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One More Loss

A eulogy for the Pickle Mansion

by Jack Neely

Historic buildings are never built. They're only lost. Our stock of historic buildings dwindles predictably, through demolition, neglect, or fire. You start to think that it's inevitable that we'll lose them all.

No matter what else we lose, one of the most-mourned losses of the summer of 2003 will be the old brick mansion on Clinch Avenue in Fort Sanders, gutted by fire of suspicious origin two weeks ago. It was one of the grandest old dames of the Fort, ensconced in trees in the middle of the high side of the block between 16th and 17th: it's known for its high-Victorian style: three stories with porches and a domed turret. People often passed it without noticing how grand it was, its metal dome somewhere up in the green leaves.

Today it stands as an empty brick hulk, its third floor and dome altogether gone, and much of the rest of it gutted, with hasty plywood and No Trespassing signs over what remains of the windows.

Known by several names over the years, it's best known as the Pickle Mansion. The fact that it's known by that name proves that someone cared enough about the place to do some homework.

It got its name from Gen. George Wesley Pickle. Around 1899, he built the house. He lived here, and died here. Born in the Riverdale community of East Knox County, Pickle lost his father when he was young. When civil war broke out, George's neighbors, and his guardian, were Unionists, but the strong-willed teenager enlisted with the Confederate infantry, as a private. He didn't see much action. He was captured in Kentucky, and spent the balance of the war cooling his heels in a Northern prison camp. That was the extent of Gen. Pickle's military service.

"He returned home broken in health," they said, but he recovered: apparently bearing little animosity for the North, because he soon found himself in New Jersey, attending school at Princeton. He later studied law with future Sen. Daniel Voorhees of Indiana. He returned home, practicing law in Sevierville, Newport, and Dandridge, where he tarried longest, marrying a local girl named Minnie. He also developed a reputation as a brilliant courtroom prosecutor. In 1886, the Democrat was elected state attorney general.

That's how he was known as Gen. Pickle. Attorney generals of the era were known by that high-ranking honorific. In 1892 he turned in what fellow attorneys would later call "a remarkable performance...a masterpiece" before the state supreme court in securing a death-penalty conviction in a famous Memphis murder case, in which one prominent lawyer was accused of murdering another. Pickle also represented Tennessee in a sticky border dispute with Virginia.

He moved to Knoxville in the early 1890s and lived downtown for a time, boarding with his wife on Church Avenue while he built his law practice. The three-story Pickle & Turner Building stood on Market Street, across from the Custom House.

Around 1899, Pickle built his large house on what was then the westernmost fringe of Knoxville. There were only two houses on the block. The neighborhood ended at 17th, then called 9th Street. The remains of the old earthen Union fort, eroded by about 36 years, were still right there.

No one then knew this neighborhood as "Fort Sanders." It was "West Knoxville," or, to the stylish, "West End." Some development-minded Knoxvillians found the remains of the fort, scars of a déclassé war many wanted to forget, a little embarrassing. But Gen. Pickle, the Confederate veteran, chose to honor the Union fort, named for Union Gen. William P.Sanders, which once contained the future site of his mansion. In honor of the briefly famous citadel which Pickle's fellow Confederates had died trying to seize, he called his house Fort Sanders Hall.

George and Minnie were 50ish and childless when they moved in, but soon adopted a daughter they named Minnie. George, Minnie, and Minnie lived in their big house for almost 20 years. He retired as attorney general in 1902, but kept up his law firm, which expanded to Pickle, Turner, Kennerly, and Cates. They were involved in some interesting cases, including a posse-reward dispute concerning a celebrated prisoner named Harvey Logan.

At 70, bad health forced Gen. Pickle to quit practicing. He died here in the house in the middle of a night in April, 1917, as the papers reported about U-boats and aerial combat and the sudden fact that America was once again at war. His funeral the next day, here in Fort Sanders Hall, drew the top echelons of Tennessee jurisprudence. Among Gen. Pickle's pallbearers were former Mayor Sam Heiskell, Judge T.A.R. Nelson, and Judge Edward Terry Sanford, soon to take his place on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Minnie remained for only a few years until the younger Minnie married and moved to Tampa; her aging mother soon joined her. The neighborhood changed after World War I. For some years, the family of banker Frank Weiss lived in the house, sometimes renting parts of it to others. In the late '20s it became the Delta Tau Delta house, then, in the '30s, a quadruplex apartment building known by about 1940 as the Westover. Though not always well kept by its owners, the house has served as an apartment building of an especially prestigious sort, especially among the writers and musicians who have been inspired to call the place home in recent decades.

Its fate is unclear; most are pessimistic. Its owners, Brown, Brown, and West, specialize in cheap student apartments, and don't have a reputation for renovating historic buildings. Their detractors doubt the real-estate firm has any interest in rebuilding the house.

I don't want to pre-judge them. But for Fort Sanders, and preservation, this is a hard loss.

Maybe we'll lose them all. You only wish we could lose them more slowly.

July 10, 2003 * Vol. 13, No. 28
© 2003 Metro Pulse