Earlier this month we enjoyed a summer evening in Burlington. The East Tennessee Community Design Center invited us to an educational soiree among the tall trees and historic downtown-style buildings clustered around the eastern end of the avenue we know as MLK. It’s like a little downtown with some surprising angles, just before you get to suburban Holston Hills, and it’s showing some new signs of life.
Several things are unique about Burlington, like old Speedway Circle, the half-mile oval that was once a horse-racing track but is now Knoxville’s oddest cul-de-sac, and the old Knaffl house, which was built on Gay Street, and still bears its Gay Street address, 918, carved into its facade, even though it’s been out here at 3738 Speedway Circle for 93 years now.
Burlington holds one of those mysteries that capture people’s imagination and won’t let go.
It seems a positive sign that people ask the question. Lots of neighborhoods have distinct names that aren’t necessarily obvious, and I’m not sure people
wonder where the names came from. People do wonder about Burlington.
It became a recurring theme of my old column in Metro Pulse. On more than one occasion, I polled people in Burlington spots, like the old Ruby’s Coffee Shop, the Lunch House, and Burlington Barber Shop, about where the name came from. I attended a meeting of the Olde Burlington Gang, a group who’s been meeting once a year since the 1920s for a party, ostensibly to celebrate a community baseball championship. Even though none of them remember the upset that ended that amazing season, they still get together once a year to celebrate it. If some attendees don’t remember the place in the Roaring ’20s, a few do remember Burlington before World War II.
Some guessed. No one knew. They’d always wondered, and never gotten a satisfying answer.
People often assume it was in honor of a Mr. Burlington, perhaps an early farmer. That guessing strategy usually works for places like Halls or Seymour. To my knowledge, though, no one named Burlington ever lived in the neighborhood. As a surname, it’s very rare in the Knoxville area.
Still, the name Burlington is old. It goes back more than a century. Whoever came up with it died a long time ago.
The decades have produced several theories. That someone from Burlington, North Carolina, moved there. Or that someone from Burlington, Vermont, moved there. Or that they had some retail connection to Burlington Coat Factory.
People seem desperate for some sort of an answer. Maybe even a wrong one is better than this longstanding existential bewilderment.
Meanwhile, people just seem to like the word, and not just here. About half the states in America have a town called Burlington. Tennessee is not one of them. But Nashville used to have a mansion called Burlington. I looked on Google’s Ngram, and the all-time peak of the word Burlington used in print in the English language–internationally–was in 1914. That’s about when it showed up here.
I have a brand-new theory. Maybe it works as well as any.
The name sounds British, of course, and there’s a Burlington in England, though today it’s usually called Bridlington. It’s a small fishing port on the North Sea in northern Yorkshire. Some people have proposed that someone from that Burlington came here and had a profound effect on East Knoxville. Any other details about that errant Brit seem to be elusive.
But it’s related to my theory.
Burlington, England, was named for the Earl of Burlington. That line of earls of Burlington had gone extinct before 1800, when another fellow, a Lord George Cavendish, revived the title held by some of his ancestors, styling himself the new Earl of Burlington.
Perhaps no fan of fishing villages, he chose to live in a palatial home in London’s Mayfair. It became famous for its Burlington Gardens. By 1818, perhaps looking to distract himself from the last war with America, he built a grand new edifice in London and called it the Burlington Arcade.
It wasn’t a place for pinball machines. It was a new kind of commercial development, considered to be a safe place to shop “for jewelry and fancy articles of fashionable demand,” as promoters still say. Perhaps in a democratic mood, the earl declared the place to be “for the gratification of the public.” Burlington Arcade was accessible, but a coach ride away from the hustle and bustle of the narrow streets of central London that Dickens wrote about. It was open to the public, but according to promoters, it was a place aimed at “genteel folk”–or perhaps folk who liked to think of themselves as genteel, or who could pass for genteel on a good day, or who thought that they could become genteel if only they could spend an afternoon in Burlington Arcade.
Meanwhile, nearby Burlington Gardens were an attraction, and the adjacent Burlington Estate itself became known for its art museum. Burlington got the best of everything. It had such status in English society that the Burlington Arcade was the first commercial place in all of Britain to get electric lighting. The Burlington Arcade’s fame grew with the years. It got a major facelift in 1911.
Why Knoxville would name a neighborhood for a fancy place in large, rich, modern London?
Perhaps Knoxville’s Burlington never aspired to be as fancy as London’s Burlington, but in some cases it served a similar purpose. It was a place that was busy and appealing but away from the crowds and smoke of downtown. The name Burlington was just coming to the fore in the later days of horse racing at Johnson’s Racetrack. The Earl of Burlington, who was as fond of thoroughbred horses as Cal was, might have enjoyed that part. Still, even after state betting bans ended our profitable horse-racing era, Burlington remained a way to take a little vacation from Knoxville. Just get on the Burlington streetcar in 1930, and you could ride and have a nice lunch, do some shopping, maybe get a haircut or take in a second-run movie. It was first famous as a shopping center, and if it wasn’t fancy, it wasn’t just for the people who lived nearby, either, and was appealing enough to get people to step on the streetcar that said Burlington on the front.
And maybe it’s not a coincidence that the time people started applying the name Burlington to that part of town was about the same time Knoxville was hosting a series of expositions: giant weeks-long fairs with big, extravagant buildings that from a distance looked like English estates. All that was just across the street from Burlington.
People in that era knew that the first big global exposition, maybe the model for this sort of thing, especially in the English-speaking world, was the one in 1851 at Hyde Park in London. Which, as it happens, is within walking distance of the Burlington Arcade.
Of course, as later residential developers on the west side of town learned, even if you can’t back it up, a fancy name evoking Old World grandeur never hurts anything.
It wouldn’t have been the first time we ever reached overseas for an appealing moniker. In 1857 Robert Houston Armstrong named his Kingston Pike home Bleak House, for Dickens’ novel, which is set in and near London. An 1890 apartment building downtown on Clinch Avenue was known as the Vendome, named for a beautiful spot–a place, actually–in Paris.
Many years later, we named our biggest new municipal venue after a landmark in Rome: the Civic Coliseum.
Today we have a Presbyterian Church named Westminster–and, a little farther out on Northshore, a neighborhood called Kensington. Those also both happen to be the name of London neighborhoods. People even name their daughters Chelsea. (I have learned not to ask Chelseas about whether they have ever been to Chelsea. Each Chelsea likes to think of herself as the primary Chelsea.)
More to the point, even our word Mall, as in West Town Mall, strip malls, etc., comes from Pall Mall, in London. In 1960, we liked it so much we applied it to our Market Square, several years before we opened West Town Mall.
And to bring it all back around, one of the early precursors of the modern shopping mall was the Burlington Arcade.
We must like London. Sgt. Alvin York grew up in very rural Fentress County, in a little place called Pall Mall. And my grandmother was from a place called London, Kentucky.
London’s Burlington was an internationally amazing shopping center. Maybe this new place in East Knoxville could be something like it. And nobody’s saying it still can’t.
Of course, it’s still possible that it was named for a guy who was from some other Burlington. Or someone who was named Burlington, himself. The truth is always more complicated than we expect, and usually more interesting.
Never mind that there was once a Burlington Arcade here, too, back in the ’70s. I think they had pinball machines.
~Written & Researched by Jack Neely