The Andrew Johnson Building outshines its namesake

Larry Van GuilderInside 640, Our Town Stories

How’s this for irony? As the current occupant of the White House, the self-styled “deal maker,” tweets his way through impeachment, the building named after the first president to be impeached is about to go up for sale.

The former Hotel Andrew Johnson, now simply the Andrew Johnson Building, has housed Knox County Schools administrative offices since city and county schools consolidated in the late 1980s. The county’s asking price is $6 million and an acceptable redevelopment plan. School offices will move a few blocks down Gay Street to the TVA East Tower if county commission, the school board and TVA can agree on the details of a leasing arrangement for the TVA property.

South facade of the Andrew Johnson Building. Photo by Brian Stansberry

Planning for a new hotel in downtown Knoxville began in 1918, but the “Roaring 20s” were sputtering toward a conclusion before it opened. The hotel was substantially completed in 1928.

Despite assuming the mantle of Knoxville’s premier transient lodging, the hotel’s name was not one to suggest majesty, even in Andrew Johnson’s home state. A few years ago, a poll of historians and political scientists landed Johnson in the top echelon of “worst” U.S. presidents.

The day of Lincoln’s second inauguration, March 4, 1865, marked the nadir of Johnson’s public life to that point. Reportedly nursing a hangover from the previous evening’s celebration, Johnson downed a couple of stiff drinks before delivering his own speech. He was eventually sworn in as Lincoln’s vice president, but not before unleashing an “incoherent” and rambling address before his chagrined president and other dignitaries.

Johnson ascended to the presidency following Lincoln’s assassination. By the following year quarrels with the “Radical Republicans” over civil rights for freedmen and the course of Reconstruction in the South had permanently soured his relationship with legislators.

In February 1868 the U.S. House of Representatives approved 11 articles of impeachment against the president for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The subsequent trial in the U.S. Senate took three months before falling short of conviction by a single vote.

The pendulum of history swings, and by the early 20th century revisionist historians began taking a more charitable view of Johnson’s presidency. Jim Crow was rampant in the land, and as an opponent of civil rights for black Americans Johnson’s reputation may have been burnished by the tenor of the times. Few present-day historians would argue that his record deserves rehabilitation.

It’s worth noting that the name initially proposed for the hotel was the Tennessee Terrace. For better or worse, the “Hotel Andrew Johnson” is more memorable.

Down the years the Andrew Johnson hosted a bevy of famous names, including Amelia Earhart, Duke Ellington and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. It was also home to WNOX radio’s “Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round” for several years until the ruckus raised by the audience prompted hotel management to request that the program seek a more suitable venue.

The Andrew Johnson under construction in 1927. McClung Collection

For country music fans, Hank Williams Sr. is a name that will forever be associated with the hotel. Williams spent part of the last evening of his life at the Andrew Johnson, stopping with his driver, Charles Carr, en route to a scheduled appearance in West Virginia. At the hotel, a doctor summoned by Carr injected Williams with vitamin B12 and a small amount of morphine.

Williams, an alcoholic and habitual user of barbiturates, had to be carried to his car by hotel staff that evening. Somewhere between Bristol, Virginia, and Oak Hill, West Virginia, Williams died in the backseat of the car from what was later ruled heart failure.

Latter day conspiracy theorists have suggested – with scant evidence – that Williams was “killed” in the hotel. Ghost hunters, take note: If you discover Williams’ spirit roaming the halls, let the mayor know. That could be worth another million or so to buyers!

Larry Van Guilder is the business/government editor for KnoxTNToday. Contact him at  

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