James White founded Knoxville in 1786 after he came from North Carolina to the Fork of the River, where the Holston and French Broad Rivers meet to form the Tennessee River. He later moved downriver and settled near First Creek. He built a series of cabins that came to be known as White’s Fort. 

After the creation of the Southwest Territory in 1790, the appointed governor, William Blount, selected White’s Fort as the territory’s capital. James White set aside land adjacent to the fort for a new town, named “Knoxville” after Secretary of War Henry Knox. White employed his son-in-law Charles McClung, who had acquired rudimentary knowledge of surveying while in Philadelphia, to draw up lots for the new town, which were sold at auction on October 3, 1791. McClung named the early streets after those he remembered from his time in Philadelphia.

When Tennessee became a state in 1796, Knoxville was the capital but the town never really took off. Population grew slowly and when the state’s capital moved permanently to Middle Tennessee in 1818 the town trundled on as little more than a stopping point for travelers on the Tennessee River. The population was scarcely more than 2,000 by the middle of the 19th century.

Knoxville was just beginning to develop as a railroad and commercial center when the Civil War struck, pitting the town’s secessionists against Unionist in most of East Tennessee, where farms were small and slaves few. The town waffled between Confederate and Federal occupation and took a physical beating in the process. It eventually wound up in Union hands after 1863 which helped springboard the town to prosperity when the war ended. 

By 1896 city boosters bragged that only Atlanta and New Orleans handled more trade than Knoxville in the South. Factories were churning out railroad cars, processing pink marble from nearby quarries, assembling furniture, and processing food. There were so many textile factories operating in Knoxville that it called itself “the Underwear Capital of the World.” The population by the middle of the 20th century was 125,000.

But that progress came with a price tag. In 1947 John Gunther, a travel writer known for his breezy observations that often became ingrained as truths, published a bestselling travel guide called Inside U.S.A. in which he blithely declared Knoxville to be the Ugliest City in America. It didn’t help that Time magazine chose to highlight that observation in its review of the book. Gunther’s description was not dismissed by city leaders and one of the first targets for extraction was a century-old marketplace that had once been the heart of the town and that is where we will begin our walking tour...

Market Square
Market Street south of Wall Avenue

Knoxville had a market house as early as 1816 but it was torn down in 1823. Another market place was established here in 1854 but it was slow to catch on as local farmers were loathe to pay the monthly three-dollar stall rental fee and preferred to continue selling produce from their wagons. Vendors began lining up, however, after Knoxville banned curbside selling in town. In 1868 the first permanent City Hall was erected here as Market Square evolved into the hub of Knoxville’s commercial district. In the 1900s street trolleys and automobiles drew customers away from Market Square and by the 1950s there was a determined effort to tear down Market Hall. A fire in 1960 ended the battle between preservationists and progressive camps. The space was transformed into an open air pedestrian mall used for outdoor events and concerts. The bell from the former market house is displayed at Union End side of Market Square.   


Mall Building
1 Market Square at southwest corner of Market Square

German-born Peter Kern sailed to New York City to make shoes in the 1850s and wound up in Georgia at the age of 21 in 1857. He found himself fighting for the Confederacy with the 12th Georgia Infantry and was wounded in Virginia. He was headed home to recover in 1863 and was in Knoxville trying to make a train connection when Union troops seized the city. Kern never did make it back to Georgia. He stayed in Knoxville after the war and started a bakery with a fellow German immigrant William Heidel. By 1870 Kerr had bought out his partner and established an ice cream saloon on Market Square. He commissioned the building of this three-story structure in 1875, hiring Joseph F. Baumann, who had just hung out his shingle three years earlier, to design his new bakery. Baumann, his son and grandson would go on to design many of the major buildings in Knoxville for decades. Here Baumann delivered an ornate Italianate design. The Kern’s brand remained a regional favorite until 1989 when the bakery was purchased by Sara Lee.


