Dear Doc Knox,
I have a question about a place that has bugged me for years--I was of course too lazy/busy to research it myself, soooo...
At the corner of 11e and just past the bridge on the left but before you hit the John Sevier turn is the remains of an ancient house of some sort. I have wandered through its bones many times over the years and always wondered its history. Can you shed some light ?
The house of which you speak, on 11E, better known to many of us as Asheville Highway, is a fascinating-looking old ruin indeed, like a setting for a Sir Walter Scott novel: stone chimneys and roofless stone walls peeking up above the treeline. It's heavily overgrown now, but whoever lived in that house once enjoyed a lovely view of the Holston River.
Country homes are a challenge for historians, because most never had consistent numbered addresses until the late 20th century. If people lived in the country seeking anonymity, they were often successful at that. A country residence can evade the prying fingers of history. They're built, they're lived in, their residents leave or die, the houses fall apart, and eventually there's no coherent memory. A metaphor, perhaps, for our civilization.
Via city directories, we can find names of residents, occupations, often much more. However, before 1980 or so, on Asheville Highway, beyond Holston Hills and especially beyond the river, homes were listed mainly by the names of the people who lived in them, and are only listed alphabetically--by resident's name--without clues about what the house looked like or where it was in relation to its neighbors. Vacant country houses aren't listed at all. Houses in that area are numbered and catalogued by address resident now, but it sounds like that house has been vacant for the last 30 years when its residents would have been easier to identify.
Of course, one could do some big-book plat research at the Register of Deeds, which might tell you the names of past owners of the property, if not necessarily the residents. Dr. Knox doesn't do much of that sort of research anymore. The uniformed sentinels at the metal detector at the entrance to the City County Building consider him a security risk, insisting on inspecting his valise. No one looks into Dr. Knox's valise. Dr. Knox is a gentleman of some dignity.
Ann Bennett, the Metropolitan Planning Commission's historic-properties expert, says that stone house caught her attention when they conducted a survey of historic homes in Knox County in 1983. She estimates it was built in a revival style, in the early 20th century, no later than the 1920s. "It was a nice house," she says. "It looked like somebody's pretty elaborate country house." But she says it was completely abandoned and untended in 1983, with an overgrown yard. It burned sometime after that.
We went out to have a closer look at it, drove up the driveway to the gate, then crossed on foot to get a closer look at the house itself, which is thickly obscured by undergrowth, even in the winter. We weren't there for more than five minutes when a gentleman arrived in a utility vehicle and rather emphatically ordered us off the property. We attempted to explain our interest in the unusual house.
"There's not a house," he informed us. "It burned down in 1985." He says the family of a Thomas Cowan lived there, but seemed disinclined to engage in affable conversation about former times. Another neighbor thinks it was the home of a well-known real-estate tycoon, but names are elusive. One historian thinks it was a horse farm.
It was, incidentally, very close to the aforementioned Ruggles'/Armstrong's Ferry, the subject of a recent question to Dr. Knox. Mr. Ruggles appears to have lived just across the street.
The property appears to be, by the way, for sale. It might be an excellent investment for the Knoxville Opera Company to purchase for their next production of Lucia di Lammermoor.
In abject humility for my present inability to answer your question more fully,
Z. Heraclitus Knox, B.A.
Come one, come all! Dr. Knox answers your questions regarding the history of the Knoxville metropolis. Send all your queries, big or small, to editorATmetropulseDOTcom.