History, like water, is all around—it’s found in seeps, springs, wells, and rivers.
And then there are fountainheads, like the seven Historic Homes of Knoxville.
I visited them all, in chronological order of their origin, and you should, too. Because as my father (a Southern historian not too keen on eliminating even the most unsavory aspects of our past) likes to quote: We need to know our history or we are doomed to repeat it.
But it’s not all bad. A lot of history features parts both beautiful and poignant, as these seven old homes prove in their own way.
So I set out in search of these local fountainheads, moving across three centuries, beginning with breakfast not far from the Civil War-era Fort Dickerson, another local historic attraction. There was no hardtack on the Shoney’s buffet, but there was plenty of pig, and I loaded up before setting off for another, older fort across the river.
jaMes White’s FoRt, 1786
205 Hill Ave., 865-525-6514
Claim to fame: Original, relocated house of Knoxville founder James White. Thought to be the first permanent home built in Knoxville.
Curator Robert McGinnis doesn’t think members of our soft American society of today would fare too well in the harsh conditions of the frontier. But he likes to remind the fort’s roughly 9,000 annual visitors what it was like, how “the things we did they might find unsavory.”
Contemporaries of James White—who built the first cabin in 1786 on what might be called the site of Knoxville’s nativity—didn’t bathe much and lived in relative squalor. They procured their own meat. Dozens of families were sequestered behind the fences of the crude fort, living among livestock on packed summer dirt and frozen winter mud. Fires burned even in the heat of summer, and there was always the threat of attack from the increasingly displaced Native American population. There was illness. There was privation.
But today a visitor to the site, which includes a main house, a kitchen, and a smokehouse, can get a taste of frontier life in a place that serves as a quiet downtown oasis of sorts off Hill Avenue.
The fort is not in its original location, and only the main house is original. In 1906, Isaiah Ford painstakingly dismantled the main cabin and rebuilt it on Woodlawn Pike. The city Association of Women’s Clubs established the James White Fort Association in 1956, determined to resurrect the fort downtown. By 1970, the main house was reconstructed, and copies of the outbuildings and palisades were in place, and it was opened to the public.
Today within the palisades, it’s unexpectedly peaceful in the summer heat, save the intrusion of urban noises that, oddly, included a steam whistle from a river boat down the way. I sit for a minute in the shade by an old millstone in the midst of chirping birds and buzzing bees. There are no other visitors.
I amble into the main house, which is pleasantly cool. The ancient boards creak underfoot in dim light, and its easy to imagine the smell of woodsmoke and sweat as deals and arguments and schemes were hashed out in clouds of tobacco smoke around a wooden table and in the rocking chairs that now sit empty. It must have been loud at times, but there is a certain comfortable snugness about the space.
There are replicas of long guns and pistols, and upstairs beyond the creaky stairs a chamber pot resides under a comfortable-looking bed covered with colorful quilts. True to its Knoxville form, a Colonial-style wig sits on a stand by a window that looks out on the green compound below. It is dim and quiet and cool and peaceful.
Downstairs and back outside, I walk by the dog trot festooned with dried beans and gourds. A lizard skitters by the door to the weaving house, which features an impressive collection of native arrowheads and a primer of the Cherokee alphabet that could serve as a learning resource for curious children who then could ride their imaginations back in time.
Blount Mansion, 1792
200 W. Hill Ave., 865-525-2375
Claim to fame: Home of William Blount, a signer of the Constitution and territorial governor. Much of the Tennessee Constitution was written here.
I navigate lunchtime traffic and find a rarity downtown: An empty parking lot. It’s behind Blount Mansion, also on Hill Avenue. The green trusses of Gay Street Bridge frame Calhoun’s and the Tennessee River beyond. You can see the steamboat landing by the river—once called the Holston—that gave the old city its life-force.
I check Yelp reviews for no particular reason, and one reviewer cautions against big expectations, noting “I’ve seen bigger mansions on MTV Cribs.” But the old manse, built by Gov. William Blount, is indeed a mansion when judged against James White Fort. The glass and steel of downtown—tempered by the brick of the Andrew Johnson Building—tower above the visitor center.
