We found ourselves with a free weekend and leapt at the chance to explore more of Tennessee as a family. The destination of choice was Knoxville, home to the University of Tennessee and two National Register-listed hotels, the Lamar House Hotel (1816) & Bijou Theatre (1909) and the Andrew Johnson Hotel (1927). It was a twofer — a mini vacation with my husband Mark and daughter Lolly (4 years) and a chance to do some fieldwork in East Tennessee for my residency at the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. Fortunately, we were staying near both of the sites and the weather, for the most part, cooperated. Saturday afternoon took an hour and a half together to document the sites and get to know Knoxville.
The Lamar House, a 19th century tavern and inn, has been incorporated into the Bijou Theatre. Upon entering the Bistro on the ground floor, it was clear that this is a very old building. For example, the ceiling slopes, the brick doorways have been reinforced, and what used to be an exterior window now serves as a frame for a Mick Jagger poster. Perhaps it was the rainy day but I think of it as a dark space imbued with history and whiskey. The perfect spot to wait out a rainy afternoon or spend a late night after a concert. With another site to see, we kept moving.
The Andrew Johnson Hotel is only a couple of blocks down South Gay Street from the Lamar House & Bijou Theatre and is located on the bluffs on the river. In the mid-1980s, the hotel was converted into office space. Currently, it houses both the Knox County Probation Office as well ad the Knox County Sheriff”s Office among other things. There is a music heritage sign noting that it was where Hank Williams spent the last few hours of his life (New Year’s 1952).
The best way to appreciate the location of the site is to walk out on the Gay Street bridge. From there you can see the various modes of transportation abutting it- highway, railroad tracks and river. The built, political and cultural landscape come alive and take on new meaning. There is a sense of place, the multi-layered nature of its history. To examine the building without looking at the landscape(s) would give you an incomplete understanding of its significance.
View from South Gay Bridge (1897) built by Youngstown Bridge Company.