Ghosts of Christmas past: Miller’s and the Hyatt House

Beth KinnaneDowntown, Our Town Stories

Like many, once the stuffing and turkey were put away last Thursday it was time to get about the serious business of decorating the Christmas tree. What other people do is not my concern, but for me, the lights don’t come on until after Thanksgiving is over with. Some prep work might be done, but in my house Halloween and Thanksgiving get to be their own things before the silly season begins.

However or whatever you celebrate, a Christmas tree is, at the very least, the secular centerpiece of the holiday. And decorating the tree is a mix of creativity and a connection with memories. I don’t have kids or grandkids, don’t even have that many presents to buy, but my tree goes up every year regardless. There’s the Santa Claus from my grandparents’ ornaments, a wax Victorian lady from the old Village Vendors in Fountain City, the vintage acrylic icicles that hung on my great grandmother’s tree. Touching them, hanging them in the perfect spot is a tie to decades past.

The author with Santa Claus at Miller’s Christmas Village circa 1968.

Some of the ornaments I can’t seem to part with are relegated to the bag of “no longer suitable for the tree.” One is a faux gingerbread lady, missing an arm and part of a leg from one Christmas when my little sister, just a toddler at the time, thought it was something she could actually eat. Years later, the cats took their toll on it. But I remember where that ornament came from, the Christmas Village in the basement of Miller’s Department Store.

For several generations ahead of me, memories of Miller’s mean the store on Gay Street at 445 South. Today you’ll find Cruze Farm Dairy sitting on the main floor. For me, Miller’s was the mid-century modern addition sitting on Henley Street, a building originally built and occupied by Rich’s but bought out by Miller’s in the early 1960s. It’s now the University of Tennessee Conference Center.

Knoxville has a fantastic, sparkly, event-filled Christmas in the City production these days. Back when I was a young child of the late ’60s and early ’70s, part of the holiday season was a trip downtown to Miller’s. There was a huge Christmas tree and other holiday décor on the Henley Street storefront. Different local choirs would perform in the glass enclosed staircases. I had my picture in Santa’s lap taken in the Christmas Village, and I still hang my personalized stocking I got the same day as that picture. The toy department in that store was absolutely mesmerizing. Though I really wasn’t that into dolls, the display from Madame Alexander’s made we want all of them. I did manage to get Santa to leave me a few.

Postcard of the poinsettia Christmas tree at the former Hyatt Regency-Knoxville.

Another Christmas tradition from my youth was a trip to the Hyatt Regency, our Mayan temple of a hotel that opened in 1972 that most of us called the Hyatt House. The year-round feature was riding the glass elevators. Seriously, it was a thing. In our older teenage years, it was lurking outside the Tiki lounge in hopes of running into whichever rock stars just played at the Civic Coliseum.

But during the holiday season it was to see the towering poinsettia Christmas tree in the hotel’s atrium/lobby. I have no idea how many it took to make the thing, but it was an impressive addition to Knoxville traditions that is no longer with us.

Beth Kinnane writes a history feature for It’s published each Tuesday and is one of our best-read features.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *