Lamar House 1816 / Bijou Theater 1909 (31)
803 South Gay Street
The Lamar House Hotel / Bijou Theatre had its beginnings as a private residence near the center of Knoxville’s business district. Thomas Humes, a wealthy merchant, is credited with constructing the building in 1816. Soon after his death the Lamar House was converted to a hotel and continued operations under various names through the 1970s. Known for its ballroom and saloon, it was one of antebellum Knoxville’s favorite public places and the site of concerts, feasts, and holiday parties. In 1817, the Lamar House hosted a gala reception for Andrew Jackson. Later, Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of The Secret Garden whose brother worked as a bartender in the Lamar House Saloon (located approximately where the Bistro is today), was said to be especially fond of the masquerade balls.
Both armies found it useful during the Civil War. Confederate General Joseph Johnston stayed here while planning his western campaign; later the same year, it was a functional Union hospital. General William Sanders, wounded on Kingston Pike, died in the building. General Ambrose Burnside, concerned about how the news would affect morale, kept Sanders’ body in the hotel until it could be secretly buried late at night. In 1871, former Confederate General James Clanton was carried into the same building after being mortally wounded in a gunfight with a former Union officer.
The hotel’s balcony served as the platform from which many visiting politicians and statesmen addressed Knoxvillians. U.S. Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, James K. Polk, and Ulysses S. Grant all were guests at the hotel. General Joseph Johnston is known to have worked here in mid-1863, and in a rather poignant story, an old family slave, a woman who helped raise him, tracked him down there just to see him.
In 1909, at the height of the vaudeville era, developers built the Bijou Theatre, which drew some of the stars of the day, from Will Rogers to the Marx Brothers to John Phillip Sousa. Though it eventually began to show movies more, live drama would be a mainstay for most of the 20th century. In later years, Tallulah Bankhead, John Barrymore, Sydney Greenstreet, and Montgomery Clift performed here, and Tony winner John Cullum effectively began his career here.
In the early 1970s, the building was threatened with demolition, but a group of concerned Knoxville citizens refused to let that happen. The passionate effort to save it is regarded as the birth of the preservation group Knox Heritage (then Knoxville Heritage). The Lamar House/ Bijou Theatre was purchased by the group with donated funds. Today it is operated by an independent non-profit organization and the theatre houses stage productions, office space, and a ground-floor restaurant. Restored and modernized in successive multimillion-dollar efforts, it has been praised for its acoustics by both musicians and critics. By the 21st century, it was being used mostly for live music, from the Ramones to Philip Glass and Dolly Parton to Tony Bennett. Today, the Bijou Theatre is the oldest original surviving theatre in East Tennessee.