But lots of history is available here—a surprising amount, “for a house as old it is,” says director David Hearnes. University of Tennessee researchers are doing dendrochronology studies on the home that so far have revealed no historic surprises. The house is as old as suspected. Hearnes and assistant director Emily Ellis greet me personably and are happy to share the story of the framed home said by some to the first non-log house in Tennessee.
A register lists visitors from Britain, Argentina, and Hawaii; about 3,000 people come to the site each year, Hearnes says, and most have favorable impressions of Knoxville. Some are surprised by the vitality and sophistication of downtown, “though they think we can all do more with the river.”
Inside the old, relatively roomy house you get lost among the crafted lumber and the beautiful simplicity of hardwood floors surprisingly well-illuminated by the natural light that pours through a window flanked by a Thomas Hope desk that is Ellis’ favorite piece.
Another favorite item among the collection: An old straw doll with a porcelain head found in a wall by workers doing renovations in 2013-2014 in the west wing added by Willie Blount before 1820. The ragged, ancient doll lies askew like an old totem in its own crib. “It’s creepy-looking but cool at the same time because it did come out of the walls,” Ellis says.
There’s a kitchen that was rebuilt on its original foundation, and there is a hand-carved cookie press among the artifacts. By the standards of the day, “even the cookies were fancy,” Ellis says.
Four slaves lived in the room: Sal, Cupid, and their two children. There in the darkened, now-lifeless kitchen you can imagine them bustling about, preparing food in the huge, soot-darkened cooking fireplace.
Most of the produce and meat consumed in the home came from farmland outside the city, but a nice ornamental garden, which includes giant vitex maintained by the Knoxville Garden Club, offers another respite from urban hubbub.
maRBle SPRings, 1797
1220 W. Gov. John Sevier Highway
Claim to fame: Final home of Gov. John Sevier, first and six-term governor of Tennessee and governor of the short-lived state of Franklin.
The kitchen garden at Marble Springs has given up the ghost, like a lot of things this long, hot, and dry summer. But we can always pop down to the grocery store for produce grown 1,000 miles away.
There was no such luxury in John Sevier’s day: if the three sisters failed, it was forage or die to replace the corn, beans, and squash, and augment the diet with hunted game. There really was no practical irrigation system, despite the presence of the namesake springs, explains groundskeeper John Gammon. During even minor droughts, the residents of what is now a 33.5-acre collection of outbuildings, fields and woods simply weren’t going to have enough to eat. The wide-open nature of the site makes it easy to envision men tramping about with their kill in their buckskin as fires burned in rings throughout the residential areas, and children ran about playing their ancient games of the day.
“That was part of their experience,” Gammon says. He would have planted demonstrations of fall crops by now, but bailed on the proposition. We both unconsciously look up into the late-summer sky above towering tulip poplars prompted by drought into early fall color. There is no sign of rain.
Earlier, I had a sense of déjà vu as Gammon led members of Boy Scout Troop No. 129 of Oak Ridge into the original, primitive cabin that still stands on the property. I had been there as a schoolboy, about a million years ago.
Inside the small, cool cabin, as Gammon lectures on the history of Marble Springs, I am mesmerized by a portrait of an impeccably beautiful woman hanging above the wooden mantelpiece.
She is Catherine Sherrill, Sevier’s second wife. But the image is not that of the hard-scrabble governor’s wife. It is an approximate and stylized portrait done based on descriptions of the woman, and she looks more Flapper than frontier.
The boys’ eyes begin to glaze a bit as Gammon relays the history of Sevier, the first—and six-term—governor of Tennessee. As he moves into the history of the short-lived state of Franklin, the otherwise well-mannered boys begin fidgeting with mess kits—they are camping on the grounds in pursuit of forestry and pioneering badges. That is common at Marble Springs, in a rural part of South Knoxville, as it boasts more woods and fields than cultural relics. Their colorful tents dot a pasture to the right of the main entrance.
The boys undoubtedly are thinking ahead to the planned supper of dutch-oven chicken and dumplings, but they revive a bit at the urging of a scoutmaster as they visit the kitchen cabin. Gammon explains subsistence farming, food preservation—food could kill you back in the day—and shows off a hard block of tea.
Then it’s on to the loom house, a small dim structure that quickly smells of teenage boys on a hot summer day, and Gammon gives a brief history of cotton, silk, and wool textiles.
