There is no better way to get to know Knoxville than by visiting the historic homes that shaped the city. What we see today as a growing University city was once a rough frontier settlement. Through the years it became a grand state capital and evolved.
Knoxville’s history is a vivid tale of the trials and triumphs. The story of this growing town and our nation are weaved together. It can be seen first hand in the historic homes you find in Knoxville. The surprising tales that are marvelously told by the city’s historic homes lets you discover that history.
Historic Homes in Knoxville
From modest log cabins to frame houses to stunning stately stone mansions, there are seven historic homes in Knoxville. Each one invites you to step back in time and consider the past.
James White’s Fort (1786)
James White’s Fort has a truly interesting story especially in the context of local history. Born in 1747 in Rowan County, North Carolina he founded Knoxville after leading an expedition in 1783 into upper Tennessee Valley. The 1,000-acre property was a gift to White for his service as a Captain in the Revolutionary War and is very much so the birthplace of Knoxville.
The two-story log cabin, the first permanent structure on the land, was built in 1786. Two years later, White enclosed the cabin and other structures for protection from wild animals with a stockade fence. The courtyard was used as a stable for domesticated animals like horses and cows. Near the fort, the area was cleared of trees so that gardens could be planted. Vegetables were grown for food and tobacco as a commerce crop.
In 1790, the fort was chosen to be the capital of the Southwest Territory. White sold sections of his land and donated lots for a permanent city in 1791. And he named Knoxville after Henry Knox, President Washington’s Secretary of War. White continued to live in his Fort until early 1793 before moving to another home.
Even though he was promoted to a General in the War of 1812, White continued to be a guiding force in the development of Knoxville. He donated the land used to establish the First Presbyterian Church and cemetery in Knoxville. He also donated land for the establishment of Blount College, which would later become the University of Tennessee. James White died on August 14, 1821, and was buried next to his wife in the First Presbyterian Church Cemetery at 620 State Street in Knoxville.
White’s descendants played important political and economic roles in Knoxville’s development after his death. His eldest son, Hugh Lawson White, was a United States Senator who also ran for president. His sons-in-law included Judge John Overton one of the co-founders of Memphis, Tennessee.
Address: 205 Hill Avenue SE, Knoxville, TN 37915
Blount Mansion (1792)
Blount Mansion was built in 1818 and is one of my favorite historic homes in Knoxville. The house is one of the city’s oldest surviving brick structures! It was originally built for John Craighead but the home was later purchased by Dr. George Jackson. This house quite literally witnessed the birth of Knoxville!
William Blount was born in North Carolina and serves as in the state’s House of Commons. He also served as paymaster for North Carolina troops in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. As impressive as all of that is, it falls short when you look at his other political accomplishments.
As a lover of history, one of the things I love most about William Blount’s story is how much he is a part of our nation’s history. He served in Congress under the Articles of Confederation and as a delegate in 1787 to the Constitutional Convention. This man, ladies and gentlemen, signed the United States Constitution! Now, if you’ve followed CircaWanderlust for a while, you know by now that I am the biggest American History nerd ever. I didn’t think that William Blount could get more OG than having signed the Constitution but I was wrong – he was personally appointed by President George Washinton to be Governor of the Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio!
After governing from the home of William Cobb at Rocky Mount (Piney Flats, Tennessee), Blount moved the capital to what we know today to be Knoxville – a city that at the time did not exist.
Construction began on Blount Mansion in 1792 after Blount signed the Treaty of Holston just a few hundred yards away from the Mansions location on the banks of the Holston River. The home was to serve as the territorial capitol as well as the Blount family home. The multi-purpose intent can be seen in the size and shape of the home as it reflects Blount’s position in government as well as the head of a prominent family.
FUN FACT: This is where the State of Tennessee constitution was written.
The house was made to meet Mary Blount’s specific request of a properly made wooden house made of timber rather than the rough logs or hand-hewn timbers seen in other homes built around what would later become Knoxville. The Blount Mansion really set the tone for luxurious historic homes in Knoxville to come. The nails were brought in from the family’s naillery in North Carolina and glass was brought from Richmond.
