The fate of artist Catherine Wiley’s childhood home raises a question: How do you know when you’re buying a cultural landmark?
Once every year or two, I need to take a sentimental lap through Fort Sanders, my old neighborhood, what I used to call my Briar Patch. I lived there for six years, several eras ago, when preservation was a novelty, and people were just beginning to view Victorian houses as something other than embarrassing relics of an extravagant era.
In some ways, the neighborhood’s looking up. Blight isn’t as obvious as it was when I lived there, when burned-out houses might remain as picturesque ruin for years, and vacant lots attracted trash, and new construction tended to be cheap and plain, in a style determined by what you can do with a pile of concrete blocks.
On a loop through a couple of months ago, I had a bit of a start. A house I was used to seeing wasn’t there anymore. It was a particularly notable house, or so I thought. But as I looked at some new construction, a small apartment building, it occurred to me that the people who bought the house, and the people who sold it, didn’t know that it was anything special.
That’s a problem that maybe we can help to address.
When I lived there, it had a sign in front identifying it as “Old Southern Manor.” It was a middle-sized white house with some modest columns, but it never seemed much like any old Southern manor to me, and it was in the wrong place for one, anyway—though the big magnolias shading the yard gave it a little arboreal authenticity in that regard.
I’m sure someone thought it was cute to call it that. But what it really was was the old Wiley house. More specifically, it was the childhood home of Catherine Wiley, the artist who introduced us to French impressionism.
State historians have described Catherine Wiley (1879-1958) as Tennessee’s finest impressionist painter. Wiley’s talent for depicting light, especially sunlight, is a counterpoint to the deep shadows of her life.
Several of the Wiley sisters were musically or artistically talented. Eleanor Wiley had a regional reputation, perhaps ironically best known for painting pictures of historic homes.
Catherine was the best of them, and the foremost star of the vigorous Nicholson Art League. Up north she studied with some of the finest American artists of her day, like William Merritt Chase and Robert Reid. In her own time, her work was displayed at the Corcoran in Washington, and the National Academy of Design, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Today, some of her work is in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Unlike many other artists Knoxville claims, Wiley did most of her best work in her hometown. At the height of her fame, she lived and worked in another house in Fort Sanders, one at 1317 White Avenue, a house shared with two sisters and other family members. She had a studio there, and it was convenient to her, because for part of that time, she was a “freehand drawing instructor” at UT. You see her sketches in some yearbooks of that era.
They lived there when they were connected to American royalty. Catherine’s uncle, William Gibbs McAdoo, was Secretary of the Treasury when he married President Woodrow Wilson’s daughter, who became their aunt Eleanor. (Nearly everybody was named Eleanor in those days.) Aunt Eleanor Wilson McAdoo, who authored a book about the Wilsons in the White House, sometimes visited her Knoxville in-laws here in Fort Sanders, even after she had divorced their uncle.
Catherine Wiley introduced Knoxville to French impressionism, gave talks on the subject through the auspices of the Nicholson Art League. She had enough connections to organize significant shows in Knoxville, especially at the expositions of 1910-1913, which displayed the work of her contemporaries, Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, and Robert Henri.
Much of her work depicts mothers and children, along the lines of Renoir and Manet. But she never married, never became a mother herself. Her work darkens about the time of World War I. Several members of her family died, as did some of her closest friends and colleagues, especially Lloyd Branson, whose relationship with her has long been the object of speculation. In 1926, we just stopped hearing about her. Although it was never reported in the paper, she has been committed to a mental institution in Pennsylvania. There she spent her last three decades, never painting again, at least not in the impressionist style she loved.
Before I even got into the history business, the older folks were mourning that the old Wiley house and studio on White Avenue had been torn down during an expansion of the university, for some modern buildings. However, as I learned, it wasn’t their only house.
The prolific Wileys lived in Fort Sanders for half a century or so, in several different houses. Several years ago, I was able to figure out the house she lived in longest, her childhood home, which was on the northeast corner of Laurel and 12th. When the Wileys lived there, it was Grove and Blount.
