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Founded as Blount College in 1794, designated East Tennessee College in 1807, then East Tennessee University in 1840, and eventually the University of Tennessee in 1879, this local institution is tightly woven into the history and geography of Knoxville. Its first home was on Gay Street, but in 1826, construction began atop “The Hill” just west of downtown. The Civil War devastated the campus, and its buildings were occupied by both Union and Confederate troops, but it survived, and by 1904, there were 16 buildings on the campus. The 20th century saw a rapid expansion of the campus as it overtook surrounding historic residential neighborhoods, and many historic buildings were demolished. As a result, even though the university boasts a campus with a 185-year history, only four buildings under its control remain that were constructed before 1900, two of which were originally outbuildings for private residences.
Recent efforts, such as the restoration of Ayres Hall; the completion of a Getty Trust-funded Campus Preservation Plan; and the nominations of Ayres Hall, Tyson House and Hopecote to the National Register of Historic Places, show an apparent evolution in the university’s appreciation for its architectural history, but historic buildings on and off campus are still threatened with demolition or neglect and the preservation plan has not been truly integrated into the new UTK Campus Master Plan.
As UTK strives to enter the ranks of the top 25 public research institutions in the country, it should be noted that preservation is a priority for the majority of those top universities and a significant factor for students as they choose where they will study. History and preservation add a weight and sense of place to university campuses and can create strong bonds with alumni and donors considering financial support of those institutions. In addition, in the current economic environment, the maintenance and re-use of existing structures is a fiscally prudent path to take considering the amount of taxpayer funding used to finance construction on campus.
Historic buildings are valued and utilized by top universities around the world, and the University of Tennessee should work to change its financially and culturally costly “new is better” culture and see the value its historic structures can bring to its admirable plans to become a top tier institution. Knox Heritage is eager to work with the administration and the State of Tennessee to devise innovative and cost effective strategies that will preserve the campus while enhancing the learning experience for students and benefiting the entire Knoxville community. Included in those strategies must be rehabilitation that is architecturally sensitive to the historic structures that are its subject, a diminishing role for demolition, and a commitment to ongoing maintenance that values the architectural features of the remaining historic buildings on campus.
Specific Properties Threatened:
a. Sophronia Strong Hall & Cafeteria - 1621 Cumberland Avenue
Constructed on the grounds of the former Cowan-Briscoe Estate, the first unit of this facility was built in 1925 and orihinally housed approximately 50 women. Partial funding was provided through an endowment by Benjamin Rush Strong, who left his estate to the university and wished that a woman's dormitory be erected in honor of his mother, Sophronia. Five additional units and a cafeteria were added to Strong Hall in 1939, financed out of general operating funds and subsidized by the Works Progress Administration.
The new UT Campus Master Plan calls for a major expansion of the building that threatens to destory almost all of its original historic fabric. We encourage the university to revisit its design in order to preserve the most significant portion of the historic structure.
b. Melrose Hall - 1616 Melrose Avenue
Built in 1946 and designed by Knoxville architects Barber & McMurry, the building serves as a dormitory and offices. Melrose is one of the last great Collegiate Gothic designs at the university. It represents an important part of the university’s expansion west of the Hill in the postwar era and reflects the increase in student enrollment following World War II. The UTK Campus Master Plan calls for the demolition of Melrose Hall.
We call upon the university to work with experts in the reuse of historic academic buildings to determine a course for incorporating the historic structure into the university’s plans.
c. Henson Hall - 1618 Cumberland Avenue
Henson Hall was designed by Barber & McMurry and built in 1930 with a donation from the estate of Martha C. Henson, who left the university $200,000 for the completion of a women’s dormitory. It housed about 150 women originally. In 1943, Henson Hall became the dormitory for Air Corps Cadets training for World War II. It now houses the College of Social Work. The building is threatened by possible demolition called for in the new UTK Campus Master Plan.
We call upon the University to work with experts in the reuse of historic academic buildings to determine a course for incorporating the historic structure into the University's plans.
d. The Weston M. Fulton House - 900 Volunteer Blvd
This two-and-one-half story bungalow is a reminder of the prosperous residential community, West Knoxville, that developed along Volunteer Boulevard (then called Temple Avenue) and the surrounding area. Weston M. Fulton built and lived in the house (then 820 Temple Avenue) in 1913. A native of Alabama, Weston M. Fulton was one Knoxville's leading industrialists and was one of the founders of the highly successful Fulton Company in 1904. Fulton was vice mayor of Knoxville in the 1920s and was active in the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association. He also served two terms on Knoxville City Council.
In 1927 the house was given to the University as a memorial to Fulton's son, Weston M. Fulton Jr., who was killed in a car accident shortly before entering UT. The house became the Weston M. Fulton Jr. Memorial Hospital and served as the student health center beginning in 1931. It is likely this is the last Knoxville building associated with Fulton since his 1928 home, Westcliff, was demolished in 1967 and his century-old Fulton Sylphon factory was demolished in 2006.
This house is now being used as the base offices for the construction company that is building the new University Student Center at the corner of Cumberland Avenue and Volunteer Blvd. The Weston M. Fulton House is scheduled for demolition at the end of the construction of the new student center.