The Fourth and Gill Neighborhood has been through several swings over the years. In the late 1800s and early 1900s it was a posh neighborhood of north Knoxville. It even incorporated at one point and elected its own mayor. It declined over the decades then, in recent years, experienced a resurgence to become one of the city’s most sought after places to live.
One structure, at 800 North Fourth Avenue and recently known as The Birdhouse, has seen most of this history come and go. It has sometimes played a central part in the story and appears poised to do so again, as both a center for the community and a non-profit event space.
I sat down with Bill Murrah who has lived in the neighborhood for fifty years, Catherine Abbott the new Fourth and Gill Neighborhood Center Coordinator, and Brett Burdick, longtime resident of the neighborhood who has been very involved in the refurbishing and renovation of the building.
Bill said the first resident, Margaret Powers, moved into the home in 1891. Her husband had died as the home was being constructed, the victim of a train accident on an inaugural run of a new train route from Knoxville through Cumberland Gap. Her daughter and son-in-law would later live in the home and they owned and operated the Candy Factory (when it was an actual candy factory).
By the 1960s the building had ceased being a private residence and was owned by Gene Monday. He was a member of St. James Episcopal Church and according to Bill, “There were four churches in this area that wanted to do outreach to the low income, poor area of the neighborhood and Gene Monday allow that group, they called themselves the North Knoxville Fellowship for Community Service, to run youth programs out of the building.”
Bill moved to the neighborhood in 1972 and worked for ten years as a salaried employee running the programs in the building, for a salary he recalled as $200 a month. “It was then that we formed the Fourth and Gill Neighborhood Association.” He said the organization and neighborhood got its name from the building which sits at the corner of Fourth and Gill, while the neighborhood is centered on Luttrell. Decision making for the center which he describes as a center for “empowerment of low-income people,” was transferred from the church to the neighborhood, most of whom were low-income renters. Around 1973 Mr. Monday donated the building to the neighborhood.
He said they ran youth programs out of the center, held community meetings and “had our own newspaper, The Gazette. He said they focused also on “quality of housing and tenant rights issues. We created coalitions with other low-income neighborhoods . . . we created a non-profit called Inner City Neighborhood Coalition and advocated around issues that affected all of us. A lot of that was run out of here.”
Starting in the late 1970s the neighborhood got Community Development funds, “which was federal funding that came through the city.” The result was sidewalks, street lighting, parks and more. He said over two and a half million dollars was invested in this manner into the neighborhood. In 1982 Bill left that position to work with Legal Aide of East Tennessee.
Professionals began moving in, bringing new skills, and renovating homes. “There was a good blend of new residents and older, lower-income residents. Over time there became more of an emphasis on historic preservation and the character of the neighborhood began to change . . . We are still creating community and we still have this place.”
After the group that ran The Birdhouse for about ten years dissipated in the face of the pandemic, the neighborhood examined the possibilities for the home going forward, even considering selling it, but ultimately decided to direct funding, and lots of volunteer hours into bringing it back, and giving it fresh direction for the future. Thomas and Lindsey Boyd, residents of the neighborhood donated $150,000 to help get the project started. Fifty thousand of that will be used for the current work, while $100,000 has been set aside to begin funding an endowment.
A massive amount of work has been done on the former home. Several years ago, the porch, which had been removed many years ago, was replaced to match its original 1890s appearance. That work was done with a historic preservation grant from the city and donations from the neighborhood. A series of community workdays were held starting in July 2021. The workday turned out to be a turning point in bringing the community together, with over 40 people coming together to help. And that has continued.
Contractors have been brought in as needed and the building has been painted, inside and out. Drop ceilings have been removed, electrical work has been done, flashing replaced, bathrooms updated, windows were repaired, a new HVAC for the downstairs has been installed and more. Holes were patched, trim added, ceilings repaired, and stained glass was repaired. Architects evaluated the building with ADA requirements in mind and those are being addressed.
Catherine, who previously was Head of Publishing for a non-profit in Washington, D.C., has been part-time, paid Program Director for the center for about six weeks. As part of her previous position, she handled events, finances, marketing, business strategy and more. The building is overseen by a committee of the neighborhood association, but Catherine is the operational control point.
They hired me to get things off the ground after the pandemic lull and after the decision was made to keep the property.” She said the intention is to “make it work as an event rental space, that can both be a business but, more importantly, fulfill our mission to perpetuate arts and culture in the Knoxville community . . . and to support the neighborhood . . . It’s kind of like a start-up.
She said the focus will be on three fronts. First, the space is currently, and will be going forward, offered for rent to groups for receptions, parties, meetings, exhibitions, small concerts, and more. Second, the center will host events either for the neighborhood or for the public. Finally, there are four upstairs office spaces that are leased to long-term tenants including a new law office, a neighborhood group, Mick Harrison and the High Score, and Good Guy Collective.
Bill pointed out that in some respects, they are building on the good work done by The Birdhouse organization. “It was phenomenal. They had Spanish classes for kids, clothing swaps, immigrant organizations held cultural events, concerts, they had a library. In some ways we are starting a non-profit enterprise, but we are still building on the work they did.”
For now, social media accounts are under the Birdhouse umbrella, including their Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. Each of those has a link to rent the space, but if you’d like, you can go directly there by going here. A new website should be up and running soon. If you’d like to email questions to Catherine, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The group is also open to financial donations to support the ongoing work of the center and those can be handled via email (pending the new webpage, which should have a donate button).