Compiled by Jack Neely for the Knoxville History Project.
Today, Magnolia Avenue has hundreds of magnolia trees, but it was named for a woman.
Magnolia Bryan Branner (1829-1907) was originally from Georgia, but moved to Knoxville with her husband, George Branner, a prosperous plantation owner, just before the Civil War. They settled along First Creek. Their son, H. Bryan Branner, became mayor of Knoxville in 1880.
When it was completed in 1888, Magnolia Avenue was a broad, modern boulevard, a clean, quiet option to living in dirty, crowded downtown Knoxville.
Magnolia Branner was then a widow, the primary resident of a house near what’s now the campus of Pellissippi State. She outlived her husband by 23 years, and watched the growth of the street named for her.
Originally, Magnolia was an extension of Park Street, an older downtown street. It became Magnolia only after it crossed First Creek. After World War I, Park Street became Magnolia, too.
Magnolia led to the popular new destination, Chilhowee Park.
Originally served by a small steam-driven train, Magnolia saw the first electric streetcar ever built in East Tennessee. William Gibbs McAdoo (who later became U.S. Secretary of the Treasury) built that line along Magnolia in 1890, to the park.
Most Knoxvillians visited Chilhowee Park, and became familiar with Magnolia. Much of America saw Magnolia early in the century, when Chilhowee Park was the site of several major expositions, including the National Conservation Exposition of 1913, which drew a million people from across the country. Most of those visitors arrived on the Magnolia streetcar.
That exposition included a pavilion called the Negro Building, established by Knoxville blacks, and black people were part of the daily crowds. However, blacks were later banned from visiting the park except during fairs, and on one day a year—Aug. 8, which was celebrated as Emancipation Day.
Chilhowee Park remained as an amusement park, with permanent rides and arcades, and as a setting for annual fairs. The Magnolia corridor developed a reputation for fun, and spawned other attractions, like Cal Johnson’s Racetrack, built and owned by a man raised to be a slave. It hosted horse races, Knoxville’s first automobile races—and, in 1911 the first landing of an airplane in Knoxville. Caswell Park was for about 80 years the home of professional baseball in Knoxville. The Knoxville Zoo, first launched near Magnolia in the 1940s, remains one of Knoxville’s best-known attractions today.
For a century, Magnolia was more familiar to Knoxvillians than Kingston Pike was. It was the home of the region’s first Catholic high school. It was the address of the Park Theater, which remained one of Knoxville’s most popular movie theaters from the 1940s to the 1970s, showing many first-run movies even before the bigger theaters did. It was the location one of the region’s biggest bread bakeries, Swan’s—and, in the 1940s, of the Hartman Beverage Co., at the time it introduced a new soft drink called Mountain Dew.
Magnolia also attracted numerous popular restaurants, especially those specializing in “fun” food, like pizza, barbecue, hot dogs, and ice cream.
In the 1950s, Knoxville leaders took advantage of a federal initiative called Urban Renewal to clear slums. At the time, thousands of people, most but not all of them black, lived in desperate conditions, many without electricity or plumbing, in a large area of several hundred acres on the east side of downtown. Urban Renewal removed thousands of residences, many of them dangerous slums, but many of them well-kept homes. Some of those evicted moved into new housing projects. Many others moved into formerly white neighborhoods of East Knoxville. When public housing was planned for East Knoxville, many white families left the area for the new developments in West Knoxville. Blacks, many of whom had been evicted from traditional urban neighborhoods, moved in.
Although Magnolia as a business and residential street remained mostly white through the 1970s, it spawned several black-owned businesses and became increasingingly important to the displaced black community.
Today, the part of Magnolia being discussed for a major makeover is home to the Knoxville campus of Pellissippi State Community College, the Knoxville area’s public-television station, WETP-TV, and many other businesses.
Featured image at top:
The Negro Building, one of several pavilions at the 1913 National ConservationExposition at Chilhowee Park, was built by Knoxville blacks to demonstrate African-American experience and achievement. After the fair was over, though, blacks were allowed at Chilhowee Park only one day a year.
Image courtesy of the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection.
The Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to the promotion of and education about the history of Knoxville, presents this column each week to raise awareness of the themes, personalities, and stories of our unique city.
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I enjoy reading East Knox history and learning how these generational factors have contributed to current cultural climate here. Living in park ridge and getting to know the history is beautiful in my minds eye- to imagine transport by street car and the sweat and tears and commitment for many business owners and inventors who once lined the street.