Knoxville’s “Old City”

history by author Jack Neely

THE OLD CITY occupies only a few linear blocks near the railroad on the northeastern corner of downtown, but its history is extraordinarily complex. It once contained the region’s highest density of saloons, and, for a while, Knoxville’s informal (and, for a while, formal) red-light district. During the same era, but for much longer, it was the city’s wholesale food district, and ensconced in it were flour and coffee factories which became famous. And it was also the meatpacking district, with a stockyard that attracted area cattlemen. At the same time, somehow, it was a residential neighborhood that included families of free slaves and their descendents as well as several waves of European immigrants.

Architecturally, it’s Knoxville’s best-preserved remnant of one particular era, when the city was booming and building, especially down here by the railroad.

The term “Old City” was first used to describe the area around 1980, but in previous decades, it was considered a major part of various other colorful neighborhoods: Irish Town, Cripple Creek, the Bowery, Gunter’s Flats, the Bottom.

It was simple only in its early years. During the city’s earliest years, this swampy bottomland was of little interest to settlers, though the adjacency to First Creek attracted a few early mills. Fetid mill ponds in the area were blamed for the “Fever of 1838,” a plague of unknown cause that killed about 10 percent of Knoxville’s population.

It was not until the long-anticipated arrival of railroads in 1855–first the East Tennessee & Georgia, followed by the East Tennessee & Virginia–that the area seemed to hold promise. Railroad construction filled in parts of the swamp, and the establishment of passenger and freight depots attracted entrepreneurs.

During the Civil War, Union engineers used the water defensively, flooding much of the area as a kind of moat to discourage a rebel attack from the north. Perhaps for that reason, there was little combat in the immediate area.

Soon after the war, a major local industry, the Burr & Terry Sawmill, established a large plant on the western side of what’s now Central, spanning West Jackson, which did not yet exist. Until the late 1880s, the placement of their sprawling factory, which manufactured several wooden products, prevented the completion of a frontage road that would be known as Jackson Avenue.

Meanwhile a scant few entrepreneurs set up shop on Water Street, later to be known as Crozier and later still, Central. The most durable of them, by far, was an Irish immigrant and former Union officer named Patrick Sullivan, who by 1869 was running a small saloon on a site where, years later, he’d build a much-larger one that became an architectural icon.

J. Allen Smith, an enterprising miller who had previously lived inAtlanta, built a large flour-milling factory just across the tracks on Central at Depot. White Lily Flour, as it much later came to be known, would become one of Knoxville’s most famous industries.

Burr & Terry ended their 20-year run in 1887, allowing Jackson Avenueto be completed. The sudden opening of a new street, a frontage road by a freight yard, unleashed one of the biggest building booms in the city’s history. Most of the buildings of the modern-day Old City, the imposing buildings on Jackson, the smaller mercantile buildings on Central, were built in the five years just after that. In that decade, Knoxville more than doubled in population.

That explosive growth coincided with a remarkable but brief national vogue in architecture. Many of Jackson Avenue’s buildings were designed by Knoxville’s first successful architectural firm, Baumann & Baumann, in the style known as Richardsonian Romanesque, characterized by extravagant stylings obvious in many of these buildings’ facades.

Occupying these big buildings on Jackson were large businesses that needed the proximity to the railroad, especially food-related businesses, sugar, coffee, and meat. Chicago-based Armour meats built a plant onEast Jackson (then known as Hardee). Knoxville’s first major corporate presence spawned a pocket meat-packing district on the east side of Central, joined by Swift and the local firm Lay’s, which sponsored a stockyard on Willow Street.

Maybe the most conspicuous of those new buildings, in 1888, was Pat Sullivan’s large, turreted new saloon. In the early days, the Sullivan family lived in the building. Sullivan’s was one of Knoxville’s more respectable saloons, and was unusual in one regard in the days when almost all saloons had a men-only policy. Sullivan’s served women, too. By then, Sullivan’s was associated with a residential area known informally as Irish Town, though most of that immigrant community was just north of the railroad.


Meanwhile, the south side of West Jackson became a miniature garment district of sorts, with tailors and hat and shoe manufacturers.

