Knoxville: Past and Present Revealed

by Kathie Farnell

Knoxville, in the heart of East Tennessee, offers visitors a chance to experience history, arts and culture in a picturesque setting. Located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the city is home to University of Tennessee and to a vibrant music scene.

The area’s best kept secret, however, lies a few miles outside the city. Oak Ridge, Tennessee, did not officially exist until years after its founding. In the opening days of World War Two, it was created to house part of the United States’ top-secret Manhattan atomic project. The gated city of more than seventy-five thousand did not appear on any map and was off-limits to the general public until after the war.

Today the American Museum of Science and Energy tells the Oak Ridge story, complete with exhibits on how the atomic scientists, soldiers and other residents lived and worked. On the third Friday and Saturday in June, the Secret City Festival brings in nationally-known performers and features vintage World War Two reenactments, athletic events and lots of food. Summer camps allow kids to enjoy adventures with electricity, robots, rockets, geology, and fossils among other entertaining options.

Knoxville itself is a mecca for music fans. In addition to clubs and concerts, listeners can check out the Blue Plate Special served up weekdays at the downtown Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corporation and Visitors Center. This live, traditional musical performance airs on radio station WDVX and has been a hit with visitors since its 2005 introduction. The center’s snack bar caters to those who want food with their music.

Other unusual music venues include two venerable theatres, the Tennessee and the Bijou. The Tennessee, which is the state’s official theater, was built in the 1920s during the Golden Age of movie palaces, and is a vision in the Spanish-Moorish style, complete with crystal chandeliers, mood lighting, red-and-gold Art Deco motifs and a mighty Wurlitzer organ that rises majestically on cue from the orchestra pit.

The Bijou, Knoxville’s fourth oldest building, was opened in 1907 as a vaudeville theater and shares a site with a building dating from 1817. Today it’s home to concerts, plays, opera and special events, and is reliably reported to be seriously haunted.

Most popular musical draw in town is “Sundown in the City,” the Thursday night concert series which runs for twelve weeks from mid-April through June. Literally thousands of concertgoers converge weekly on the downtown Market Square District, home of Knoxville’s hippest shops.

The most unusual music venue, however, may be the “Alive after Five” concert series at the Knoxville Museum of Art. Performances featuring everything from world blues to bluegrass take place on select Fridays in the Museum’s Great Hall and offer food catered by local eateries as well as a cash bar and an opportunity to take in the Museum’s collection of contemporary art.

Knoxville’s past is on view at the East Tennessee History Center. Currently undergoing a $20 million renovation and expansion, the facility is home to the East Tennessee Historical Society, Knox County Archives and the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection, a major genealogy research facility. Visitors may be more impressed with the original artwork by regional artists and by Davy Crockett’s original rifle, “Old Betsy,” on prominent display.

In the nearby community of Norris, the Museum of Appalachia’s 65 acres include dozens of authentic log cabins and other structures gathered from all over the region by founder John Rice Irwin. The idyllic setting is the site of festivals including the Fourth of July “anvil shoot,” an ancestor of the fireworks display which uses black powder to blast an anvil skyward, and to the Tennessee Fall Homecoming which brings hundreds of musicians, artisans and demonstrators of pioneer skills to the area. If all this history makes you hungry, the Museum’s snack bar serves an appealing array of down-home food including desserts.

Back in the heart of Knoxville, restaurants serve up everything from barbeque to sushi. Buddy’s Bar-B-Q has been a favorite since its 1972 opening. Bistro at the Bijou features upscale Southern regional cuisine complete with fabulous desserts. In the Market Square area, Market Square Kitchen specializes in homemade soups, salads and sandwiches, while The Tomato Head offers gourmet pizza. Nearby Nama features sushi and Asian fusion cuisine, accompanied by an impressive list of sakes.

The downtown area is a convenient headquarters for visitors. The recently-opened Hampton Inn on West Main Street has gone upscale with plush bedding, a fitness center and large-screen television.

Knoxville, located in east Tennessee at the crossroads of Interstates I-75, I-40 and I-81, is served with more than 120 daily flights by Northwest Air and other airlines. For more information, check the website at or call the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corporation at 1-800-727-8045.

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