Old Vine Avenue revisited

Beth KinnaneDowntown, Our Town Stories

It’s hard to imagine looking north from downtown and not seeing the steeple of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church perched on Vine Avenue as it has been for nearly 140 years.

Founded in 1855, the church as it stands today was completed in 1886. It’s been looking sideways at the shenanigans of the Bowery (the Old City) since well before Buffalo Bill Cody (supposedly) shot up Patrick Sullivan’s Saloon (the Lonesome Dove).

But in the summer of 1969, ICCC announced it was prepared to close at the Plymouth rock of catholic churches in East Tennessee.

St. Mary’s School and Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, early 1900s. Photo credit: Calvin McClung Digital Collection, Knox County Library

Urban renewal had come to Vine Avenue, and life was becoming untenable. The adjacent parish school, St. Mary’s, was already in the process of closing. Looking like a child of the Bates Motel and the Addams Family mansion, St. Mary’s was the educational launch pad for Knoxville author Cormac McCarthy.

The development of Summit Hill Drive had reduced church parking to nothing, parishioners were worshipping elsewhere, and the search for a new place to build was underway.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen. But the creation of the interstate system through downtown as well as Summit Hill Drive along with the construction of the TVA towers changed a lot of landscape in downtown Knoxville.

Vine Avenue (or street in some older maps) was pretty much taken off the map. What remains runs from the 100 block of Gay Street to a parking lot just shy of Broadway behind Balter Beer Works. A remnant of Commerce Avenue runs between State Street and Central.

Over a century ago, Vine ran west all the way to Broadway, the original Temple Beth El sat in that corner. It ran east to where it became part of Rutledge Pike (don’t ask me to find that map). The home of celebrated artist brothers Beauford and Joseph Delaney in the 800 block of Vine was swallowed up. The 200 block of Gay Street came down in 1975. East Vine from Gay Street to Central became a parking lot.

The intersection of Vine with Central was the heart of the Black business district in Knoxville. Lost in the disappearance of East Vine Avenue were the Gem Theatre (where Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway performed), the Palace Billiards, the Green Medical Arts building, A.R. Wheeler & Son funeral home, a YMCA, grocery stores and pharmacies.

Looking east on Vine from Gay Street, 1940s. Photo credit: Calvin McClung Digital Collection, Knox County Library

Summit Hill created a more definitive line between what is considered downtown and the Old City. But for my money, everything bounded by World’s Fair Park, James White Parkway, the Tennessee River and the railroad tracks just north of Jackson Avenue is downtown.

Though much of this change occurred within my lifetime, I was just a kid when most of it happened. My mind’s eye can’t quite put the area back where it was when I first saw it, long before the World’s Fair Park and the interstate tunnel, when Vine ran to Broadway and Union to Henley, when Balter was still a Gulf gas station and Hewgley’s Music Shop was the first thing you ran in to when Broadway turned into Henley.

Enjoy these photos from Vine Avenue as it used to be:

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

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel digital archives, Beck Cultural Exchange Center

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