Downtown Knoxville looks different from most reviving downtowns. Part of it’s the scale. These streets are narrow. Especially on Gay Street, the ratio of building height to street width is striking. Even Market Square isn’t square at all, but an oblong rectangle. Part of it’s the topography. Most of downtown Knoxville is on top of a steep bluff. Some downtown streets require downshifting. Several buildings have useful space, with windows, three floors below the street level. And it’s all very concentrated. Everything–the historic theaters, the county, state, and federal courthouses, city and county government, all the banks, the cinema complex, 50-odd restaurants and bars, five churches, two public libraries, a museum, about eight hotels, and perhaps 3,000 residence–are in the same half-square mile patch.
Its peculiarities reflect its history. Downtown Knoxville is on exactly the same street grid laid out in 1791. When most buildings were only two stories tall, and most commuters were pedestrians, these streets seemed sufficiently broad. And only in the early 1790s did it seem prudent to put a capital city on top of a steep hill, for defense against imposing attacks. Of course, altitude also eliminated the risk of flooding, an annual reality across much of the Tennessee Valley until a network of TVA dams was completed, over 75 years ago.
That hilltop spot between Clinch Avenue and the river that was once the capital of Tennessee is the oldest part of Knoxville. Very little remains from the capital era, 1791 to 1818. Overlooking the river is Blount Mansion, just off Gay Street on West Hill Avenue. Reputedly the first frame house ever built west of the Appalachians, it’s the rare survivor of the era when Knoxville was an administrative center. Just east of there is the reconstruction of James White’s Fort.