I get the impression that people just generally don’t consider one of the most interesting – and one of the oldest sites in the city. Blount Mansion has been around since 1792, though not exactly in its current form. Very few other downtown buildings date to the period: James White’s Home (which has been deconstructed and moved around, 1786), James Park Home (1812), the Bijou Theatre Building (1817), and the Craighead-Jackson Home (1818).
It’s had quite an interesting history through the years. First inhabited by William Blount, who was territorial governor of the area including what would become the state of Tennessee and a signer of the United States Constitution, it is the site, in 1796, where much of the Tennessee Constitution was written. It has been called “the most important historical spot in Tennessee.”
The original structure only included the central portion of what is visible today, though by 1820 it looked as it does today. Willie Blount, William’s Brother and our third state governor, lived in the home at that time and oversaw its expansion. An office for William Blount (which still stands) was constructed directly behind the home at about the same time. The kitchen on site now was built in 1959 and is a reconstruction of the original.
By 1925, the clapboard structure (perhaps the first built west of the Alleghenies) had deteriorated and the City of Knoxville eyed it for demolition in order to build a parking lot for the Andrew Johnson Hotel. (Sound familiar?) The Bonny Cate Chapter of the DAR led by Mary Boyce Temple spearheaded an effort to save the house and was successful, purchasing it in 1930. Ironically, given its actions in recent years, the University of Tennessee aided in the preservation effort.
The Blount Mansion Association was formed to operate the home and the Knoxville Garden Club agreed to maintain the exterior – which they have done since. The gardens behind the home are reminiscent of gardens found in Williamsburg. Designed by Alden Hopkins, he had a hand in the gardens at both the University of Virginia and Williamsburg. The Colonial Revival gardens are period accurate, but would not likely have been found at Blount Mansion.
The gardens were added during the home’s peak period of visitation, in the post-war years of the 1940s and 1950s. The site was often treated as an obvious stop before heading to the newly opened Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The era saw distortions of history such as visitors being told, “Mary Blount had tea in this very room,” when, in fact, that room was not built while she lived there. William Blount’s complicated history with the Cherokee and the presence of slaves on the property were generally not addressed.
Interim director Dave Hearnes told me a variety of changes may be coming with the idea of raising the profile of the home. While all historical homes have suffered lowered attendance – even the best known, such as Monticello and Mount Vernon – Dave hopes to increase attendance at the Blount Mansion by increasing local attendance. Interestingly, more tourists visit the home than local people. He hopes to re-engage them at the place which he says might rightly be considered “the birthplace of both the city and the state.”
To this end, everything from interpretations to the website are being evaluated. He hopes to engage more school children. Educational trips to the home have waned in recent years as science and math have gained heavier emphasis in public schools than history. Additionally, field trips have become increasingly difficult for reasons both budgetary and of increased liability.
He’d like to see more residents making Blount Mansion a place to bring out-of-town guests. Returning the Craighead-Jackson House to a public space may be considered. He pointed out that behind that house is the “home” of Harrogate – Cormac McCarthy’s fictional character in Suttree, which certainly would be of interest to the literary nerds among us. He’d like to see a younger audience. Presenting tours with different points of emphasis may be coming soon, giving visitors reason to return.
In short, he and the Blount Mansion Association are intent on making everything about the home and the visitor experience into a better, more satisfying interaction. Have you toured? Maybe it’s time to consider it. They are open from 9:30 to 5:00 PM Tuesday through Friday and 10:00 PM – 2:00 PM on Saturday with tours leaving at the top of each hour. Tickets are $5 for children and $7 for adults. “Like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter. Mostly, make an effort to connect or re-connect to this Knoxville treasure. And tell others about it.