Large, impressive Jackson Avenue was one of Knoxville’s big economic drivers, and did almost all of its business in the daytime. Crozier, later known as Central, was almost the opposite. Though its buildings were built about the same time, they were designed more for economy than for show, much smaller than those of Jackson. Because parts of it sometimes flooded, land on Crozier was cheap, and associated with residences of the poor and, inevitably, by several varieties of vice: gambling, cocaine, alcohol of all varieties, and prostitution. Crozier, renamed South Central Street in the 1890s, became known as the Bowery.

Its problems attracted determined reformers like the Englishman Rev. Robert Bateman, who ran a rescue mission near Central andCumberland. Much beloved in the neighborhood, he would later meet his fate on the Titanic.

Prostitutes plied their trade in the modern Old City area, but were much more predominant a couple blocks south on Central, where some whorehouses were so big they offered drinks, live music, vaudeville shows and later even movies.

Prostitution in particular was so predominant that in 1900 the city tried to corral it into one particular neighborhood, Florida Street, three blocks east of Central, a section dubbed “Friendly Town.” It was part of a reform movement that also led to the local banning of cocaine, previously legal and often taken openly in Central Street drugstores, in 1901.

The 100 block of South Central was much more specifically associated with saloons. At their height, around 1907, there were at least 10 competing saloons on that one block of Central.

The early legitimate entrepreneurs of the area were Irish, but by 1900, the neighborhood saw its first Greek restaurateurs, a few Italian confectioners, and several families of Jewish immigrants, mostly from Eastern Europe, especially Lithuania. Several of them opened clothing and second-hand stores. Though the area was notorious for its nightlife, in the daytime Central thronged with legitimate commerce. In the early 20th century, the 100 block of Central supported more than 60 businesses, from furniture stores, boarding houses, and barber shops, to “herb men” who sold roots and leaves with alleged healing powers.

One remarkable business was the Biddle bicycle-repair shop, where around 1899, a young athlete named Cowan Rodgers built the first automobile ever seen in Knoxville, and tested it with a drive it up and down Central.

Beginning barely a half-block east of Central was a mixed-race but predominantly black neighborhood known in the 19th century as Cripple Creek, and in the 20th century as The Bottom. Central served as its main business district.


Knoxville was an especially violent city in the 1890s and early 1900s, as demonstrated in 1901 when Wild West outlaw Harvey Logan, a.k.a. Kid Curry, shot and seriously wounded two Knoxville policemen, in a billiards saloon on Central near Union, about two blocks south of the modern Old City. (Stories of Buffalo Bill indulging in some competitive shooting in Sullivan’s Saloon during one of his Wild West Show visits are perhaps credible but unproven.)

Murder was especially common on Central, and so much of the violence seemed based around the saloons that Knoxville voters were persuaded by the arguments of hatchet-wielding prohibitionist Carrie Nation, who visited the Old City area in 1904, and her many more peaceful allies, that they voted to ban saloons in 1907, 12 years earlier than the rest of the country. It didn’t end drinking, which offered new business opportunities to bootleggers and second-floor speakeasies and “sporting clubs” that were based in second- and third-floor establishments, many of them in the immediate area. But the saloon ban changed the character of the neighborhood, which became quieter at night, and the multiple empty saloons bred new businesses, including Greek immigrants’ earliest restaurants, and an Italian ice-cream factory.

In 1908, Cal Johnson, an enterprising former slave who had become wealthy in the saloon business, opened one of Knoxville’s first movie theaters in a former saloon space on the 100 block of South Central.

The Friendly Town experiment ended in 1915; prostitution didn’t leave the neighborhood altogether, but dissipated around the city, as did the section’s concentration of other businesses.

As many white immigrants became more prosperous and moved away, the Old City area became more and more associated with the black community known in the 20th century as The Bottom. The neighborhood saw the violent climax of the bizarre “Red Summer” race riot of 1919, in which a frustrated white lynch mob convinced a division of state guardsmen–called to Knoxville quell their own mob–to besiege the black community, barricaded on Central. At one point that Labor Day weekend, guardsmen trained machine-gun fire down Central, toward the black citizens’ barricades. In the confusion that followed, only two men were confirmed dead, one black, one white, but some historians have speculated more were killed and buried quietly.

Around the corner, a stone’s throw from the former saloons, Jackson Avenue remained respectable and prosperous. In 1936, after a hatmaker in Knoxville’s miniature West Jackson garment district moved the factory to a suburban location, JFG opened its coffee-roasting factory in, and for the next 70 years, lent the area an agreeable aroma. About the same time, a Georgia tailor named John H. Daniel moved his operation to an already-old building nearby. Though Daniel soon moved toNorthern Virginia and became involved in state politics, his successors developed the company that bore his name into a nationally recognized suit-making company.

