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Vietnam Statue

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A Look at Knoxville's Downtown Statues

Downtown Statues Part I

This month we look at some of Knoxville’s remarkable statues, many of which can be seen on a stroll around downtown. The city’s first statues first appeared not on street corners or in public parks, but in cemeteries. During the Victorian era of the late 1800s, most statues in graveyards depicted women, often angels, to memorialize women and girls who had died young. Later, an 1893 memorial statue in Bethel Cemetery memorialized the graves, mostly unmarked, of Confederate soldiers. The Union monument in National Cemetery rose in 1906, replacing an earlier bronze statue destroyed by lightning. 

The first downtown statue (covered in an earlier issue of West Knoxville Lifestyle), the firefighters memorial, was erected on the lawn of the Knox County Courthouse in 1905 and now stands in front of the downtown fire station on Summit Hill Drive. 

Learn more about other local statues, buildings, cemeteries, neighborhoods, and parks in Historic Knoxville: The Curious Visitor’s Guide, a 200-page full color guide to the city’s historical places, available in local bookshops and gift stores and online at KnoxvilleHistoryProject.org

Rowboat Man/The Oarsman

The first-ever commission by Oklahoma artist David Phelps, the “The Rowboat Man” startled pedestrians when it was installed on the northwest corner of Gay Street and Church Avenue in 1988. Although Phelps didn’t name the sculpture at the time of its installation, he casually suggested to a reporter that it could be called “Hope in Adversity,” but he now lists it as “The Oarsman.” The subject of the sculpture is unknown, but many have suggested he might be Cormac McCarthy’s antihero, Suttree, in the author’s 1979 offbeat novel of the same name, who spent a lot of time in a rowboat on the Tennessee River. 

Beloved Woman of Justice

“Beloved Woman of Justice” by Audrey Flack (b. 1931) can be found in the courtyard at the Howard Baker Jr Federal Courthouse (the former Whittle Communications’ building) between Main Avenue and Cumberland Avenue. The arresting bust actually reflects a Cherokee tradition where an honored woman is entrusted with special judicial powers. Both the artist and Senator Baker attended the statue’s unveiling in 2000.  

Vietnam Memorial

An unusual statue puzzles passersby on the front lawn at the City County Building on Main Street. This semi-abstract Vietnam War memorial, made with three interlocking slabs of marble, is a remarkable tribute created in 1973 by Knoxville architect and artisan Arnold Schwarzbart (1942-2015). It was one of a very few Vietnam monuments installed in America while the war was still on and is therefore one of the nation’s oldest. The design depicts an eagle with a broken wing and originally stood at the old City Hall on Summit Hill Drive, now the campus of LMU’s Duncan School of Law. In his later years Schwarzbart designed several local structures, notably the Knoxville Zoo’s main building. 

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Downtown’s most surprising statue may be that of famous Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). The 12-foot-high creation by Russian sculptor Viktor Bokarev was bronzed locally and installed here in 2003 in the southwest corner of World’s Fair Park. The statue commemorates the composer’s performance at UT’s Alumni Memorial Auditorium in February 1943. Rachmaninoff died just several weeks after his Knoxville stay, the final performance of his career. 

ABOUT KHP

The mission of the Knoxville History Project (KHP) is to research, preserve, and promote the history and culture of Knoxville, Tennessee. Through research and engaging programs, KHP tells the city’s stories, focusing on those that have not been previously told, and those that connect the city to the world. KHP’s stories, programs, and publications educate and help residents and visitors understand the city’s past and its complicated but dynamic heritage, and to inspire an appreciation for the city’s culture.

Donations to support the work of the Knoxville History Project, an educational nonprofit, are always welcome and appreciated. Learn more at KnoxvilleHistoryProject.org

  • Beloved Woman of Justice
  • Rachmaninoff
  • The Oarsman
  • Vietnam Statue