Years ago, I wrote about one of East Knoxville’s oddest curiosities: Burlington’s Speedway Circle, which is a curiosity in itself, a road planted along the track of Cal Johnson’s Victorian-era horse-racing track. But on the half-mile oval is a house much older than the other, mostly simple suburban-looking small houses with sunny green yards on the quiet street.
It’s a melancholy two-story manse with a heavy marble front, shaded, perhaps shrouded, in tall trees. It looks like a setting for a tragedy, or an otherworldly visitation. It’s just been listed for sale.
You would have to be very old to remark on its resemblance to the downtown home of Joseph Knaffl. The son of an Austrian court physician became Knoxville’s best-known art photographer of the Victorian era. His town home stood at 918 Gay Street until about 1926, until it was forced out to make way for the new Tennessee Terrace Hotel—later to be renamed, inadvisably I think, the Andrew Johnson.
For years, this odd house on Speedway has been a legend among aficionados of Knoxville obscurities, apparent proof of an amazing feat: that someone moved a brick-and-stone Victorian house, intact, 5 miles away, and planted it in a modern neighborhood. Even today, on the rare occasion an old house moves, it moves only across the street or around the corner.
Newly available sources, via the public library’s “From Paper to Pixels” project, make it clear the house wasn’t moved in its entirety. As a March 23, 1926, News-Sentinel article notes, an enterprising fellow named J.R. Stephens “bought materials from the Knaffl house” and used them in the construction of his new house on Speedway Circle. “The stone front of the Knaffl home will be used in the Stephens home, and the front porch will be the same. The wooden paneling in the Knaffl living room and dining room will be used” for similar rooms in the Speedway house. “Stephens’ home will also have the stairway from the old house.”
Unfortunately, as the current real-estate listing suggests, that interior woodwork has been “harvested” by the landowner, who lives in Greene County. Even Knaffl’s staircase is gone. The house would have to be rebuilt inside to be livable.
I suspect the parts were worth less than the whole, in its extraordinary context.
It’s still a curiosity. The house’s address is 3738 Speedway Circle. The number carved in marble above the door—918—still reflects its pre-1926 address on Gay Street.
Have a look at Visit Knoxville’s big new murals recently installed to cover the nakedness of the aesthetically troublesome Locust Street Garage. They’re three giant photographs of downtown Knoxville: There’s a classic photo of the Market House; a less-known and oddly melancholy photo of Peter Kern’s bakery, in its final days; and a Gay Street scene of people boarding the Vestal streetcar. A businessman appears to be barging in front of some women and children. Newcomer’s Department Store, now Mast, is visible in the background, as is Szabo’s, the tailor shop only later known as Slomski’s.
The locations are all near the 300 block of Union Avenue, and they’re all from right around 85 years ago. They’re all interesting pictures. The streetcar’s front-end placard sounds modern in its non-authoritarian plea: “Let’s Both Be Careful.”
You might wonder why this new building’s job is to celebrate a set of old buildings clustered about two and a half blocks away, and from such a specific point in history, about 1930, not necessarily one of Knoxville’s golden age. It was a time when, thanks to streetcars like this one, most people didn’t need parking garages. Despite their narrow context, the photos reflect the city’s life and diversity in a former era. They’re a great improvement over a concrete wall.
Speaking of old photos, I have a plea to my loyal readers. I’m finishing up a years-long book project about the Old City. For all the notoriety of this intersection of neighborhoods once known as Irish Town, the Bowery, Gunters’ Flats, the Flag Pond, Cripple Creek, and the Bottom, photographs are hard to come by, especially concerning South Central Street before the 1970s. I’m especially interested in photographs of all sorts of businesses or residences, including saloons. There were more than 100 saloons along Central over the years, from the railroad tracks to the river. I’ve seen a good photograph of only one. Even Patrick Sullivan’s, famous in its day, seems to have been rarely if ever photographed before the preservationist era.
If you know of any good images of the Old City from the time before it was the Old City, please let me know.
Finally, it’s hard to avoid the news. My knowledge of police shootings is mainly anecdotal. I’ve never done a thorough study of police-involved shootings in Knoxville history. But during Knoxville’s most violent era, the era between the Civil War and World War II, I believe policemen were shot more than the other way around.
However, one fatal police shooting of a black man stands out. Late one night in May 1938, Office Guy Vance attempted to arrest Clarence Kennedy, a restaurateur, for illegal liquor. The two shot each other. It happened at the fabled corner of Central and Vine, “Little Harlem,” around what’s now the dog park.
Officer Guy Vance was black, and was seriously wounded in the encounter. Still, he was accused by the victim’s family of use of undue force and faced murder charges in court. He was exonerated, with the help of witnesses who testified the popular cafe owner drew first.
It was the sixth time I know of that a policeman was shot in the old South Central Bowery, the site of the first three deaths of Knoxville police officers in the line of duty. In fact, all six of those shootings happened along the four blocks of South Central between Church and Vine, now Summit Hill.
I was walking there Sunday afternoon. No longer crowded with hundreds of businesses, legal and illegal, South Central is mainly just a one-way street to Neyland Drive, completely vacant on one side, lots of concrete on the other. There’s hardly anything there to defend.