A Mile of Magnolia: This Weekend’s Open Streets Showcases an Interesting Part of Town Some Avoid

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

Some suburbanites who know Magnolia Avenue only from vice reports in the news pronounce it with a shiver. It’s a butt of complacent cocktail-party jokes.

Newcomers to town, free of preconceptions, see Magnolia Avenue for the first time and say, “Ahh. What a nice street.”

It’s comfortably broad, like a boulevard, and it has sidewalks and a lot of pretty old buildings, of human scale, right on the sidewalk. It invites pedestrians. We’re spending millions to make Cumberland Avenue more like Magnolia already is.

There’s an irony here. If Magnolia were more prosperous or “safer,” or “whiter,” we would have destroyed it by now. Maybe things are changing now, but in the second half of the 20th century, speculators have shown their regard for the most economically promising parts of town by flattening them. Throughout the white parts of town, pretty buildings and comfortable houses and shade trees yield to the Parked Car.

There’s a lot of that even here on the east side, of course, but thanks in part to its vacancies, Magnolia still has more of its original character than any of our other major arteries.

Magnolias flourish along Magnolia, as you’d expect—though it was named for a woman: Magnolia Branner, mother of a mayor and prominent textile executive, who lived on the street in the 1890s, when it was brand new.

The Open Streets initiative is a wandering street party, a rare occasion to close a street to automobile traffic and make it safe, for just a few hours, for pedestrians and bicyclists to come and look around, to see a neighborhood in a new way. Previous ones on North Central and Sutherland Avenue have been popular successes.

This particular party—Sunday the 21st from 2 to 6 p.m.— stretches from Randolph to Chestnut, almost a mile. It’s may not be the most picturesque part of Magnolia, and it’s a challenge compared to other Open Streets events because this stretch hosts fewer businesses that are obviously open to customers.

But this mile wears some grace, and some history. In 1890, Magnolia became East Tennessee’s first street to be served by an electric streetcar. A century ago, thousands of Knoxvillians of all races and economic circumstances viewed this stretch of Magnolia regularly, as they rode the streetcars to wonderful Chilhowee Park, which offered swimming, dancing, drama, bowling, and baseball, with horse racing nearby. Magnolia was our place to behold exotic spectacles. Many Knoxvillians were on Magnolia when they saw their first hot-air ballon, their first aeroplane, their first football game.

Randolph Street, which intersects Magnolia near where the new highways reshuffled our street system, was once known as Florida Street. Part of it still is. It got a new name because Florida Street had a reputation. From about 1900 to 1915, Florida Street was Knoxville’s only officially recognized red-light district, known as Friendly Town, a progressive-era experiment in sort-of-legal prostitution. (It attracted affluent, careful prostitutes, the ones who collected art and antiques, but it didn’t reduce the more squalid, dangerous trade down on the Bowery.)

Barely east of the Old City, Randolph/Florida is already seeing some new life, in the outer bands of downtown’s revival. Just off Magnolia, Randolph passes through that little urban node of East Depot that hosts an opera company, a brewery, and trendy fashion boutique. It’s downtown’s easternmost outpost.

In a passage apparently scissored from his autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family, author James Agee once recalled the Magnolia Avenue streetcar. He remembered this section, ca. 1915, as a stretch of “big houses with big trees on the lawn.”

Old Catholic High, now Pellissippi State, was built later. Thousands went to school there, but one of them was Cormac McCarthy, who graduated from Catholic in the early ’50s. He’s known for using words most novelists can’t even define. I bet he learned some of them there.

Across the street is a cluster of radio and TV studios, including that of East Tennessee PBS, home of Missy Kane, Dr. Bob, and Marshal Andy. If you ever wondered where Riders of the Silver Screen is shot every week, it’s right there.

The long two-story office building at 1801 Magnolia was once Swan’s Bakery. When they built this state-of-the-art factory in 1927, they were trying to out-bake Kern’s, the venerable local favorite. For a few decades Swan’s was kind of famous. Not just for its bread, but for a five-part black gospel harmony group they sponsored. The Swan Silvertones, featuring high tenor Claude Jeter, made records and hit their national peak in the 1940s. You have to hear them to believe them, and belief was their business. Paul Simon later acknowledged them as an inspiration.

At 1925, near Cruze Street, is the birthplace of Mountain Dew—not the moonshine but the soft drink, ca. 1946. Basically a lemon-lime soda when it was concocted here, it underwent some changes after it left Knoxville, incorporating an otherworldly new hue, and caffeine. The original Hartman Beverage building is still there, now Economy Transmissions.

At the northeast corner of Olive is a grassy patch that used to be the Park Theatre, a 600-seat cinema built in 1938 in striking moderne stucco. It was a neighborhood theater at first, for the convenience of neighbors in Park City. In its later years, as many neighborhood theaters were closing, the Park took on a more prominent role. It may astonish folks who think of Knoxvillians as phobic about East Knoxville, but in the 1960s and ’70s, the Park often introduced major blockbuster movies, showing them even before the bigger theaters on Gay Street. People would drive here at night from West Hills to see Camelot, The Sound of Music, Patton, Jaws. Lines sometimes stretched around the block.

It closed in the ’80s, and remained on its corner for some years a colorful curio. The empty Park made a brief background cameo on the 1996 film Box of Moonlight. Despite proposals to save it, the Park was condemned and torn down 14 years ago.

Recently it’s been a small grassy patch for sale. You can still see a bit of the concrete foundation, still brightly painted. If you like patches where popular theaters used to be, you can buy it.

Unfortunately for this Open Streets event, there’s not much more you can buy on this strip. The durable barbecues known as Scruggs’s and Dixson’s have closed in recent years. The fun parts of Magnolia—the Pizza Palace, Chandler’s, the Lunch House, and the several other little restaurants that aren’t exactly like anywhere else in town—are farther east than Chestnut, mostly clustered around old Chilhowee Park, as if it were still magnetic.

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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