Market Square

The Market Square District: A Place of Performance.

Market Square is a prominent part of Knoxville, which stands out as a bustling cultural community.  Shadowed by the TVA Corporate Headquarters, Market Square is compared to a miniature city almost hidden within the already teeming cultural confines of the downtown district.  Walking into the square is a release from the “hustle and bustle of city life” where one can dine, shop, listen to local musicians and artists perform, attend a festival, or soak in the atmosphere and ambience of this cultural hub.  It has something for everyone, and it is easy to see why so many Knoxville natives and visitors to the city frequent this area so often.


Market Square and Market House (Photo Credit:

The history of Market Square is beset by a series of highs and lows dating back to its establishment in 1854.  Originally Market Square, or the Central Market as it was known at the time, was owned by two entrepreneurs, Joseph A. Mabry and William G. Swan.  These two gave the land to the city of Knoxville.  At that time farmers from the surrounding areas would bring wagons full of wares to sell at the market house that stood in the center of the square. In Jack Neely’s book, Market Square: A History of the Most Democratic Place on Earth, he describes Market Square at its beginnings:

“Market Square became the heart of an important trading borderland between North and South, and its citizens were nearly perfectly divided between the Confederacy and the Union during the Civil War. After the war, Market Square was a true melting pot of immigrants.” [1]

Market Square would be characterized by its frequent transitions from great heights to the deepest lows with the eventual majestic rebuilding of “Market House”.  Sadly After World War II, Market Square was seen as somewhat of a “sub-architectural freak.” This and the decline of successful businesses in the square led to the tearing down of Market Square in 1960. [1]

Historical Market Square

By the 1990s, Market Square was essentially deserted.  In spite of restoration attempts in the 70s and 80s, the only business that seemed to be thriving was the pizza café known as The Flying Tomato, whose name would soon change to the Tomato Head, which still serves customers today.  [4]

The Tomato Head: serving customers since 1992.

During the early 90s, Market Square had no stage and two to three run down buildings. It was a worn down and tired part of downtown Knoxville.  This would not last long though for Market Square was soon to be revitalized, along with the rest of the district. Bill Haslams’s senior director of the department of policy & communications, Dr. William Lyons helped shepherd the reformation of Market Square.  Dr. Lyons was placed in charge of 3 primary things: build Market Square Garage, Redo the square itself, and provide mechanisms for business owners to develop buildings.  With the help of a developing company from Chattanooga, Tenn., and the work of Dr. Lyons and his associates, Market Square was back on track to become the thriving cultural hub it once was.  The idea was simple. Dr. Lyons desired for the square to be a place to gather and shop for the citizens and visitors of Knoxville.  No one could have predicted how successful Market Square would become though. [2]


At almost any time of the day, Market Square is full of activity as people from all over Knoxville enjoy this miniature "city within a city."

Today, Market Square has exceeded all original expectations.  From the number of new businesses that have found a home in the square to the countless numbers of individuals who venture into the square every day to eat, shop, or simply enjoy the day, it is truly a thriving cultural center. In the 90s, almost no one would venture downtown, and specifically to the ghost town that was Market Square.  Now, one would be hard-pressed to find a day where there is under 100 people walking, eating, or enjoying the miniature community Market Square has become.

The outdoor patios provide not only a pleasant atmosphere in which to eat and enjoy the weather, but they also provide a great view for any sort of performance that might be occurring in Market Square

Market Square has been quite influential to the downtown district of Knoxville as a whole.  “It has sort of become the living room for the city,” Dr. William Lyons said. [2] This perception particularly derives from the many people who simply go to the square to enjoy the atmosphere and spend some free time out of their day.  Not only has Market Square become a place to eat or shop, but it is now a place to unwind, de-stress, and simply enjoy the day.

Restaurants on the western side of Market Square.

It is not the local populace that enjoys Market Square; the local businesses and economy benefit as well.  Part of this is due to the fact that many potential customers find themselves in the square daily.  Many restaurants and shops love the area and find it is a great atmosphere to run a business and a healthy environment in which these businesses thrive. [2]

A selection of shops lining the eastern side of Market Square.


Market Square's stage is the frequent site of musical artists, shows, and events.

The “stage is set” for performance in Market Square.  The open center of the square in combination with the stage and patios lining the edges almost cry out for performance.  The open stage at the front of the square is frequently used by musicians and artists to showcase their talents.  The architecture of the buildings in the pedestrian mall illustrates 19th century architecture in an effort to preserve history, but in an aesthetically pleasing way.  Walter Benjamin’s concept of the flâneur, as presented in his article, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” is described as one who wonders throughout a city as a sightseer without any particular destination in mind. [5] Market Square would be home to one such as the flâneur.  Its design is appealing and is displayed each day by the massive amounts of people and flâneurs who find themselves spending their day here.  Simply wondering somewhat aimlessly about the square is a pleasing experience.

The architecture and scenery of Market Square is captivating and almost begs one to simply sit and stay for a while.

One of the most popular events that occurs every year in Market Square is the Sundown In The City music festival.  This year, it started Thursday, April 30, and continues every Thursday night until June 17.  This concert series is free for the general public and always draws a very large crowd.  The festival has drawn in over 10,000 people at a time in its recent history and continues to be a major cultural even in Knoxville and East Tennessee.

Advertisement for the Sundown In The City music festival.

The Sundown In The City music festival is just one of many events and performances that take advantage of the natural (and intentional) stage that is Market Square.  Recently, a chariot race sponsored by a renowned energy drink-producing company took place where participants from all over Tennessee came to race hand-crafted chariots against one another.  This event had a huge turnout, and once again Market Square was employed as a place of performance.  On a simpler scale, one can travel to this area at almost any time of the day and find multiple musicians or artists performing for the general public.  Market Square exudes theatre and performance and the public answers this call.

This year's Sundown In The City Musical Festival was a big hit.

–Adam Roddy


[1]—Neely, Jack. Market Square: a History of the Most Democratic Place on Earth. [Knoxville, TN]: Market Square District Association, 2009. Print.

[2]—Conversation with Dr. William Lyons, Senior Director of the Department of Policy & Communications for Bill Haslam, Mayor of Knoxville, TN



[5]—Benjamin, Walter. “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” The Arcades Project (1939): 21-22

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