Explore UT Campus on a Historic Walking Tour

The Knoxville History Project (KHP), an educational nonprofit with a mission to research, preserve, and promote the history and culture of Knoxville, helps residents and visitors understand the city’s past and its complicated but dynamic heritage. 

This University of Tennessee tour (download it to a tablet or a phone or print it out) starts on the Hill, the oldest section of campus, including iconic Ayres Hall, South College (UT’s oldest building), and Alumni Hall with its fascinating history of performers. Down from the Hill, a walk up Cumberland Avenue from 11th Street and south along Volunteer Boulevard takes in a series of remarkable buildings, including Hoskins Library with its castellated tower; the old Cowan mansion “Gardener’s Cottage”; the unusual remnants of Sophronia Strong Hall; the modern “Ziggurat” that is Hodges Library; the Victorian Tyson House; as well as a series of statues, including “Europa and the Bull,” and the ever-present “Volunteer” at Circle Park. A roundup of sports and entertainment sites, incorporates Neyland Stadium, Thompson Boling Arena, Clarence Brown Theatre, and the Pat Head Summitt memorial statue to name just a few. An optional leg takes in the soccer and softball stadiums off Neyland Drive before culminating (after a short drive or bike ride), over on the Agricultural campus with grand Morgan Hall, the enigmatic UT Indian Mound, and charming UT Gardens.

Here are four standouts from the tour:

Although Ayres Hall has been called Collegiate Gothic, a phrase perhaps suggested by its stone arches and actual gargoyles, architecture students are quick to insist that its perfect symmetry makes it more akin to Elizabethan Revival. The checkerboard design on its bell tower was reputedly the inspiration for Neyland Stadium’s checkerboard end zone. Although part of the original design, the clock was not added until the 21st century. Ayres Hall is named after Dr. Brown Ayres (1856-1919), a former Tulane professor and scientist who in a 1902 academic demonstration introduced radio technology to Knoxville, and who became president of UT in 1904.  

Completed in 1931, Hoskins Library on Cumberland Avenue was originally intended to be a much grander building. Architect George Barber’s original designs were curtailed by the Great Depression. Still, it has sufficient grandeur, with cathedral windows on the eastern face and gargoyle-like concrete ornaments. Inside, its grand stone staircase and high ceilings make it one of the most picturesque historical interiors in Knoxville. Artist Hugh Tyler, known as Uncle Andrew in James Agee’s Pulitzer-winning novel, A Death in the Family, created the unusual wall painting. Its tower once held a small art museum. Hoskins remained UT’s main library for about 40 years. 

The Volunteer (aka “the Torchbearer”) has stood at the entrance to Circle Park since 1968; its flame has rarely been extinguished in more than half a century. Its origin dates back to 1931 when UT hosted an international design competition to create an inspiring symbol for campus. The winning design was never realized but a modified design was resurrected in the late 1960s. It has become a traditional starting point for the pre-game Vol Walk. Circle Park, as a small suburban park, became a popular streetcar destination for picnics and baseball games, and a fashionable address for large Victorian homes in the 1890s, before being incorporated into UT campus in the 1960s.

UT is a rare campus to feature a prehistoric mound, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Although examined by anthropologists, who believe it to be well over 1,000 years old, relatively little is known about the Woodland Indians who built it, including whether they ever lived in the immediate area. Just south of the mound, a serpentine path winds through the Native American Interpretive Garden featuring a variety of indigenous plants known and used by the Cherokee, for medicine, food, and other purposes. Nearby, the UT Gardens, which evolved over a period of decades, from what was originally known, perhaps as early as 1869, as the Agricultural College Farm, is also a must-see spot on campus. 

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

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