Behind the house is the Edith Henderson Garden, a charming Colonial-Revival style garden designed by the namesake. Edith was a pioneer in her male-dominated field of landscape architecture. She is credited with being one of the first female landscape architects in the country.
FUN FACT: This two-story frame house was probably one of the first non-log cabin homes in Knoxville
Address: 200 West Hill Avenue, Knoxville, TN 37902
Marble Springs (circa 1797)
Marble Springs was the last home of John Sevier, the man after whom Sevierville, Tennessee and Sevier County are named after. The historic home and farmstead are located on 35 acres of the original John Sevier property. And the property’s name comes from the Tennessee Rose Marble deposits and six springs located on the property.
John Sevier was a military man, a pioneer, and a statesman. His mark on American history is peppered about the years but he is best known for having been Tennessee’s first governor, elected in 1796. A Revolutionary War hero, Sevier made his home at Marble Springs.
The main cabin was built before the 19th century and still stands today. The home contains many original furnishings that belonged to the Sevier family. You can’t help but wonder about what life was like in the days of the American frontier as people established themselves in wild terrain. Simple things like a teapot make you appreciate their dedication and perseverance without which our nation’s history might have shaped differently.
Address: 1220 West Gov. John Sevier Highway Knoxville, TN 37920
Ramsey House (1797)
The Ramsey House was built in 1797 and sits on just over 100 acres of original Ramsey farmland. Like many of the other historic homes in Knoxville, the house has a rich history and was once known as the “finest house in Tennessee.”
The historic Ramsey House was built for Colonel Francis Alexander Ramsey by Charleston architect Thomas Hope with rough-cut pink marble and blue limestone.
Hope gave the home many unique architectural features that were previously unseen in Tennessee’s pioneer frontier. If you’ve visited other historic homes built around the same time, you’ll notice that the kitchen is attached which wasn’t the norm – Ramsey House was the first to do so in East Tennessee!
The home is furnished with period pieces some of which are original to the Ramsey family who was one of the first families to settle in the Knoxville area. Many would argue that without the Ramseys Knoxville might not be what it is today. They played vital roles in developing the city’s civic, cultural, and educational institutions – Colonel Francis A. Ramsey was one of the founding trustees of Blount College, what we all know today as the University of Tennessee.
The family’s influence doesn’t end with Francis. Two of his sons are also intertwined in the state’s history. Dr. J.G.M. Ramsey wrote an early history of the state, “The Annals of Tennessee”. And William B.A. Ramsey was the first elected mayor of Knoxville and was Secretary of State for Tennessee.
Historic Ramsey House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Address: 2614 Thorngrove Pike, Knoxville, TN 37914
Crescent Bend (1834)
Cresent Bend was built by Drury Paine Armstrong who established his farm and house just west of downtown Knoxville. The property you see today was once the center of a 900-acre working farm. It gets its name for its beautiful setting with a view of the crescent bend of the then Holston River (now Tennessee River). Construction started in 1832 and the Armstrongs moved into their new home on October 7th, 1834.
Armstrong started with 600 acres of land that were located on the north side of the river. In the following years, he had acquired another 300 acres on the south side. As a prominent landowner, Armstrong had several other tracts of land around the area and land beyond Knoxville.
He owned some 50,000 acres of wooded mountain land in Sevier and Blount Counties. The land he had between the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River and the East Prong of the Little Tennessee River would eventually become part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This special tract of land was named “Glen Alpine” and today makes up about 10% of the park’s total land.
Like many of the other men who built and lived in the historic homes in Knoxville, Drury Armstrong was an active member of the community. He was a leader in business, his church, and helped shape Knoxville to be the city it is today. Armstrong served as a register of the East Tennessee Land Office, a director of the Union Bank, and a United States assignee of bankruptcy. And he was an integral part of establishing the University of Tennessee– for thirty years he was a trustee of the East Tennessee College which would later become UT.