And they learn the origin of the term “pop goes the weasel,” a common lesson in looming and linguistics also offered at other historic Knoxville houses.
When a set amount of yarn was loomed, a device called a weasel went…POP!
There was neither evidence of a monkey nor cobbler’s bench at Marble Springs.
Ramsey House, 1797
2614 Thorngrove Pike, 865-546-0745
Claim to fame: Family home of the Ramseys, an influential East Tennessee family with ties to the Confederacy, railroad development, the University of Tennessee, and early public medical care.
It’s enough—almost—to make a man sympathize with Confederates.
When Yankees torched structures at the Ramsey plantation, some 4,000 books were lost, among them the early annals of Tennessee. That was an assault against human culture and civilization, not just against tiring Rebels.
You’ll learn that and other sad things in a professionally produced—and somewhat melancholy—video shown visitors to the Ramsey House on Thorngrove Pike, sited in a pastoral setting a surprisingly short distance from downtown Knoxville. The 100 acres of land offer another history lesson: It is used for demonstration games by members of the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball.
A long path to the stolid gray Georgian stone and marble house moves beyond a colorfully painted outbuilding that is often used by brides and grooms and their wedding parties ahead of the nuptials often offered on the site. The home, like the other historic houses of Knoxville, offers a sense of enduring peace and quiet despite its tragic past. At the height of the Ramsey plantation, 35 people lived in the house and outbuildings. All is quiet now: A crow caws by the side of a pasture as we move into the dwelling, well-appointed and polished compared to its forebears.
As we move ahead in history, the lineage of the historic homes and their owners gets more complicated to trace, but here’s a brief rundown of the house and plantation, according to Knox Heritage: The main house was built in 1797 for Col. Francis Alexander Ramsey near where the Holston and French Broad rivers merge to form the Tennessee. Ramsey, a founder of Blount College, which ultimately became the University of Tennessee, beget three children: Dr. J.G.M. Ramsey, the oldest son, was an official with the Confederacy and a railroad man; middle son, William Ramsey, was a cabinet secretary for Tennessee and Knoxville’s first elected mayor; Francis Ramsey, the youngest of the brothers, opened the city’s first public hospital and was a surgeon for the Confederate army.
As I reflect on the sad truths of the family—Col. Ramsey himself died of a mosquito-borne illness likely contracted from a city creek, and the family was left destitute after the Civil War on a ruined plantation replete with “memories too difficult to bear”—a tiny dog sniffs my shoe.
It’s Ellie, a retired “chiweeniedoodle” therapy dog who accompanies most tours taken by the roughly 8,000 annual visitors. She’s important enough to the Ramsey House that assistant director Linda Gincott spells her name for me.
Gincott points out a number of fascinating things that survived war and time in the stone house: the 219-year-old banister; a secretary with hidden compartments that holds 200-year-old books; and a sampler by a Ramsey granddaughter, Eliza Jane, said to be the oldest sampler in Tennessee.
The sampler is a portrait of grief—it lists all the Ramsey children, one of whom is said to haunt the house, who died well before their time.
The house still holds trappings of the wealth of the day: There is a tea set, impeccably carved chairs, a pewter mold and small sewing kit, and a fire screen to shield the faces of the ladies. But as late-afternoon light slants through a window and Ellie moves into the sunlight splashed on the sturdy hardwood floor, Gincott offers a reminder of the hardscrabble nature of the day: There are thick shutters that can be closed on quick notice against attacks by Native Americans, criminals, or determined wildlife.
Crescent Bend, 1834
2728 Kingston Pike, 865-637-3163
Claim to fame: Original 900-acre farm was site of Civil War skirmishes and the mortal wounding of federal Brig. Gen. William P. Sanders; features Italianate gardens with views of the Tennessee River, valuable wallpaper, and the Toms Foundation collection of 18th century furniture.
In a slightly jarring modern touch, I ring the doorbell at the Armstrong-Lockett house at Crescent Bend on Kingston Pike. Sprinklers chitter on the front lawn, holding at bay the heat and drought that became a threaded theme on my tours of the seven homes.
