East Tennessee History Center


History of Knoxville, in Facades

The East Tennessee History Center's facade in the context of the historical Gay Street

 601 South Gay Street
Knoxville, TN 37901-1629

The East Tennessee History Center’s main purpose is to preserve and teach history, but its potential is not limited to genealogical research or study; its prime location on Gay Street in the cultural heart of Knoxville allows it to take advantage of other performances, from art exhibits to help classes.  The East Tennessee History Center is a fitting place for the purpose it serves.  Located in a building with one of the richest histories in Knoxville, the East Tennessee History Center acts as a focal point for personal, local, and regional history.


What now serves as the East Tennessee History Center was originally the U.S. Customs House.  The construction of the building was approved in 1856, but quickly put on hold after the outbreak of the American Civil War.  However, at the war’s end, focus was quickly centered again on the building.  It is unknown exactly why Knoxville needed a custom house; Knoxville is sufficiently inland that tariffs would mostly likely be levied on goods before they reached the city. 

The East Tennessee History Center/Custom House remains a constant on Gay Street, even as high rises appear surrounding it.

Most likely, this name was applied to the building, which would be predominantly a post office and courthouse, in order to have a better chance of Congress approval (Congress would be more likely to approve federal funds towards buildings that collected a federal tax).  Federal funds were indeed appropriated to the building, and construction began in 1869.  By 1873, the building was completed for a grand total of $392,000 according to the plans of Alfred B. Mullett, a well-known U.S. government architect.  The grand three story building housed a post office on the first floor, offices for the district attorney and various court clerks on the second floor, and the courtroom and assorted rooms for judges and juries on the third floor.  The building underwent an expansion that was completed in 1910 that augmented its size considerably. 

Upon the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933, post office functions moved out of the building and it became the new main headquarters for the TVA.  The TVA occupied the building and modified it for their own purposes until the new twin towers were built.  As the TVA prepared to leave the Customs House, they offered to hand over the building to the city of Knoxville to use as some sort of a cultural center.  After discussion, it was decided that the building would be converted into either a historical center or a community theater.  Both options had adamant supporters, but, in the end, the vote for the historical center won.  The building was converted into the East Tennessee Historical Center.  Since then, the museum has been added, and the building underwent a major renovation and a major expansion. 

The East Tennessee History Center at the corner of Gay Street and Clinch Avenue, across the street from the Tennessee Theatre.


The East Tennessee History Center/Customs House is located in the cultural heart of Knoxville.  At its location on the corner of Gay Street and Clinch Avenue, it is across the street from the Tennessee Theatre and just down the road from numerous other cultural attractions.  And although the Customs House existed before most, if not all of the nearby cultural establishments, its location in the focal point of culture and entertainment no doubt influenced the decision the renovate the building into a cultural center itself. 


The architecture of the Customs House is of an Italianate Renaissance Revival design, one typical of many government buildings.  Architect Alfred B. Mullett used local marble from a quarry four miles east of Knoxville.  He was so pleased with the quality of the marble that he used the same variety in many of his later creations.  At the time of its creation, the Customs House was one of the grandest structures of the South.  Though relatively austere when compared to more ornate Empire or even some neo-Palladian specimens, the building is still a work of art.  With its cast iron columns adorned with Corinthian capitals, its barrel vaulted ceiling, and its cast staircase with genuine mahogany handrail, the building is exquisitely beautiful.  And though lacking in ornate pilasters or fancy ornament on the outside, the simplicity of its facade evokes a sort of humble elegance. 

The distinctly Italianate Renaissance-Revival marble structure of the Old Custom House can be seen, complete with entry archways.


The East Tennessee History Center’s main performance is, not surprisingly, history.  The first floor houses the Museum of East Tennessee History, the most obvious and traditional performance.  An interactive display, the museum documents and teaches about the history of East Tennessee.  Other exhibits may appear as well, but the museum is mostly devoted to its own region.  Moving up a floor, we have the Knox County Archives.  Housing Knox County records and court files, the floor serves as a research point for many lawyers and judges looking for original records.  On the third floor, the McClung Historical Collection is held.  Part of the Lawson-McGhee Library, the collection houses over 70,000 books, 600 manuscript collections, numerous rare maps and newspapers, 16,000 rolls of microfilm, and countless photographs, including 250,000 negatives.  People visit the collection frequently for all types of research—especially genealogical research. 

Other types of performances exist in the East Tennessee History Center.  A gallery on the first floor exists for exhibits other than the museum.  Everything from a World War II Veterans’ Symposium to a Japanese art exhibit to a history of Winston Churchill to an exhibit on September 11th has appeared on the first floor.  An example of nontraditional performance includes public classes held in the building, including many genealogy classes. 

The East Tennessee History Center as seen from Krutch Park, a possible location for performance in conjunction with the ETHC.

It is interesting to note that what is now the East Tennessee History Center very nearly became something such as the Knoxville Community Theater.  It would be fascinating to see what the building would be like had it become so.  And although the building was converted into a contemporary interactive venue instead of a traditional theater, perhaps a chance at those types of performances may exist.  Although the building would clearly not support large scale traditional plays without extreme renovation, brief, smaller performances could perhaps take place.  And the Center’s prime location in the cultural center of Knoxville opens a myriad of opportunities.  Perhaps in conjunction with nearby performance theaters, history could be brought alive with actors on stage.  Even Krutch Park, across the street, would prove to be an interesting staging place for an East Tennessee History Center performance.  The possibilities are endless. 

-Jacob Holloway


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