Arnstein Building
501 Market Street at southwest corner of Union Avenue

Max Arnstein was a shopkeeper in Anderson, South Carolina when he heard tell in 1888 of the business opportunities in the new boomtown of the South, Birmingham, Alabama. He shuttered his shop and began making his way across the Blue Ridge Mountains, stopping in Knoxville for the night. Come morning, Arnstein looked around, saw some available store space and cancelled his ticket for Birmingham. Arnstein’s dry goods store grew into a full-blown department store and in 1905 he built Knoxville’s tallest building to contain his emporium. Architects Cleverdon & Putzel took time from their busy practice in New York City to design the seven-story brick building, liberally decorated with Beaux Arts stone details. Anstein’s left the building in 1927 but you can still look up and see the badge of Max Arnstein above the arched entrance.


McNulty Building
402 South Gay Street

This four-story vernacular structure was built in 1898 on the site of the Hotel Knox, where the “Million Dollar Fire” originated. Its first occupant was the McNulty Grocery and Dry Goods Company. F. McNulty was a long-time Knoxville businessmen who, at one time or another, sold hats, boots, carpets and ran a hotel.

Kress Building
417-421 South Gay Street

Samuel Kress founded S.H. Kress & Co. in 1896 and took as much pride in the beauty his stores brought to downtown streetscapes as he did in the profits his five-and-dimes brought to his coffers. Look up above the compromised street level to see the decorative white terra cotta facade of the four-story building from the 1920s, including the familiar Kress badge in the center. 

Phoenix Building
418 South Gay Street

Three Sterchi brothers left the family farm in 1888 and with just $800 founded the Sterchi Brothers Furniture Company on Gay Street. Sterchi Brothers would go on to become the world’s largest furniture store chain with sixty-five stores across the southeastern United States. In 1946, the company became the first Knoxville-based firm to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. In 1911 one of the co-founders, John Sterchi, formed a new furniture company with his son-in-law John O. Fowler, which became Fowler Brothers. This six-story building, the highest on Gay Street’s early commercial district, was the home of Fowler’s until 1987. It was originally constructed in the 1890s for the china and glassware firm of Cullen & Newman. When the firm expanded with two additional floors in 1900 a mythical Phoenix bird was carved into the facade near the roof. It is gone today but the Phoenix Building was reborn in 2003 after more than a decade of vacancy.

Woodruff Building
424 South Gay Street  

William Wallace Woodruff was born about 1840 in Kentucky. During the Civil War, he served as an Adjutant and later as a Captain in the 18th Kentucky Infantry. When the war ended, he settled in Knoxville and began selling hardware on a small scale. By the 1890s Captain Woodruff was ringing up sales of $500,000 a year. This was the third building for the hard-luck W.W. Woodruff and Company. The original burned in the “Million Dollar Fire” of 1897 that consumed most of the 400 block of South Gay Street and the second burned in an explosion in 1904. This Romanesque-styled building has lasted since 1905.

Arnold, Henegar, Doyle and Company Building
428 South Gay Street

M. D. Arnold, Edward Henegar, James S. Doyle, R. R. Swepson and I. E. Dooley began peddling shoes and boots in 1896. Their traveling salesmen were familiar callers throughout the Southeast. In 1898 the firm set up shop in these Romanesque-flavored headquarters. 

Miller’s Building
445 South Gay Street

Gustavus Hindman Miller was born on a rural ranch on the Texas frontier in 1857 but came east to the homeland of his father to begin his business career in eastern Tennessee as a country store clerk at the age of 20. By 1889 Miller and his brother Franklin moved to Chattanooga and sell distressed merchandise. The enterprise was a success and had expanded into a full-fledged department store when it burned to the ground a decade later. The Millers rebuilt in grand fashion in 1898 with over 110,000 square feet of floor space, enough for the brothers to claim to have “the greatest display of merchandise that has ever been in a Southern store.” In 1905 the Millers established this corner emporium in Knoxville, eventually expanding into three buildings. Today shoppers from a century ago would recognize the Miller’s Building but it took an extensive rehabilitation to wipe away decades of “modernization” and return the appearance to the building designed by R.F. Graf. 

