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Exploring Knoxville through Historic Walking Tours

Article by Jack Neely and Paul James

Photography by The Knoxville History Project, Inside Knoxville

Originally published in West Knoxville Lifestyle

Through research and engaging programs, the nonprofit Knoxville History Project (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 downloadable walking tours of UT Campus, and driving tours of Near-West, North, East, and South Knoxville, Fountain City, and Mechanicsville & Lonsdale, provide opportunities for residents to discover and appreciate the many historical landmarks found throughout Knoxville that can be explored on foot or seen from a vehicle.

A Walking Tour of Fort Sanders

Once farmland, later a battlefield, Fort Sanders developed after the Civil War as one of Knoxville’s most convenient neighborhoods for the affluent. Only in the mid-20th century did it develop a reputation for UT student housing. But for 150 years, it has developed a reputation for creativity, nurturing several nationally known authors, and a few musicians and artists.

The tour starts on 11th Street and heads west along Clinch Avenue to 18th Street before looping back along Laurel Avenue and Forest Avenue. A good place to park is in the city lot close to the Knoxville Museum of Art.

Download KHPs walking and driving tours at knoxvillehistoryproject.org/historic-knoxville-driving-tours/

Civil War Monuments

The New York Highlander monument honors the division that defended Fort Sanders from an all-out Confederate assault on Nov. 29, 1863. The largest Civil War monument in the neighborhood, it depicts in bas-relief Union and Confederate soldiers shaking hands. It was erected in 1918, when there were veterans alive to witness its dedication, and stands close to what would have been the southern ramparts of Fort Sanders. The poem carved on it is an obscure bit of verse celebrating unity and conciliation by Irish-born New York newspaperman Joseph Ignatius Constantine Clarke; this carving may be its best-known use. Up the hill on 17th street, the Confederate Monument, erected in 1914, with both Union and Confederate veterans in attendance, memorializes the 129 Confederate soldiers who died here during the 20-minute siege. That battle is regarded as the largest loss of life at one place and at one time in the history of Knox County.

Martin Luther Ross House, 1415 Laurel Avenue.

The large brick Martin Ross house, designed by Baumann Brothers and completed in 1893, stands at the corner of Laurel Avenue and James Agee Street and is one of the best examples of home architecture in Knoxville. A candy manufacturer and food wholesaler, Ross (1850-1899) served as West Knoxville’s last mayor, in 1896-97, while he lived here, and also more than one term as president of Knoxville’s Chamber of Commerce. A few years after his unexpectedly early in 1899, the Ross family relinquished the house, and it was converted into apartments in 1916 – at that time it was acknowledged as “an excellent example of sensitive adaptive use.” Images of the house have been used as a symbol of Fort Sanders, in prints and even T-shirts. 

James Agee Park

To honor the Knoxville-born writer who immortalized Fort Sanders, this city park was dedicated in 2003, with Agee’s daughter, DeeDee, on hand. It has since been a gathering place for various events, including a centennial reading of Agee’s “Knoxville: Summer 1915” in 2015. Agee lived about one block north of here. The house next door at 1511 Laurel Avenue was used in the filming of the 1963 film All the Way Home, based on Agee’s A Death in the Family, and starring Robert Preston, Jean Simmons, John Cullum—and Michael Kearney as the child, who returned to this site more than 50 years later. The interior and exterior of the house were used to depict a mortuary. Other houses used in the shooting have been torn down.

Eleventh Street Victorian Houses

Three small-scale Victorian houses facing 11th Street were empty, covered with vines, and slated to be demolished around 1979 when they were saved by a surprising World’s Fair project. Perhaps the most preservation-minded international exposition in history, the 1982 World’s Fair saved these, as well as four other more conventional houses of the same era facing what was then a block of Laurel Avenue, to serve various modest purposes during the Fair. The house at the southeast corner of Laurel and 11th was perhaps the most popular; it was the Budweiser pavilion, featuring a long porch “beer garden” in the rear. It was just uphill from the Clydesdale horse stables, which were along 11th near Clinch. Now residences, for years after the Fair, the “Victorian Houses,” hosted art galleries and cafes.

Knoxville Blues

A collection of illustrated stories highlighting the history and culture of the city’s musical heritage by Jack Neely featuring: The Bluegrass Legends Who First Recorded on Gay Street; Knoxville in the Time of the St. James Sessions; Crazy Tennesseans in Downtown Knoxville: Roy Acuff Started More Than a Career; The Louie Bluie Festival and the Legacy of Eclectic Musician Howard Armstrong, The Knoxville Music Festival: Big Ears’ Forgotten Predecessor; Sweet Dreams: The Amazing WNBOX Auditorium at Whittle Springs, and more.  Available for $10.95 at KnoxvilleHistoryProject.org, Union Ave Books, and the East Tennessee History Center.

The Knoxville History Project is an educational nonprofit that researches, preserves, and promotes the history and culture of Knoxville, Tennessee. Donations to support KHP’s work are always welcome and appreciated. Learn more at knoxvillehistoryproject.org

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

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