Ask Doc Knox:

James White's Not-Quite Mansions

Doc Knox:

I have read that the James White mansion was demolished to provide right of way for the interstate system. Is this true? If so, why would that be allowed to happen? I was led to believe he was a prominent person in Knoxville history? If the house was destroyed, what happened to the contents?

If there are other resource material you can recommend, I would be thankful.


Dear Sir:

Our Bureau of Misinformation would be interested to know where you read that information. 

Stories are oft twisted with too many tellings. James White (1747-1821) was the first permanent settler in what's now downtown Knoxville, ca. 1786, but didn't have any sort of a mansion, even by the standards of the day. He lived in a two-story log cabin which, after two or three moves, still exists, at least in terms of some of its logs, at the James White Fort, which was reconstructed on East Hill Avenue around 1970. How much of it is actually White's original house is a matter of personal faith. 

Despite what an official-looking metal marker on the fort's ramparts declares, the house does not stand on its original site. It first stood at what's now the State Street parking garage, but don't blame that city-owned facility. White's cabin was gone for almost 70 years before the parking garage was built. White's cabin had spent much of the 19th century as a backyard curiosity behind a bigger house near State and Church before it was removed in 1906, to be employed by a resourceful and imaginative builder as the core of a suburban home in South Knoxville. The cabin spent about two-thirds of the 20th century as a suburban home on Woodlawn Pike, modernized and expanded and hardly recognizable as a cabin until it was dismantled in the 1960s.

The ca. 1970 reconstruction at Hill and Hall of Fame is mostly speculative, composed of a combination of new construction and some other cabins from the region. (There were some claims by 19th century historians that the original fort was triangular in shape. The triangular-fort design saves on walls, and would seem to appeal to a thrifty Presbyterian.) 

So that White house is a conundrum which would be a great riddle for history nerds: What was torn down twice, but is still standing? But as it happens, it's even more complicated than that. There was another James White house. Around 1800, White actually left his historic cabin in favor of his country home about a mile east of downtown--he seems to have preferred the woods and fields, and archaeologist Charles Faulkner suggests he tired of living in the town he's credited with founding, which by 1800 was getting pretty noisy. Maybe the daily parade of tourists was bothering him. So he lived on that rural patch near the river, east of Knoxville's city limits, for the last 21 years of his life. That second White House was moved around 1850, and disappeared altogether before 1875, perhaps in a flood. 

I'm saying none of this in defense of the interstate. The rapacious highway has claimed a lot of great stuff. I especially mourn the old, palatial Knoxville Brewery, which was near Mechanicsville. But by the time they built the interstate, there was very little of the early settlers' era left anywhere. 

We're lucky we still have Blount Mansion, which is one of the oldest houses in the Southern interior, and a site of national significance. 

Thanks for your interest.

Z. Heraclitus Knox, Ph.Z.

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.

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