You might argue it’s outside of downtown, but if so, the Mabry-Hazen House is just outside. It’s up the hill a bit, but I’ve walked there twice recently from my downtown home and it takes about thirty minutes on foot. Not much different than a stroll toward Happy Holler in the other direction, maybe a little closer.
Sitting on top of the tallest hill in the downtown area, the home is grand and must have seemed even more so when it was built in 1858, though it was somewhat smaller originally. Housing three generations, the same family inhabited the home until the death of Evelyn Hazen, granddaughter to Joseph Mabry, II, in 1987. Her will stipulated that it either become a museum or be leveled. It became a museum in 1992.
The stories associated with the home are far ranging and rich. They also track a large swath of Knoxville’s history. Joseph Alexander Mabry arrived in the Knoxville area from Virginia in the 1820s, became a state legislator and owned about 2000 acres in west Knox County. Killed in a duel in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1837, his son Joseph Mabry, II, then eleven years old, inherited a portion of his father’s estate, later married into another prominent family and fathered seven children who lived to adulthood and seven who did not.
He and a brother-in-law, William Swann, donated an acre of land for a Market House at Market Square to the city and developed the surrounding lots. Finishing the Mabry-Hazen home by 1858, he supported first the Confederacy and then the Union as each side occupied his home. 1881 -82 proved a devastating stretch for the family as Will, one of Joseph Mabry II’s sons was killed in a bar brawl on Christmas Eve, 1881. In early 1882, Joseph II confronted Thomas O’Connor, the man he thought responsible, but was restrained by friends. The following day, O’Connor stepped out of the doorway of the Mechanic’s National Bank on Gay Street (still there at 612 S. Gay Street) with a shotgun and by the time the shooting was over, Joseph Mabry II, Joseph Mabry III and Thomas O’Connor lay dead in the street.
Soon after the shootings, Joseph Mabry II’s oldest daughter Alice married Rush Strong Hazen and they eventually moved into Alice’s childhood home. Each of their three daughters had unfortunate relationships. The oldest married, divorced, returned home and died in 1937. The second married, her husband died of alcohol poisoning and she returned home where she died of an eating disorder. The youngest, Evelyn, born in 1899 became engaged to a man who made excuses for not getting married for years. She sued for breech of promise, having to admit they’d had relations, and won, though it is unclear that she ever collected. The scandal cost her her social position and she lived alone in the home until her death.
What you’ll find if you visit is nothing short of amazing. Due to the fact that the home was continuously inhabited by the same family, 95% of the furnishings you’ll find inside are original to the home and that’s rare for historic homes. There are homes that are more grand in scale and design, but this one is warm, welcoming and beautiful. From the rugs to the furnishings to the chandeliers and the grand staircase, it’s really something to see. Also included is a small museum room and a few items for sale, including the book mentioned above.
I spoke to Calvin Chappelle who has been executive director at Mabry-Hazen for about nine years. He and Arin Streeter are the sources for the above information, which is included in the introduction to a new edition of The Seduction of Miss Evelyn Hazen by Jane Van Ryan, available for sale at the home and at Union Avenue Books. Calvin, whose degrees are in Art History and Museum Communications, held prior positions at the Ewing Gallery in Knoxville and worked as an intern at the American Philosophy Institute in Philadelphia. He’s also been a Civil War reenactor for decades and lives in the Parkridge neighborhood.
He pointed out that the property also includes two side buildings constructed around 1920 and a care taker’s cottage located at the edge of the Confederate Cemetery on Bethel Avenue down the hill a piece from the main property. During his tenure the organization, along with Arin Streeter, has facilitated the addition of the Bethel Cemetery to the National Register of Historic Places. The caretaker’s cottage was restored in 2011. He also points out that the monument in the cemetery was designed by noted Knoxville artist Lloyd Branson.
Research on the home has helped improve the accuracy of the interpretation which focuses on the history of Knoxville. It has also allowed the foundation to return the exterior of the home to a closer semblance of its original appearance with the appropriate colors and accurate shutters, which are custom-made replicas.
In recent years a Boomsday event that has served to raise funds to sustain the home will shift to a July 4th event this year. They also held their second annual Lineage and Legacy event in October focusing on the impact of the family locally. The home will be a part of the Founder’s Day 225th Celebration on October 3 of next year in conjunction with Knoxville’s other historic home museums.
Chappelle pointed out that Knoxville is rich in home museums and that a large portion of the city and state’s history can be told through them, starting with James White Fort and Blount Mansion and running through Marble Springs, the Ramsey House, Crescent Bend, Mabry-Hazen House and historic Westwood. I didn’t know that a combination pass may be purchased at the Visitor Center for $25 which grants admission to each, but it sounds like something of which I’ll take advantage at some point.
Touring and supporting our historic homes through donations is essential to their preservation. Consider taking a day to hit them all or selecting one a month and learn more about the history of your home. For these homes to be preserved, subsequent generations must understand their importance – and that’s on us. Mabry-Hazen House has about 4,000 annual visitors, we need to make it more.