I’m met by event coordinator Judy McMillan with the same mix of gratitude and graciousness common among the hosts at all the homes. She’s preparing for an advance meeting with wedding planners. The use of this and other historic homes as wedding venues augments their coffers. And a fine betrothal site this is: manicured and terraced Italianate gardens sweep beneath a fine vista down to the banks of the Tennessee at what was once a natural crescent. Twenty-thousand tulips bloom in spring. Two personal watercraft whine by below.
But at its roots, Crescent Bend was a 900-acre working farm, and Armstrong-Lockett was one of the first homes built on Kingston Pike. Now just down from the university, “this was the country,” in 1834, McMillan says.
And that’s why Drury Paine Armstrong built the house, now ironically located in a valley prone to air pollution. His wife had “consumption,” now known as tuberculosis, and needed fresh country air. The master bedroom was located downstairs, presumably on behalf of the ailing wife, and visitors immediately find themselves surrounded by finery of several eras. The house nonetheless has a modern feel, perhaps augmented by an addition to accommodate weddings. Light pours in over the view of the river below.
Bleak House, still known in some circles as Confederate Memorial Hall, shares the property.
Rich history has since accumulated at the farm: Gen. William Sanders was killed in battle here during the Civil War, and the site subsequently became the site of a Rebel artillery battery; and the home contains the William P. Toms collection of 18th century furniture.
A room full of dazzling silver displays behind glass—some pieces date to the 17th century—gives some parts of the home a museum feel, but you can still feel the presence of the families who have called the house home over the decades.
The most notable part of the house, in McMillan’s eyes, is in the dining room, which features what could possibly be the most expensive wallpaper you will ever see.
As McMillan tells it, the ornate French wallpaper, called “The French Garden,” by Pierre Mongin and printed by Jean Zuber—and now valued at $500,000—was purchased by Andrew Jackson in 1832 for use at the Hermitage in Nashville.
A barge toting furnishings and the wallpaper caught fire near Nashville, and the contents of the barge were thrown overboard.
The story gets a bit convoluted, but ultimately the wallpaper was salvaged and papered in Cedar Grove, the circa-1833 home of Col. Joseph Scott that is now home to Stevens Mortuary. Scott recruited the services of a reformed pirate—and wallpaper hanger—named John Stacks. According to the archives of the News Sentinel, Stacks liked the town so much he settled here and became a marshal. The tale is obviously too good to be fiction, and is a good fit for Knoxville, McMillan muses.
“We’ve always been a scruffy little city,” she says.
The McClung Museum salvaged the wallpaper and it has been on loan to the Toms Foundation, which owns the property, since the 1970s. The multi-hued wallpaper features figures costumed in the clothes of the 1830s dispersed among classical statues and architectural components.
“It’s the prettiest thing in the house,” McMillan says, and the wallpaper is assiduously protected from light. She turns off alarms and opens curtains to sunshine to share it with me.
maBRy-HaZen hoUse, 1858
1711 Dandridge Ave., 865-522-8661
Claim to fame: Family home of Knoxville booster, businessman, and Confederate sympathizer Joseph Mabry; site of Union artillery batteries during Civil War; 95 percent of furnishings and artifacts original to home.
Calvin Chappelle looks the part.
The executive director of the Mabry-Hazen House is a Civil War reenactor.
Chappelle, who has a tangled beard and mussy black hair, is a two-way player. It makes sense: The historic home perched on Knoxville’s highest ridge north of the Tennessee River was held in the hands of both Yankees and Rebels.
“Obviously it was a prime location for both armies during the Civil War,” he says as we take in the view of the center city 320 feet below. Some 5,000 visitors a year share the view near the house, built in 1858 by Joseph Alexander Mabry II.
Mabry, who was a prime player in a deal that established Knoxville’s famous Market Square, was a railroad man, businessman, and ardent Confederate. He pledged $100,000 to the Confederacy, and sold matériel in support of the lost cause. He was also a man who could tell which way the wind blew: When the Yankees came calling in 1863, Chappelle says, Mabry told them: “I’m a notorious rebel but will not stand in your way.” The property served as the eastern anchor of the Union defensive network north of what was then the Holston River. The then-denuded ridge was an excellent artillery site.