Her father, Edwin, had been a Union officer in the war, and was a coal executive. They were living in Coal Creek, the Campbell County town that has never had a very good name, when Catherine was born. I can’t guess how she would have responded to the news that it’s now called Rocky Top. But she probably didn’t remember it well, anyway. She was only 3 when her family moved to Knoxville, where other members of the family already lived.
So the corner of Laurel and 12th is where they moved, in the middle 1880s, along with eight or nine siblings, most of them remarkable in one way or another. There they stayed for maybe 15 years, until Catherine was in college. That house was her childhood home.
I figured that out about 25 years ago, and described it in a weekly newspaper article, and mentioned it in talks occasionally. The house always appeared to be in pretty good shape from the street, and I assumed it was a keeper. It was occupied, and painted, and I didn’t worry much about it.
You can’t expect every developer to make a study of impressionist artists, and where they grew up.
It’s not just that developers don’t care. Sometimes they do. The problem is that they don’t know.
I’ve noticed that happen too many times: a house that looks ordinary from the street, but is remarkable from its context. And then it vanishes. The home of Ida Cox on Louise Avenue in East Knoxville was like that. The place where the great blues and jazz singer of the ’20s and ’30s lived in her later years, the house where she practiced singing for her comeback album in New York, Blues for Rampart Street, with the Coleman Hawkins Quintet. It was our only connection to the most famous blues singer who ever lived in Knoxville.
When I first identified it on Louise Avenue, it was there, well kept, occupied by people who may or may not have known its significance. There was never any hint it was in trouble. Then I drove by, and it was just gone.
James Agee’s house was another example. It was not only the house where the author spent most of his childhood, but it was also the primary setting of his Pulitzer-winning novel, A Death in the Family, which has sold literally millions of copies, and has been made into four movies, each of which used some facsimile of his house. The developer tore it down not because he hated Knoxville, or that he hated classic American literature, but because he didn’t know what he had bought until he was too deep into the project to turn back.
Since then, literary pilgrims of all stripes, have come to Knoxville expecting to see Agee’s house. The late novelist Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove, wrote an essay about taking the Knoxville exit off I-40 to looking for the home of his early idol, James Agee.
There’s lately been much discussion about what was lost during Urban Renewal, including the childhood home of artists Beauford and Joseph Delaney on Vine Avenue, the early home of Nikki Giovanni around the corner on Mulvaney Street, and the Yeager Street house shared by jazz/blues legends Howard Armstrong and Carl Martin.
To the government people who chose to tear them all down, they were just old wooden houses. Even though a 1938 News-Sentinel story predicted the Delaney home at 815 East East Vine would someday be “a shrine as the birthplace of two famous Negro artists,” I can’t tell that anybody working for Urban Renewal in the 1960s ever got that memo.
In recent years, the Delaney brothers have been the subject of two full-length scholarly biographies, and in recent years, Beauford has had a retrospective show in Paris, where his work has sold in the six figures. That 1938 article wasn’t just wishful thinking.
But in the 1960s, the engineers and bureaucrats in their ties and short-sleeved white shirts, the ones deciding what blocks to flatten probably never even heard of the Delaneys or the others. Nobody was there to tell them what they were tearing down. I’m can’t guarantee it would have made any difference. But it might have raised a subject of discussion, altered some plans, and saved us a few generations’ worth of grief about Urban Renewal’s overreaches.
So at the Knoxville History Project, we’re starting something new: A sort of inventory of houses that have significance beyond their visible architecture. A sort of Registry of Cultural Significance.
In our work at KHP, we often research histories of houses and commercial buildings, and when we do we often run across something remarkable and unexpected, like a notable civic leader or congressman who lived there, or a famous big-city newspaper critic who grew up there. We put it in the report, but most folks never get to hear about it.
The list wouldn’t come with any guarantees of either protection or tax credits, but we’d make the list available to the organizations that deal with protecting our architectural resources, like the Metropolitan Planning Commission, Knox Heritage, and Metropolitan Planning Commission.
Right now we don’t have any hard and fast qualifications for the list, and at this point there seems no reason to limit how many properties we include.
Sound like a good idea? Let us know what you think. We’re taking nominations.
Jack Neely, April 2021