Cowan, McClung and Company Building
500 Gay Street

Cowan, McClung and Company was formed in 1858 by Knoxville merchants James H. Cowan, Perez Dickinson, and several members of the McClung family. James Cowan was a nephew of Nathaniel and Samuel Cowan who opened Knoxville’s first general store in 1792. The McClungs were newcomers, having only been in the wholesaling game in town since 1816. Following the Civil War, Knoxville evolved into a wholesaling mecca and by 1866 Cowan, McClung and Company was the state’s leading wholesaler, generating more tax revenue than any other firm in the state. The company erected this headquarters in 1871 and operated from here until the firm closed in 1919. In 1929 Fidelity-Bankers Trust Company purchased the building and hired go-to Knoxville architects Baumann and Baumann to overhaul the premises. The remodeling converted the three-bay brick building into a stately Renaissance Revival banking house.

Farragut Hotel
528-534 South Gay Street

After the Hotel Imperial burned to the ground in 1917, leading Knoxville businessmen moved quickly to insure Knoxville had a first-class hotel. They hired New York architect William Lee Stoddart who specialized in high-rise hotels in mid-size cities and he delivered a Neo-Georgian design for this nine-story brick guest house. The building took its name from one of the U.S. Navy’s most famous admirals, David Glasgow Farragut, who was born in West Knox Country and was responsible for capturing the strategic Confederate fort at Mobile Bay. The Farragut Hotel closed its doors in 1977 and the First Tennessee Bank moved in; today the Farragut carries on as residential space.

The Holston
531 South Gay Street at northwest corner of Clinch Avenue

The Holston National Bank took its first deposits in 1890 and by 1913 was successful enough to raise Knoxville’s tallest building. John Kevan Peebles of Norfolk, Virginia provided the Renaissance Revival design that is highlighted by an Ionic facade at street level. In 1928 Holston National and Union Nation merged to create the town’s largest bank and celebrated by raising the roof - literally adding two additional floors to the original 12-story building while retaining its heavy metal cornice. The bank would fail shortly thereafter when the Great Depression struck.

Tennessee Theatre
604 South Gay Street

This is where the University of Tennessee held its first classes, back when it was Blount College and the schoolhouse was a two-story log structure. In 1907 this became the site of Knoxville’s tallest building when the 166-foot Burwell Building was constructed. In 1928 the 2,000-seat Tennessee Theater was constructed inside, with Chicago architects Graven & Mayger providing an exotic Moorish atmosphere for movie-goers. Like most downtown movie palaces the Tennessee struggled through an uncertain 1970s and 1980s before receiving a $29 million facelift. In 1999 it was designated “The Official State Theatre of Tennessee.”

Mechanics’ Bank and Trust Company Building
612 South Gay Street 

Bank business has been conducted on this site for 200 years, back when the Bank of Tennessee was handling money beginning in 1812. A parade of banks followed until Mechanics’ Bank and Trust moved here in 1882. In October that year, bank president Thomas O’Connor was killed on the bank steps in a shoot-out with Joseph Mabry, one of the town’s richest men, in a dispute over ownership of land. Mabry and his son were killed and seven bystanders were injured by stray shot in the incident which grabbed national headlines. Mechanics’ Bank replaced that building with this one in 1907, constructed with a Renaissance Revival facade of locally-quarried Tennessee marble. 

Arcade Building
618 South Gay Street

This handsome two-story Neoclassical building was constructed in 1924 as the press room for the Knoxville Journal. Richard Franklin Graf, a Knoxville architect credited with helping bring modern architecture to town, drew up the plans when he was 60 years old. This was his last major work. The Journal printed its first edition in 1885 and later merged with the Knoxville Tribune. It continued to publish until 1991.


Keyhole Building
209 West Church Street

This otherwise routine brick building gained notoriety for its rough-faced stone facade and its entryway shaped in the form of a keyhole. Ir was built in the 1890s as the home and office of Dr. S.M. Miller. The Knoxville Business College, now South College, was located here from the 1940s to the 1980s. 


First Presbyterian Church
620 State Street

The First Presbyterian congregation was organized by the Reverend Samuel Carrick in the 1790s but members were buried at this site, including territorial governor and Constitutional Convention delegate William Blount and Knoxville founder James White, before anyone worshiped in a building here. The first brick meetinghouse was erected adjacent to the cemetery in White’s old turnip patch in 1816. The Greek Revival core of the current sanctuary was built in 1903 with wings coming along in the 1920s.