Mabry rode out the war, but was on his way to ruin when bad bonds came due in 1873. In the end, his financial straits didn’t matter: He and his son, and their attacker, were killed in a gunfight on Gay Street that was famously recounted—with likely flourishes—by Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi.
Four generations of the Mabrys occupied the Italianate home—a daughter married a Hazen—and about 95 percent of the present furnishings and decorations belonged to the family. A large and updated family tree blooms on a wall. It is a comfortable home reminiscent of that of a great-aunt or great-grandmother. There is horsehair furniture and a beautiful case clock, and the 1850s windows have salvaged 1840s glass.
Heartbreak, again, serves as a foundation for the historic site: Laura Churchwell Mabry gave birth to 14 children in her lifetime. Six didn’t live to adulthood.
But modern times are happier times at the Mabry-Hazen House. I caught Chappelle right before two women came to scope the property, not for retrenchments, but for a wedding.
Historic Westwood, 1890
3425 Kingston Pike, 865-523-8008
Claim to fame: Built as a “wedding promise” for Adelia Armstrong Lutz, who is thought to be first professional female artist in Tennessee; includes original artwork by Adelia and her studio, illuminated with natural light; now home to the offices of Knox Heritage.
It’s hard not to love Adelia across time and beyond this world.
Who can help but adore a woman who paints hollyhocks on a wall, and adorns stove tiles with the likenesses of great poets and artists?
Historic Westwood, on Kingston Pike near Sequoyah Hills, was built for Adelia Armstrong Lutz as a “wedding promise” by her husband, John Edwin Lutz. It’s easy to roar past the entrance, caught up in speeding traffic, and you have to park in a church next door. But then you walk up to the immaculately preserved Richardsonian Romanesque house across the heart-shaped driveway, and that’s where you begin to fall in love.
The house, now also home to the busy offices of Knox Heritage and the East Tennessee Preservation Alliance, is one of Kingston Pike’s “three sisters,” along with Bleak House and Armstrong-Lockett House to the east. It is one of the more affluent and well-appointed historic homes of Knoxville.
Adelia grew up in Bleak House, and moved into Westwood in 1890.
Docent Betty Allen guides me through the formal and informal parlors, past immaculately polished and preserved woodwork and past the family piano and original faded frescoes resurrected on the wall.
And then the studio, brilliant in the natural light pouring into the room through windows and skylights, makes my heart soar.
This is where Adelia, said to be the first professional female artist in the state, painted and labored and imagined and poured her creativity onto canvas. It is a breath-taking room, and adding to its elegant charm is a set of tiles inlaid around a fireplace now adorned with an Egyptian relief.
Adelia painstakingly painted the faces of Shakespeare, Longfellow, Emerson, Browning, Rustin, and Thackeray, among other artistic and literary luminaries. The faces have faded in time, but all except three tiles have been identified.
Across the house, past the dining room where Adelia long ago painted the hollyhocks on the wall, there is another face dear to the site.
Cook and caretaker Sallie Snead worked for Adelia’s daughter, Louise, after Adelia died. She was divorced, childless, and lived in a cabin out back, but she would take Adelia’s grandchildren downtown on the streetcar line, and listen to gospel music and baseball games as she worked in what is the first approximation of a modern kitchen I have seen in the seven homes
The house was never out of the hands of family members—a descendant of Adelia lived there until 2012. Over the years, artists and students and guests would come and go; Adelia loved to entertain in the home where she would eventually die.
It was, Allen says, “a happy house.”
My 100-year journey complete, I buy a magnet for my mother and think of my father and wonder what kind of legacy I’ll leave. I exit the wedding promise with the sense of melancholy, nostalgia, and intellectual satisfaction that every good history lesson leaves. I get in my truck and head west on the old Kingston Road.
Corrections: It was Laura Churchwell Mabry who gave birth to 14 children in her lifetime, not Evelyn Hazen. The story also incorrectly stated that Confederate soldiers are buried on the Mabry Hazen House grounds; they’re actually buried at Knoxville’s Confederate Cemetery, which is a separate parcel.
Knox County-based journalist Thomas Fraser is a native of Charleston, S.C. who grew up in Oak Ridge and Knoxville. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and has worked as an editor and reporter for daily newspapers and websites in Tennessee, North Carolina, New Jersey and Virginia.
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