As promised a while back when I first wrote about the dig happening at the corner of Locust and Summer Place, TVA officially offered an open house this past Saturday. It was an opportunity for interested citizens to learn more about what happens on these sort of sites generally as well as a few specifics about the local excavation.
A tent set up on the adjacent surface parking lot provided the setting for several hundred curious onlookers to see the project at a level of detail not generally available to those of us not in the field. As the work continued in the background, TVA representatives at one table talked about preservation of artifacts and the importance of historical sites. I have to admit I find that a bit ironic, given TVA’s involvement in the loss of Toqua, for example, buried deep beneath the muck of Tellico Lake, which has never been used to generate electricity, that we are asked to be “a thousand eyes” to prevent someone from picking up an arrowhead on the shore of a TVA waterway.
On display were a number of Native American artifacts gathered from the various sites. I’d read that an arrowhead was found in the current excavation and that puzzled me, so I asked about it. The speculation is that either the item had been delivered to the site as landfill at some point or had been inside a building that was razed, such as the hotel which used to stand on the corner.
The other table was a bit more interesting in that it pertained to the current project. Jessica Stanton, a project supervisor with TVA, and her colleague Paul, explained the items on the table, talked about the site and the project and discussed the buildings previously on the block. Peter Kern, erstwhile mayor of Knoxville, had a beautiful home facing Walnut Street. A rendering of it was displayed along with diagrams of the site and explanations of the manner in which it was excavated.
The items weren’t stunning: a couple of horseshoes, bottles, bones, fragments of a china figurine, but both Jessica and Paul became very animated discussing what the various items revealed about the site. One of the intact bottles previously contained a cure to tuberculosis which involved a potion including chloroform and narcotics. It didn’t cure tuberculosis, but no doubt made for a pleasurable attempt at a cure. Larger bones indicated larger cuts of meat which likely were discarded from the hotel once sitting at the corner of Locust and Summer Place, while smaller bones likely were the refuse of the Peter Kern Home. Everything will be sent to Moundville, Alabama for curation, according to Ms. Stanton, where it will become available for loan to those researching the era represented.
The home itself is only partially included on the dig site. About a third of the basement was excavated. The original brick wall of the basement was exposed and visible to those touring Saturday (and probably will be exposed for a few more days if you want to walk down Walnut to see it). Also exposed were a couple of brick pilings from the north end of the porch. Everything discovered would have been underground when the house stood at the location. Also uncovered was a structure made of cement blocks, but that has to be more recent as cement blocks didn’t come into use until the 1940’s.
In recent weeks as we’ve discussed proposed demolitions of older buildings such as 710 and 712 Walnut Street, as well as Pryor Brown Garage on Church Avenue, the point has been made that older buildings are one of the main attractions about our city. Many of us live in historic buildings and prefer to do so. The interest in excavations of buildings that no longer exist speaks to how deeply we value that past. Sadly, we no longer have the Peter Kern house, the hotel on the corner, the grocery store that once served downtown citizens on Locust Street, but we still have it in our power to preserve those buildings that remain.
The project should be concluded very shortly, the liberty building demolished, and a design will be chosen for the garage. If I understand correctly, TVA will not build the garage as originally announced, but rather a local developer will complete the project. I’m not certain if that company has been selected, but I understand the design of the garage will have to meet downtown design requirements, which, hopefully, will mean retail space as well as parking space and, perhaps, something more than a simple concrete box. Construction could begin by the end of this year.