Craighead-Jackson House
1000 State Street at West Hill Avenue

This center-hall Federal house overlooking the confluence where First Creek flowed into the Tennessee River was constructed in 1818 by John Craigshead. Craighead served as a Knoxville city alderman in 1824 and was an elder of the First Presbyterian Church. The Jackson family came along in the 1850s. The two-story brick heritage house was acquired by the adjacent Blount Mansion Association and restored in the 1960s. 


Blount Mansion
200 West Hill Avenue 

William Blount was born into a prominent North Carolina family of merchants and planters in 1749. During the American Revolution he served as a paymaster for the Continental Army and after the war he represented North Carolina at the Constitutional Convention and affixed his name to the United States Constitution. In 1790 after the the Southwest Territory, that was soon to become Tennessee, was carved out of North Carolina’s western lands, President George Washington appointed Blount as Territorial Governor. Blount was the only governor the Southwest territory would have and he went to Washington as the first United States Senator from the new state of Tennessee in 1796. About the same time Blount’s financial affairs were unraveling due to ill-advised land speculation. In 1797 he became the first Senator to be booted out of Congress, accused of treason for intrigue in West Florida. Blount’s shenanigans apparently didn’t much bother his constituents as he was elected to the Tennessee State Senate and rose to the speakership before his death in 1800 at the age of 50. While helming the Southwest Territory Blount moved the capital to Knoxville and named the town after Secretary of War, Henry Knox. He selected this site overlooking the Tennessee River as the location for his house that was also intended to double as the territorial capitol. The frame and clapboard mansion featured wings around a two-story central block; Blount’s office was a single-story structure on the grounds. It was one of the first frame houses west of the Allegheny Mountains and the lumber and nails were shipped to the frontier from North Carolina. The Blount family sold the house in 1825 and a century later the badly deteriorated buildings were about to be cleared for a parking lot when they were saved by the Daughters of the American Revolution and the East Tennessee Historical Society. Today the Blount Mansion one of the treasures of Tennessee, a National Historic Landmark, is maintained as a museum.  


Andrew Johnson Building
912 South Gay Street

This was the tallest building in Knoxville for a half-century after it was constructed in 1928. Albert Baumann, senior and junior, designed the dark red brick Beaux Arts skyscraper. Now an office tower, the Andrew Johnson began life as Knoxville’s premiere hotel, the kind of guest house where celebrity visitors to town would check into. Country music legend Hank Williams spent his last night in the Andrew Johnson - he died in his Cadillac driving from Knoxville to Canton, Ohio for a concert on New Year’s Eve 1952.  

Knox County Courthouse
300 Main Street at southwest corner of Gay Street

The first Knox County Court House was designed by architect Drury P. Armstrong and constructed in 1842. The current building came along in 1885 from the pens of local architects Stephenson and Getaz, working with a budget of $82,000. The focus of the courthouse was a 2,500 pound bell in the central tower. New wings were added to either side of the courthouse in 1919. Tennessee’s first governor, John Sevier, and his wives, Sarah Hawkins and Catherine “Bonny Kate” Sherrill, are buried on the lawn.   

Plaza Tower
800 Gay Street

At 300 feet, this is Knoxville’s tallest building, erected in 1979 as the headquarters for United American Bank. At the time the bank controlled almost half of the business money being lent in Knoxville but the empire collapsed in 1982 when founder Jake Butcher was convicted of fraud. The building stands on the site where Peter Staub, a Swiss immigrant and a mayor of Knoxville, built the town’s first opera house in 1872. The three-story Staub’s Theatre was one of the first major buildings designed by local Joseph Baumann and was mentioned in the same breath as theaters in New Orleans and Richmond, helping to reverse a general feeling that Knoxville had earned a reputation as a cultural backwater.

Lamar House/Bijou Theatre
803 South Gay Street

This building began life in 1817 as a tavern and hotel that was advertised as the largest in East Tennessee. The area’s elite knew they could come to the Lamar House for a fine meal and room; Andrew Jackson took lodging here. In 1909 the rear of the building was gouged out and replaced with the Bijou Theatre which became a mandatory stopping point for performers for the next half-century. The Bijou slid into decline in the 1970s and was facing the wrecking ball before a long period of renovation culminated in a 2006 reopening.


