I didn’t realize the Baptist Hospital demolition would take out the old Chapman Highway motel that was once a Holiday Inn. Ordinarily the loss of a TV-era motel wouldn’t be a subject for comment, much less tears. It was hardly a building likely to catch your eye as you drove across the Henley Street Bridge. But a couple of readers noted the sudden absence of it, and reminded me of an old story.
That particular motel had some dramatic history, and one peculiar distinction. Its building was born of another demolition, in fact one of the most controversial demolitions in East Tennessee history.
Planned toward the end of the period when Knoxville was still credibly the Gateway to the Smokies, and Chapman Highway was the Driveway to the Smokies, this new Holiday Inn would compete with the big downtown hotels like the Andrew Johnson and the Farragut. They were posher, but this motel had the advantage of being right on the route, and on the Smokies side of the river.
Its construction, in 1960, happened to coincide with the demolition of the extravagant old 1897 Market House. Architects liked to make fun of the ungainly old centerpiece of Market Square, especially during the modernist era, as a great incoherent brick monstrosity. But the Market House was a landmark, and everybody had a story about it. There was a good deal of regret about the loss of that extraordinary building, even among farmers and other folks who weren’t used to thinking of themselves as preservationists. Poet Carl Sandburg, who’d known it since the ’40s, publicly regretted its loss.
I gather it was partly sentimentality that convinced people of influence that if the Market House wasn’t immortal, maybe its bricks were. So, thanks to the initiative of colorful businessman Herman “Breezy” Wynn, the Vol football star turned athletic-apparel tycoon who was building this new Chapman Highway hostelry, the bricks of the Market House were salvaged.
They were to be reused in the construction of his new motel. A small consolation, perhaps, but saving the bricks would be saving a bit of the Market House, in a way. It seemed a symbolic changing of the guard, one of Knoxville’s most unusual crypto-Victorian buildings, famous for its chaos of noise and stench and crowds of old farmers and immigrant merchants, reborn in the walls of a standard, modern, air-conditioned Holiday Inn.
I first heard the story as a kid, and was skeptical of it. The bricks in the Holiday Inn didn’t look more venerable than other bricks. Then again, red bricks from 1897 weren’t that different from red bricks from 1960. I found an article confirming it, a Knoxville Journal story from April, 1960, that opens, “The Market House will soon be gone, but the bricks will be around for years to come.”
That building may have had just a little more history than your typical Holiday Inn. In 1961, singer Mahalia Jackson, at the height of her global fame and influence as a soulful singer of gospel music, stayed at that Holiday Inn while in Knoxville for a show at the brand-new Civic Coliseum. That fact alone would be interesting and worth remembering in the history of any hotel. But in 1961, Knoxville was just partly desegregated, and the idea of Jackson staying in a hotel where white people stayed, too, didn’t sit well with the Ku Klux Klan. In a regional KKK publication, they denounced the “integrationist” motel in Knoxville that made a bed for Mahalia Jackson.
Jackson was not famous as a civil-rights activist in 1961. She was a successful gospel singer from New Orleans. She’d sung on live national radio, at Carnegie Hall, at a presidential inauguration. She didn’t often make political statements.
But two years after she stayed in the Chapman Highway Holiday Inn, in August 1963, she sang at the March on Washington. She picked a couple of songs, including “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned.” She didn’t mention by whom, specifically.
Shortly after she sang, Rev. Martin Luther King was introduced. He spoke for a while, and Jackson shouted, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” He complied to his elder’s suggestion, with what became one of the most famous speeches of the century.
It’s probably too much to assume that her new fervor started when she heard some white people were troubled that she was sleeping at the Holiday Inn on Chapman Highway.
It was a Holiday Inn for just about 20 years. After an interim as a Vols Inn, it was acquired by Baptist Hospital in the 1990s and more or less became part of the plant. I hadn’t paid close enough attention to realize it was part of the demolition project.
I do wonder what became of the bricks that had previously been part of that other building. In a previous era, the Market House was unusual in the degree in which it accommodated both blacks and whites. There the two races “jostled each other in perfect equality,” as a 1900 reporter remarked. Early in his career, Duke Ellington performed in the Market House.
When I first noticed the site had been cleared, I called JW Demolition in Charlotte, and they said they got no orders to salvage the bricks. The fellow I spoke to wasn’t sure what became of them.
I walked over there one afternoon last week. It’s a good walk, across the Henley Street Bridge, if kind of a noisy one. Sure enough, the Holiday Inn was clean gone. There was a big steam shovel there, but the debris had mostly been carted away. A few brick fragments were still lying around. One half of a brick didn’t have anybody’s name on it, and I picked it up and carried it back to my office. It’s on my window sill. It has something adhered to it, some molded concrete or stucco that I guess was once part of the exterior. I can’t tell for sure that it’s 120 years old, but I can’t tell that it’s not.
I’ll probably find it in 15 years or so, and wonder why I kept it. Everybody forgets after a while.
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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