White Lily, JFG, and John H. Daniel, which together represent three of 20th-century Knoxville’s most familiar private businesses, thrived and grew, while much of their old Victorian neighborhood deteriorated.

whitlilyNovelist Cormac McCarthy described a gritty ca. 1951 scene along the 100 block of Central in his novel, Suttree, at a time when it was a mixed-race commercial neighborhood of “loud and shoddy commerce” existing in a sort of legal twilight that allowed a market for “splo,” cheap homemade liquor.

In the 1950s and ’60s, federally funded urban renewal erased huge urban sections just to the south and east of the intersection of Jackson and Central, but somehow spared this old fulcrum. After massive demolition removed much of the walking-distance customer base, the area’s old pedestrian business declined, and several shopkeepers sold out, sometimes just leaving their buildings empty. In 1970, Southern Railway ended its passenger service to Knoxville, ending a 115-year era. A few years later, the old Armour meatpacking factory closed.


Meanwhile, in the early 1970s architectural historians and speculators, inspired by the recent passage of the Historic Preservation Act and its new tax credits for re-using old architecture, noted the remarkable collection of Victorian buildings in the pocket neighborhood. Chief among the new developers was professional hairdresser Kristopher Kendrick, who bought and began rehabilitating several of the buildings. Just as interest was growing, some of the more interesting buildings onJackson burned or were torn down.

By the early 1980s, it was becoming known as the Old City, but few mainstream Knoxvillians knew about  it until 1983, when English immigrant Annie DeLisle opened an upscale restaurant on the 100 block of North Central, later adding a jazz club. Manhattan’s, a successful bar and restaurant named in homage for a 1920s Greek-owned attraction the Manhattan Café, followed. When the neighborhood’s signature building, Sullivan’s, became a saloon and restaurant again, for the first time in 70 years, the Old City seemed to have some gravity as an evening attraction. Meanwhile, imaginative architects and developers created unusual mixed-use complexes like Hewgley Square, cobbled out of the remnants of old buildings, and added dozens of residences in the area. The Old City became home to a few adventurous urban pioneers.

As early as 1985, the Old City was developing a particular reputation for live music, affirmed, if temporarily, by an extraordinary nightclub known as Ella Guru’s, booked by co-owner Ashley Capps, later associated with the monster festival Bonnaroo. An underground restaurant venue, Ella Guru’s was perhaps Knoxville’s first nightclub to schedule an ever-changing variety of traveling acts. Though best known for alternative rock, jazz, and blues, Ella’s also caught a few rising country songwriters on their way up, like Garth Brooks, who referenced the unusual club in a song.

javaFor a while, the Old City was also known for its upscale boutiques and antiques stores, catering to older, affluent suburbanites who were attracted to Annie’s.

By 1990, Java, Knoxville’s first modern-era coffee shop, opened on South Central. Soon the Old City’s energy spread to East Jackson, with a large restaurant that eventually became Barley’s, and several other nightclubs. In 1999, a few stalwart music aficionados opened the Pilot Light, a simpler but much-more durable club than Ella’s, featuring a wide variety of edgier acts.

The neighborhood was long known for its ups and downs, and at the turn of the century the Old City was coming to seem almost purely a nighttime attraction, many of its restaurants and bars not even open in the daytime. But in the early 21st century, concentrated preservationist development in old buildings along the parallel block of Gay Streetbrought hundreds of new residents to the neighborhood, and seemed to solidify the Old City’s gains.

In 2007, JFG Coffee moved out of its old brick factory, after more than 70 years on West Jackson; the building quickly became still more residences planned by maverick developer David Dewhirst, a former aerospace engineer who had been renovating several large buildings on Gay Street and Market Square.

whiteLily_restored_2In 2008, White Lily closed its factory on North Central, and Dewhirst developed it, too, with plans for more mixed-used development along Depot Street, suggesting that, for the first time, the Old City’s energy may be stretching north of the tracks. Today, though much of downtown Knoxville is enjoying a preservationist revival, the old bottomland section seems categorically different, with different angles, different scale, different colors, an interesting and perhaps permanently complicated place.