Whittle Communications Building (Howard Baker Federal Courthouse)
800 Market Street

Although it looks like the Founding Fathers might have debated the pros and cons of freedom inside here, this block-swallowing building only dates to 1991. Tennessee native Chris Whittle started the magazine Knoxville in a Nutshell in the 1970s that grew into an empire with more than a score of publications, many single-advertiser magazines that were placed in medical office waiting rooms. In the mid-1980s Whittle set his sights on creating a national in-school television education network and sold Knoxville civic leaders on his vision. The city closed off Market Street and tore down a few scattered buildings, including a bus terminal, to clear the way for Whittle’s two-block Neo-Georigan colossus, which the architects deftly fit in between two buildings with a two-century pedigree, the Lamar House and the Park House. Everything was in place by 1991 but Whittle’s grandiose plans never came to full fruition and Whittle Communications was gone by 1994. It didn’t take much imagination to picture the building in a governmental capacity and it was later converted into the Howard Baker Federal Courthouse. 

St. John’s Cathedral
413 Cumberland Avenue at northeast corner of Walnut Street

This congregation, that was designated the Cathedral for the newly created Diocese of East Tennessee in 1986, was established in 1826. Their first church was constructed in 1844 for 25 communicants. That meetinghouse was razed in 1891 for this eye-catching Romanesque stone church, designed by J.W. Yost of Columbus, Ohio. The building boasts square towers, broad gables and rose windows.

James Park House
422 West Cumberland Avenue at southeast corner of Walnut Street

This building lot, Lot 59 in the original plat of the town, was purchased by Governor John Sevier who began digging out a brick foundation before money problems stopped construction. In 1812 Irish merchant James Park acquired the property and erected a frame house. In the 1820s Park put up a second wing to give the house its unique L-shape seen today. Amidst building sprees, Park served two terms as Knoxville mayor. The house remained in the Park family until 1912 after which it did duty as office space.


Knoxville Post Office and Federal Building
501 Main Street

Knoxville received a new post office as a Depression-era federal works project in 1934. Knoxville architects Baumann and Baumann designed the three-story building by blending Moderne styling with Art Deco form. The building sports six different colors or types of East Tennessee marble and walkways crafted of Crab Orchard stone.

First Baptist Church
510 Main Street

First Baptist Church was organized in 1843 in a room in the Courthouse on Gay Street. When the congregation moved to this location in 1923 noted church architects Edward E. Dougherty and T.W. Gardner of Nashville provided the design for the building that blends elements of the English Renaissance, Romanesque and Baroque styles. In form the church resembles St. Martin-in-the-Field in Trafalgar Square, London. The portico is framed by an elaborate hand-carved frieze of garlands and cherubs, supported by six Corinthian columns. The price tag was $600,000. 

Medical Arts Building
603 Main Street at northwest corner of Locust Street

Herbert Acuff, a physician, saw a need in the 1920s to provide a centrally located building to house the town’s doctors and dentists and rounded up an investor group to construct the “best equipped” medical building in the South. The timing was not the best; the Medical Arts Building was finished in 1930 at the onset of the Great Depression and Acuff’s investment group went bankrupt a few years later. But their legacy is one of the South’s finest Gothic Revival-style buildings, crafted by the firm of Manley and Young from Lexington, Kentucky. The splendid terra cotta details begin at ground level and continue all the way to the cornice surrounding the building. The Gothic flavor comes from pointed arches, buttresses and tracery inthe windows.  

Church Street United Methodist Church
900 Henley Street at southwest corner of Main Street

The congregation formed in 1816 with 68 members and built a church on Church Street in 1836. It was followed by another meetinghouse on Church Street in 1878. When that church burned in 1928, the Church Street Church moved off Church Street. This stone Gothic structure, which includes a sanctuary and education wing, was dedicated in 1931. The designe came from a collaboration between church member Charles Barber and the celebrated New York firm of John Russell Pope, whose work also included the Jefferson Memorial and the National Archives in Washington, D.C. President Franklin Roosevelt was said to have called this the prettiest church he had ever seen when he visited Knoxville. In a bizarre footnote to the building of this church, contractor Harry Gervin was shot to death on the construction site by Eugene Blanchard, a traveling salesman of plumbing supplies. Blanchard was avenging an affair Gervin had conducted with Mrs. Blanchard, even though they were now divorced. At trial Blanchard explained that he was to find Gervin by his sign at the building site.Blanchard was convicted but had his sentence commuted in the 1940s and lived out his life uneventfully in Chattanooga.


