The Pickle Mansion is dying hard. Since it was gutted by a fire in the summer of 2003, when we were all a dozen years younger, the big house at 1633 Clinch Ave. has existed only as an intriguing ruin. Before that, though, it was one of Fort Sanders’ most eye-catching Victorians, an 1899 three-story brick house with elaborate carved stone and a metal dome atop a corner turret, and a broad comfortable-looking wraparound porch. Barring a miracle, none of it will be standing next year.
Its builder, George Wesley Pickle, was an East Knox County native who enlisted in the Confederate army at age 16 but spent much of the conflict as a prisoner. When people called him Gen. Pickle, though, it had nothing to do with the war. He attended Princeton and studied law in Indiana before returning to Tennessee to build a reputation as one of the region’s ablest prosecutors. In 1886, he became state attorney general, and despite the fact that much of his work was in Nashville, he settled in Knoxville. The second-longest A.G. in Tennessee history, “General” Pickle was in office when he built this house within the still-obvious ramparts of an eroding old fort.
Perhaps regarding his Confederate adventure as a youthful indiscretion, Pickle honored the Union fort in the name of his house, and called it Fort Sanders Hall.
In November 1863, U.S. Fort Sanders saw the fiercest 20 minutes of fighting in East Tennessee—north of Chattanooga, at least. The main assault, where hundreds of Confederates were killed or wounded, was about a block west of this site. The rebel attackers never got quite as far as the future site of Pickle’s house. He may have enjoyed the irony that he finally arrived peacefully at a spot his old allies failed to reach with heavy cannon bombardment and a violent charge.
At the time, the neighborhood was not known as Fort Sanders, but as “West Knoxville.” Long before the hospital, or the school, or the neighborhood itself, Pickle’s “Fort Sanders Hall” may have been the first thing ever named for Fort Sanders—other than the fort itself, that is. In the 1890s, Fort Sanders was a tourist attraction. The street later known as 17th Street was then known as Fort Sanders Avenue, not because it bisected a neighborhood called Fort Sanders, but because it led directly to a fort by that name. But Fort Sanders’ last earthen ruins disappeared when Gen. Pickle’s house was about 20 years old.
Fort Sanders Hall was grand, even by the grand standards of its day. It may have been Knoxville’s last building with a corner-turret dome. As the mortar was drying on this house, Queen Victoria still reigned, but the styles associated with her name were evaporating.
Gen. Pickle abided here with his wife, Minnie, and their stepdaughter, Minnie, until his death at the house in 1917. His funeral at Fort Sanders Hall was a celebrity occasion, attended by Tennessee’s legal royalty, including longtime Mayor Sam Heiskell and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Edward Terry Sanford.
In the 1920s, the house became a frat house—marking the university’s first incursion into the block—then an apartment building sometimes known as Westover. Developments like that might doom a lesser Victorian, but somehow the basic house and its essential grandness survived.
For decades, the 1600 block of Clinch—the highest point of mile-long Clinch Avenue, which stretches a mile and a half from the east side of downtown—always seemed Fort Sanders’ single most gracious block. With huge oak trees, it’s probably the shadiest part of the neighborhood. Editor-Mayor-historian William Rule, one of the wisest and most beloved Knoxvillians of all time, lived on this block until his death in 1928. Fort Sanders Manor, with its elegant courtyard, was a cut above most apartment-building construction at the time. On the 1600 block of Clinch, there was even a Fort Sanders Manor Tea Room. When I lived in Fort Sanders, 30-something years ago, there were still some elegant older ladies living here on this block, like Evelyn Miller with her grand piano—defiant survivors of the era when this neighborhood wasn’t dominated by a aggressive institutions, willing it to retain its old grace. At the time, there were also several artists and musicians living here, including R.B. Morris, when he was billing himself purely as a poet.
The block seemed somehow exalted. If you were wandering around drunk after the bars had closed, you tried to be quiet about it when you walked down these sidewalks.
The 2003 fire destroyed the roof and the famous metal dome, but left the grand walls and carved stone mostly intact.
After the fire, the owners wanted to tear the place down altogether. I wrote a eulogy for it back then. But preservationists got on the case, led by Knox Heritage, and the house became the first use of the city’s new demolition-by-neglect ordinance. After a demolition permit was denied, the original owners relinquished the property and found a buyer. For a while it was owned for several years by a young, smart, and well-meaning preservationist developer who worked hard—but, eventually distracted by serious illness, it went very slowly. Still in his 30s, he died before getting a full roof on the house.
Meanwhile, the house, still open to the elements, deteriorated. A resourceful preservationist team, that of Jon Clark and Ron Turner, thought it still worth salvaging, and bought it. They worked on it for almost two years, but encountered disappointments, one of them was the National Park Service’s assessment that the house had deteriorated too much to be considered for the National Register of Historic Places. They still own it, and will remove it mainly for safety, to replace it with something that befits its neighborhood.
Personally I’ve never taken on a major renovation effort, and when seasoned preservationists say something’s beyond hope, I can’t argue much. But I sometimes wish we were a culture that respected ruins. If this were alone on a green hilltop in Scotland, it would probably just be left there and become an illustration for postcards and calendars, a landmark.