Gallows Hill, The Carpenter’s Union Building, Jack Neely and More

Carpenters’ Union Building, 516 West Vine, Knoxville, October 2017

Sometimes a word or a phrase just stands on its own to incite or to evoke a reaction or a mood without further assistance. Gallows Hill. The reader immediately knows what happened there. The Knoxville reader may not readily know that the name references what we now generally call “Summit Hill.” “Summit” has such a nice, if generic, ring to it.

I stopped in on Jack Neely who told me that “Gallows Hill,” was simply a matter-of-fact name our predecessors a hundred-sixty-years ago would have used to designate the spot where Knoxville’s wayward citizens were removed from this world. Once considered far enough out of town to be decent for a civilized execution, it is located on the hill near Immaculate Conception Catholic Cathedral and when the name was changed to “Summit,” some locals derided the new name as a sort of silly modern softening.

Carpenters’ Union Building, Rear (and currently main) Entrance 516 West Vine, Knoxville, October 2017

Not many people today would know the building referenced as the “Carpenters’ Union Building,” though the name describes the function and evokes an era in American history when unions held great power. It sits atop what was once “Gallow’s Hall,” and may seem unremarkable to a passerby, should anyone pass by the building which originally faced Vine Avenue at its crest.

Built in 1946 as a Union Hall, with the requisite offices and a pretty spectacular (for the time) entertainment venue sitting on its top floor, the building would have been a point of pride for carpenters of the time. Now the few pedestrians climbing the hill give it scarcely a glance, though it contains some important businesses such as the offices of Adrienne Webster Accounting, Skyline Exhibitor Source, Nourish Knoxville and, most importantly for this story, the Knoxville History Project.

Carpenters’ Union Building, 516 West Vine, Knoxville, October 2017

Carpenters’ Union Building, 516 West Vine, Knoxville, October 2017

It was in the offices at the Knoxville History Project that I met with Jack Neely and Paul James who keep the flame of our local history alive through the non-profit located there. “Jack Neely,” is a name powerful enough for many of us to be shorthand for, “Knoxville history.” For decades, now, many of us have learned who we were, and are, as a city through his writings, which continue to be regularly published on the Knoxville History Center website. As I entered he was about that life work, focusing most recently on a history of local public works, the Old City and more.

It only took a small interruption in that work to prompt Jack to conjure images of a “small rocky crag overlooking a swampy area,” with ne’er-do-wells dangling in the Knoxville air at the end of their poorly-lived time on earth – and a small run of rope. As only someone so deeply versed in local history might do, he easily traced decades and shifting sensibilities to a later era of Union Halls, softly landing on an country music photograph hanging on the wall from the 1960s as he identified the young versions of many stars of that and a later era.

Carpenters’ Union Building, 516 West Vine, Knoxville, October 2017

Carpenters’ Union Building, 516 West Vine, Knoxville, October 2017

Carpenters’ Union Building, 516 West Vine, Knoxville, October 2017

This was my little experience as I dropped by the Carpenter’s Union Building, but much more is in store for you if you drop by next week, on October 26, for Tales and Tamales at Gallows Hill. The name tells much of the story – you’ll be regaled with tales from Jack Neely about all of the above in the very spot where those souls dangled for their misdeeds. You’ll also enjoy tamales (which prompt Jack into another story – just ask) from Good Golly Tamale.

While tamales and hanging out with Jack would be enough to make most anyone happy for an evening, there is much more to be had. Kukuly and the Gypsy Fuego will be on hand to provide music from the era of the building’s construction and they’ll play on the cool stage in the original ballroom – in which you’ll also find a handy bar. Dessert will be provided by Magpies Bakery.

Carpenters’ Union Building, Original Dumb Waiter, 516 West Vine, Knoxville, October 2017

Carpenters’ Union Building, 516 West Vine, Knoxville, October 2017

Carpenters’ Union Building, Jack Neely and Original Ballroom, 516 West Vine, Knoxville, October 2017

Laura Still of Knoxville Walking Tours will be on hand to take participants on her Shadow Side Ghost Tour and you’ll get an autographed copy of her book A Haunted History of Knoxville. A portion of proceeds from several of Laura’s tours is donated to the Knoxville History Project, but you get this one for the price of your admission. You’ll want to take her other tours as soon as you can catch one.

The cost of the evening is $100 (tickets here) which gets you a gander at the Carpenters’ Union Building, hanging out with Jack Neely, dinner and dessert, music, a downtown tour and an autographed book. It’s about as good as you might hope to do for your money at one of these events. Proceeds, of course, go to support the important work being done by Jack Neely and Paul James at the Knoxville History Project. I can’t imagine much related to our city that would be more important for you to support.

You can also catch Jack at Maple Hall tomorrow (Thursday, October 19) night at Maple Hall. It just happens to be the 135th anniversary of Knoxville’s most famous Gay Street shootout and he’ll have the whole story.


  1. “While tamales and hanging out with Jack would be enough to make most anyone happy for an evening….”

    Hanging out with Jack indeed…No pun intended.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      Any talent I have to be punny must be sub-conscious. I plead innocent to charges of going for such cheap humor. 🙂

  2. Alan, do you know what the work is that is happening in that area on the lot that Hatcher Hill had originally intended to build high-end town homes?

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      They are getting to work. After announcing, plans changed, then changed back again. I understand the original plans I posted here are being followed.

  3. Would absolutely love to attend. But there is one other event worthy of support that same night — the Knoxville Area Urban League’s annual Equal Opportunity Awards dinner and gala. It’s the largest fundraiser that important civil rights organization has every year. Too bad these two great causes compete on the same evening.

  4. Ron Sharpe says:

    So glad this little bit of downtown is getting some attention! I think the steep climb up the hill dissuades many people from exploring this area. For years I’ve thought that the hill would make a fantastic residential enclave. Between the vacant spots and the parking lots the hill could accommodate significant housing and the terrain would serve to keep it private and quiet. A fantasy would be to extend the residential by terracing the area between West Jackson and the top of the hill and infilling with housing accessible only by stairs a la San Francisco. Wouldn’t that be cool? Knoxville needs a Barbary Lane…

  5. Nancy Sharp Voith says:

    Jack — So sorry we will be OOT for this very special event on Oct. 26. This sounds like an amazing combo of things that make downtown Knox special, including you. Hoping this will be the first of many such events throughout the year; and we will hope to make the next one.

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