Stone from Knoxville-area quarries adorns some of the most famous buildings in America. Geologists note that Tennessee marble, often pinkish in hue, is actually a crystalline limestone. However, it has been known as “Tennessee marble” for two centuries.
Knoxville marble is obvious in the architecture of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., claimed to be the largest marble building in the world. Other buildings that feature Knoxville marble include New York’s state capitol, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, New York’s Grand Central Station, and the New York Public Library’s famous stone lions, Patience and Fortitude.
Knoxville has hosted several marble producers, including the Tennessee Marble Co., on Riverside Drive, the Ross-Republic Marble Company near Island Home, the Candoro Marble Works in Vestal, the Appalachian Marble Company on Middlebrook Pike, and the Gray Knox Marble Company on Sutherland Avenue.
Ramsey House, built in 1797 on Thorngrove Pike in East Knox County, near traditional marble quarrying sites, is one of the earliest known Tennessee marble structures.
Knoxville began producing marble for commercial use by 1852, when James Stone opened a quarry two miles north of downtown to supply stone for Nashville’s new state capitol building. The arrival of railroads in 1855 made marble-quarrying a major local industry.
The Ross and Mead families operated quarries on the south side of the river near Island Home, on what later became known as Ijams Nature Center. The oldest dates to the 1880s and, largely reclaimed by nature, resembles a small wooded canyon. Go here for a virtual tour of Mead’s and Ross Marble Quarries.
“The Marble City” was a term often applied to Knoxville beginning by the 1880s. Multiple downtown businesses used that name, including the Marble City Bank and the Marble City Saloon. After 1910, a specific neighborhood along Sutherland Avenue became known as “Marble City,” reflecting the marble workers who lived there, near more than one marble company. The city as a whole was sometimes referred to as “the Marble City” as late as the 1950s. Marble has played an important role in Knoxville’s cultural history. Knoxville’s first professional artist, Lloyd Branson, was best known for a 1910 painting of men and oxen hauling marble, called “The Toilers” or otherwise known as the “Hauling Marble.”
Pulitzer Prizewinning investigative reporter Paul Y. Anderson (1893-1938) grew up in a South Knoxville marble family. After his father was quarry accident, Paul’s youth was difficult, which may explain his tough fearlessness as a journalist. He’s buried under an elaborate marble marker at Island Home Baptist Church.
Designed by architect Charles Barber in 1923, the colorfully unusual Candoro building in Vestal was built to highlight the marble varieties produced by the company.
Albert Milani (1892-1977), who grew up near the famous Carerra marble quarries in Italy, was one of several Italian stonecutters who moved to Knoxville to work for Knoxville’s marble industry. Milani’s work can be seen on the 1912 Holston Building on Gay and especially on the 1934 Post Office building on Main. He was also an accomplished sculptor and longstanding foreman at Candoro.
Milani’s work is featured in the Knoxville Museum of Art as well at the Candoro Arts and Heritage Center in South Knoxville. One of his most unusual commissions, a memorial to Knoxville-born racing car driver, Albert Jacob “Pete” Kreis, can be found nearby at Asbury Cemetery. Kreis was killed on a practice lap at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1934. The sculpture was recognized as the Most Outstanding Memorial by the New York Times.
In 2016-2017, the East Tennessee Historical Society produced a temporary exhibition, Rock of Ages: East Tennessee’s Marble Industry. Complementing the exhibition was Quarry Project-Tennessee, which featured a remarkable multi-media presentation composed of layers of historic and artistic imagery set to a soundtrack of live interviews and original music directed, filmed and produced by Kate Katomski and Judd Mulkerin.
The film was shot at Thompson’s Point, a historic industrial site in Portland, ME. Music was composed and played by Judd Mulkerin. Historical images courtesy of the McClung Historical Collection in Knoxville, and the Vermont Marble Museum, Proctor, VT.
The film was projected on the exterior façade at Knoxville Museum of Art (which is clad with pink marble), and showcased at the Rock of Ages exhibition, plus at Candoro Marble Arts and Heritage Center in South Knoxville.
Kate Katomski also collaborated with University of Tennessee Chancellor’s Professor and master printer, Beauvais Lyons, culminating in a limited edition series of Litho Monoprints made from a slab of pink Tennessee Marble donated by Monica Gawet with the Tennessee Marble Company in Friendsville.
Each of the impressions were unique and featured the image of the evocative Keyhole, a stacked marble opening, located at Ijams Nature Center’s Ross Marble Quarry.
Dr. Susan Knowles, served as special consultant on the project.
For a broader look into East Tennessee’s Marble Industry, Dr. Susan Knowles, an expert in the field, researched the subject for her PhD dissertation. Subsequently, she meticulously prepared successful nominations to the National Register of Historic Places for a multiple property designation plus individual property nominations for Mead’s Quarry and Ross Marble Quarry in South Knoxville. Active across the state in numerous history project, Dr. Knowles served as the guest curator for the acclaimed Rock of Ages exhibition at the Museum of East Tennessee History in 2016-2017.
For a “Knoxville-focused” abstract from Dr. Knowles’ overview of the East Tennessee Marble Industry as well as further resource links here.