Dear Doctor Knox:
Do you have any information about this house at 2225 Riverside Dr.? I've been facinated by it for the last few years that we've lived in Knoxville.
Thank you for your help.
You, sir, have an eye for houses. As one of the four or five most fascinating houses in East Knoxville, this relic on Riverside holds powers to distract the astute observer.
Built in 1842, allegedly by slaves who manufactured the bricks from clay dug on the property, it was originally a simpler federal-style house. Its first resident was named Williams, of that we seem pretty sure, and most sources agree that his first name started with J.
Beyond that, in the clipping files, there's plenty of room for confusion, thanks to generations of newspaper writers who are foggy about history and genealogy but nonetheless have to turn something in by deadline. In the 19th century, this Williams Creek neighborhood was crawling with Williamses. They comprised one of Knoxville's most prominent families.
After a rainy afternoon in the reading room of the McClung Collection, I flatter myself in believing perhaps I have figured a few things out. The true name of the original builder/resident was John Williams, son of the nationally prominent soldier, senator, and ambassador also named John Williams (1778-1837), whose even-older house still stands over on Dandridge Avenue. Long believed a lost cause, that older house on Dandridge has recently been handsomely restored.
Adding to the confusion is that both father and son bore the same name and honorific. The two oldest houses in that area were both built by two different guys known in their own times as "Col. John Williams."
John Williams, the younger (1818-1881--we'll call him John Williams II), was grandson of Knoxville founder James White. He was not among the more famous of his habitually political brood, but he did serve on the Tennessee Legislature in the 1840s and '50s. John Williams II was in office during the administration of Nashville Whig Gov. James C. Jones, whom Williams seems to have regarded highly; Williams named his second son James C. Jones Williams.
Perhaps born in this house, J.C.J. Williams was a leading citizen in the era when you could judge a Knoxvillian by the number of names he had, and that seems to be one central pivot of the confusion. If he had four names, we assume, his father couldn't have had just two. J.C.J. Williams was a staunch Unionist, and a prominent judge who served as city alderman in 1876. Another son, J.C.J.'s brother, was Knoxville attorney Thomas Lanier Williams (1849-1908), a name that rings a bell with scholars of American literature. More about that in a minute.
John Williams II called the house, once part of a rural plantation, Marbledale. It was an interesting name, apparently unrelated to the East Knox County community of the same name. In fact, this house even predates Knoxville's marble industry. It was a peculiar house in some ways, with its kitchen and dining room in the basement, but the Williamses were famous for entertaining, and rarely dined without guests. One repeat guest was another Unionist, Andrew Johnson; according to historian William Rule, Williams was Johnson's "most intimate friend." An impressive drinker never heralded for his manners, Johnson wasn't necessarily a guest you'd brag about until after he was president, and dead. But JW2 may have been an exception. He's barely mentioned in Johnson biographies, but he's apparently the guy who met the ex-president's melancholy train home in Greeneville in 1869, and escorted Johnson home.
Another reputed visitor, in later years, was the playwright Tennessee Williams, who was the great-grandson of John Williams II. His family called him Tom, after his grandfather, Thomas Lanier Williams II, who grew up in this house. The playwright never lived in Knoxville, but his father Cornelius spent much of his life here, and young Tom/Tennessee visited his ancestral home on several occasions. He said he named himself after his Knoxville ancestors, though there are other psychosexual theories about the origin of his nickname. It's said that Tennessee Williams visited this house on at least one occasion, though it was no longer owned by the Williams family during his lifetime.
The house originally faced the opposite direction, toward Dandridge Avenue. A John Richards bought the property in 1899, gave it an architectural about-face to front the river, and significantly remodeled it, transforming it into a 16-room mansion with a neo-classical appearance that better suited perceptions of the Old South, as it was being re-invented in the popular imagination in the 1890s, a romantic time when other Old South-style manses were going up around town. Perhaps Marbledale didn't sound antebellum enough, so Richards gave it a name to suit: Colonial Hall. It may have seemed preposterous, even at the time, considering that Knoxville has no colonial era, and any white man who lived here during the colonial period have been would be pretty lonesome. Pretentious or not, during the Richards era the house rose to greater fame, featured on Knoxville postcards and even commemorative china as late as 1910. It was once painted by impressionist artist Eleanor Wiley.
John Richards died in 1941, and his family remained in the house into the 1980s. It has declined in fame, if not in stature. Today it's one of only 25-odd antebellum houses in Knoxville proper. Used to be, about 150 years ago, antebellum houses were all we had; now there are hardly any left. Some observers have been concerned about the upkeep of the rare mansion. Now known as the Williams-Richards House, it has appeared on Knox Heritage's Fragile 15 list, but was removed last year after the owners appeared to have made some necessary repairs.
It's reportedly owned by someone who loves the place dearly, but can't afford to fully restore it, and can't bring themselves to sell. We wish them well.
Yr. Obt. Svt.
Z. Heraclitus (more initials here) Knox, MC. JCJ.
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.