Cresent Bend’s history is also woven in the American fabric. During the Civil War, the house was used by both the Union and Confederate Armies. It was held by the Union Army until November of 1863 when the Confederate Army advanced and captured Crescent Bend. The house was then used as a command center for Confederate General Kershaw. It is also said that Cresent Bend might have been a safe house on the Underground Railroad. Descendants of the Armstrong family have said that the hidden trapdoor beneath the main staircase led to a room to shelter runaway slaves. During Reconstruction, the Armstrong family returned to Crescent Bend to continue to raise their families and work their farm until 1896 when both of Drury’s son passed away.
Cresent Bend, unlike some of the other historic homes in Knoxville, has a multi-family history. In 1898, the property was sold to Jerome Templeton, a Knoxville attorney who later became a well-respected judge.
The Templetons remodeled the house extensively giving it more of a Victorian feel. Those changes were short-lived, however. The Percy Lockett family bought the property in the early 1920s. Mrs. Lockett removed the turret and large front porch which had been added under the Templeton’s stay in the home in an attempt to restore some of the original character of the house. But Cresent Bend’s story doesn’t end there. At one point the house was apartment-style dorms for UT students and was slated for demolition!
Address: 2728 Kingston Pike, Knoxville, TN 37919
Mabry-Hazen House (1858)
The Mabry-Hazen House Museum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is another historic home in Knoxville with Civil War history. The house is on six acres and sits atop Mabry’s Hill. The house was built in 1858 and housed three generations of the same family from 1858 to 1987. During the Civil War, the house was used as headquarters by both the Union and Confederate Armies!
If you’ve read Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi you might already know a little bit about the Mabrys! The famous gun flight on Gay Street that killed Joseph Mabry III in 1882 was popularized by Twain’s book. And if that isn’t enough Americana for you, well there is more.
Today, Mabry-Hazen is Knoxville’s only historic home museum with the full original family collection. The home offers a rare glimpse into the past with its original china, silver, and antique furnishings. It is one of the largest original family collections in the country! And while the home is really quite remarkable, it was the Bethel Cemetery down the hill from the house that caught my attention when I was learning about the Knoxville’s historic homes.
Knoxville was an important part of the American Civil War so it comes as no surprise that the city would also have a cemetery where many soldiers were laid to rest. After the Civil War, the federal government set out to locate all the Union casualties buried around the South and Knoxville for reinterment at the newly established National Cemetery in Washington D.C. The Confederate casualties did not get the same consideration which left the mater of a Confederate Cemetery to the local community.
Located on Bethel Avenue and just down the road from the Mabry-Hazen House, Bethel Cemetery contains more than 1,600 Confederate dead – including about one hundred who were killed in the battle of Fort Sanders. There are also around 50 “Union” men, several widows, and Civil War veterans who are also interred at Bethel.
Address: 1711 Dandridge Avenue, Knoxville, TN 37915
One of the best-preserved historic homes of Knoxville, this Richardsonian Romanesque-style home sits on 4.5 acres and is closely related to Cresent Bend.
The historic Westwood home was built as a “wedding promise” in 1890 by John Edwin Lutz and his wife, Ann Adelia Armstrong Lutz, on property owned by her grandfather, Drury P. Armstrong. This was somewhat of a tradition in the family and Westwood is one of three houses (Cresent Bend and Bleak are the others) built by the Armstrong/Lutz family as wedding promises. This family tradition is why the three houses are called “The Three Sisters”.
Westwood’s very distinct serpentine wall was added in 1933 for the wedding reception of Cecil Holloway (Adelia and John’s granddaughter). But the highlight of Westwood is Ann’s studio. Ann was an accomplished artist and was the state’s first professional female artist so the studio is the house’s most significant component – especially its carefully though-out design. The studio has cathedral ceilings and large skylights which let in the natural light she needed for painting.
Four generations of the same family lived in the house between 1890 and 2012. And the home is still completely intact too! So you really get to see what life was like for Ann and her husband, as well as the generations that followed.
Address: 3425 Kingston Pike, Knoxville, TN 37919
If you are interested in local history, architecture, historic preservation, or beautiful gardens the historic homes in Knoxville will captivate you. Each one of these homes shaped the city and the families who lived in them have left behind a story for us to enjoy. It is hard to visit all the homes in one day, so we recommend taking a long weekend to see them. Many are relatively close to each other and near great shops, restaurants, and great breweries to check out.