Barber.
First Christian stood out for its architecture. Its portico was similar to, and inspired by, New York’s Madison Square Presbyterian Church, a recent and famous design by Stanford White. Designer of neighboring Madison Square Garden (the grandest of the four buildings that have had that name), White was America’s best-known architect of his time and his Manhattan church was notable for its use of mixed colors and materials in the style known to architects as “polychrome.” Barber employed that approach, as well as White’s arrangement of doors, even if he didn’t copy the whole Manhattan church and its unusual domed roof.
White was famously murdered at the Garden’s rooftop ballroom in 1906, a few months before his Presbyterian church was finished. It was called, perhaps prematurely, “the Crime of the Century.” Harry Thaw reportedly killed the architect because of White’s previous relationship with Thaw’s 21-year-old wife, the beautiful actress Evelyn Nesbit. Americans who knew nothing about architecture followed closely the trial and conviction.
The name Thaw was well known here. The Pittsburgh Thaw family—the killer’s parents—were prominent Maryville College benefactors. There’s a Thaw Hall on MC’s campus, designed by Knoxville architect R.F. Graf. He also designed St. John’s Lutheran, First Christian’s neighbor. I don’t know what to do with that coincidence.
White’s briefly famous Presbyterian church at 24th Street at Madison Avenue was torn down to make way for a skyscraper in 1919, when it was only 13 years old. During the brief time it stood, part of it was copied in brick and stone and terra cotta in Knoxville.
First Christian grew over the years and when they added an educational wing in the late 1920s, they brought back Charlie Barber to do the honors and he did so with Mediterranean flair, in brick and tile, with a lovely courtyard. In 1934, a journalist compared it to a “California estate.”
In the 1950s, the elevated highway rose a block to the south, and got bigger and higher with the years and shadowed Fifth Avenue, which never seemed as special after that. Most of the churches clustered around Fifth were torn down. By the early ’70s, there was talk of First Christian leaving its old building for the suburbs, but the congregation hung on to the building and took care of it.
To some it might seem a sign of the times, with some message about downtown or religion or both. In fact churches have always been in flux, as congregations combine and recombine. What seems the perfect site and structure for a church can strike a later generation differently. Dozens of downtown churches have closed or moved away in the last 150 years. Most were just torn down and forgotten.
Consider that the oldest existing church building downtown is Immaculate Conception, the Catholic church up on the hill. By the time it was built in 1886, Knoxville had almost a century of church history behind it, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Catholic, and Lutheran, plus Jewish congregations who were each once proud of their meeting houses, some of them really grand edifices of stone that appeared built to survive the centuries. Today there’s not a trace of any of them, not two stones stacked together.
Many of those built after that, like most of those clustered around Fifth and Broadway, are gone, too.
We used to erase old churches, pretend they were never there. Maybe some prefer it that way.
But when they’re extraordinary buildings, as old churches often are, saving and reusing them honors the efforts that created them.
Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. 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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