Henley Street at Church Avenue

In 1982 Knoxville put on a World’s Fair, known officially as the Knoxville International Energy Exposition. The deteriorating Louisville and Nashville Railroad yard between downtown and the University of Tennessee was cleared for the fairgrounds and the Sunsphere, a 266-foot tower topped by a five-story gold glass dome, was erected as the symbol of the Fair. It still stands as a Fair souvenir and has been incorporated as a symbol and logo for several Knoxville institutions. World Fairs are noted for introducing inventions and innovation and two that emerged from the Knoxville World’s Fair were touch screen technology and Cherry Coke. The United States has staged only one World’s Fair since Knoxville, a desultory affair in 1984 in New Orleans that was plagued with attendance problems and became the only exposition to declare bankruptcy during its run.


Lawson McGhee Public Library
500 West Church Avenue at southwest corner of Walnut Street 

Charles McClung McGhee, born in 1828, was a descendant of Knoxville founder James White. He started packing pork and supplied the Confederate Army before taking the Oath of Allegiance late in the war, appeasing the city’s Unionists. By the end of the Civil War McGhee was at the forefront of town businessmen and in 1866 became president of the People’s Bank. He organized the syndicate to purchase the town’s main rail lines and had interests in woolen mills, trolley lines and coal mines. In 1885 McGhee gave $50,000 for the establishment of the town’s first library in honor of his daughter Mary Lawson who had died suddenly two years earlier during childbirth. McGhee organized the library building so that its first floor could be rented out as commercial space and provide the library with steady income. It was also a subscription library, lending books to those who had paid to become members. That building was located at the corner of Gay Street and Summit Hill Drive and stands today, despite being gutted by a fire in 1904. The assets of the Lawson McGhee Library were merged into a free public library in 1916 with the stipulation that the new library would forever bear the name Lawson McGhee Library. The current library, the fourth McGhee Library and the foundation of the Knox County Public Library System, was opened in 1971. 

Ely Building
406 Church Avenue

This two-story red brick building was constructed in 1903 as a doctors’ office. The outstanding feature is its projecting entrance framed by a marble voussoir-studded arch and steps crafted of Tennessee pink marble.

Cherokee Building
404 Church Avenue at southwest corner of Market Street

The Italianate-flavored Cherokee Building was constructed in 1895 and a recent facelift highlights the decorative brickwork used to create corner quoins and window hoods. Among its long list of tenants perhaps the most illustrious was the Knoxville Business College and School of Shorthand, now South College, beginning in 1910 and lasting until the World War II era.


The General Building
625 Market Street at northwest corner of Church Street

In 1888 George Franklin Barber, an Illinois architect, relocated to Knoxville, hoping the mountain air would restore his declining health. While in town he mastered the technique of mail order architecture, issuing The Cottage Souvenir No. 2 in 1890 with 59 house plans. Barber’s designs have resulted in houses in all 50 states. His son Charles I. Barber became an important architect in Knoxville in his own right, designing houses and churches and several buildings on the University of Tennessee campus. This 15-story skyscraper, intended by civic boosters to provide Knoxville with a modern office building in 1925, is Charles Barber’s only high-rise. The Neoclassical design boasts a base of rusticated limestone and concrete corner quoins that run up to a terra cotta cornice. Barber designed the building as a L-shape but subsequent additions have squared off its form.

Old Customs House
southeast corner of Clinch and Market streets

This Italian Renaissance-flavored federal building was the first to be constructed in Knoxville, appearing on the streetscape in 1874. The substantial three-story building, sheathed in East Tennessee marble, was one of the last projects designed by Alfred B. Mullett who was the chief architect for the United States government from 1866 until 1874. Mullett was criticized in his time for overblown, expensive Victorian creations that have since come to be regarded as masterpieces. This building, that was considered one of the finest in East Tennessee, housed the federal courts, excise offices and post office until 1933.