Ask Doc Knox:

What's With All This "Marble City" Business?

Dear Doc Knox:

Recently, on a walk down Sutherland, I noticed many businesses and churches with the prefix "Marble City." Why is that common in that area? To what does that refer?

Kevin Webb

Dear Mr. Webb:

It's a good question with many answers, all incorrect. Marble City has been a point of confusion, especially among historical revivalists. The whole city of Knoxville was once proud to be known as the Marble City, and that phrase has re-entered currency just recently with the city's recent spiritual renaissance. 

However, for almost a century, a stretch of Sutherland Avenue from Concord Street west to Bearden has been known as Marble City. The term isn't used quite as familiarly as it was 50 years ago, but the Marble City Baptist Church and Marble City United Methodist are both still there, right in the middle of that section. 

Knoxville had a lot of marble industry all around the county, quarries on the east and south sides and even out in Cedar Bluff, which is named for a marble quarry. South Knoxville's unique marble Candoro headquarters, host of the annual Vestal festival known as Vestival, is still well known today as a historic site. By the 1890s, the city was making much of its "Marble City" monicker, as several businesses used the name, which implied some class and authenticity, and durability. The Marble City Hat Co., the Marble City Bank, the Marble City Fire Extinguisher, the Marble City Saloon, etc., all thrived about a century or more ago. It can be puzzling to historical innocents that they were all downtown, not in the west-side neighborhood later known as Marble City. 

However, at the early 20th-century height of Knoxville's marble industry, several of the big marble companies had mills and warehouses on the west side of town, convenient to the Southern and L&N freight lines, in the vicinity of Sutherland and Concord: the Empire Marble Co., Grey Eagle, and the John J. Craig Co., to mention three, plus the Appalachian Marble Co. over on Middlebrook at Third Creek. 

By 1911, the area just between Mechanicsville and Bearden was listed separately in city directories as a "western suburb" called Marble City. It included a county elementary school known as Marble City School, which christened the community by that name.

Considering Knoxville itself had been touted as "the Marble City" for years, it might have seemed a redundant or unimaginative nickname for a neighborhood--maybe like naming a new suburb of New Orleans "the Big Easy," or a new suburb of Nashville "Music City." But the people of Sutherland Avenue, who then lived outside the city limits of Knoxville, likely felt they deserved it. 

It was originally a working-man's neighborhood. Hardly 100 households are listed as part of Marble City in 1911. A spot check of them suggests that well more than half were associated with the marble industry in one way or another. Most working people didn't own private cars in those days, and it was important to live near your workplace. As maybe it should be today.

And most of the stonecutters of Marble City lived within walking distance of work. Among those who lived along Sutherland, on the western fringe of what's known as Marble City, was Albert Milani, the best-known stonecutter who ever lived in Knoxville; his work is still conspicuous on some downtown buildings, especially the old post-office building on Main Street. He carved those eagles. 

Sutherland Avenue's Marble City was annexed into the city of Knoxville in 1917. About the same time, downtown businesses like the Marble City Bank and Marble City Typewriters and Marble City Bottling Co. dried up or changed their names. It's not obvious why, but we might guess that avoiding confusion with the burgeoning neighborhood known as Marble City, now part of the city of Knoxville, was one motive. Sutherland had very effectively purloined the city's old nickname. By 1930, when you referred to Marble City, it was pretty clear you were referring not to the city of Knoxville, but to the neighborhood of Sutherland Avenue east of Bearden. 

Later descendents of Marble City's mills include Gray Knox Marble Co. and Southern Cast Stone. By the middle of the 20th century, some marble-related retail businesses were popping up along Sutherland, especially gravestone and monument companies.  

It retained some marble and stonecutting businesses for years; a gravestone place closed fairly recently. That stretch is now better known for foreign-car repair and outdoor equipment shops, but the Beretta Tile Co., which is almost 100 years old and may be related to Sutherland's old stonecutting tradition, is still there. 

And as we know, a new brewery, in Knoxville but not in Sutherland's Marble City, will resurrect the name. 

To confuse matters further, in 1999 Jack Neely and Aaron Jay put out a photographic book called The Marble City, which was about area graveyards, some of which look like marble cities. 

Yr. Obt. Svt.

Z. Heraclitus Knox

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.

Comments » 1

  • June 19, 2010
  • 5:17 PM
sueamyz writes:

It is worth noting that Tennessee marble is actually limestone.

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Come one, come all! Dr. Knox answers your questions regarding the history of the Knoxville metropolis.