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Back to the Corner

The unexpected revival of a North Knoxville cultural landmark

by Jack Neely

It was the big news on forlorn North Central last week: there were two new plate-glass windows at the old Corner Lounge. As one fellow sitting at the bar says, by Central Avenue standards, it's enough to earn the Beautification Award.

They also replaced the plumbing and the soggy old carpet, and pulled down the old vinyl siding, revealing the stucco-covered cinderblock, tinged with peeling aqua-green paint.

"I love old bars," says David Smith. Known as "Cosmo," he's the portly bartender who manages the place, which has been closed for four years and wasn't in ideal shape before that.

You might recognize Cosmo. The personable, energetic barkeep worked for years at Judy's on Middlebrook Pike. "This is what I like. I enjoy meeting people. Some people like places like O'Charley's, but I get more out of it when I sit in a little neighborhood bar." That's how he sees the Corner: a retreat where people buy each other beers after work. It's still a small place, 79 people, maximum.

"We spent some time and money to get it to look like this," he says, but they've kept most of the character of the place. Over the bar are two paintings, eccentric scenes of celebrity revelers in caricature: Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Dean Martin, Dolly Parton.

The place shows several generations of remodeling: some walls are knotty pine, some faux brick. A partition separates the bar from the table-and-game area. There's a country jukebox and an electronic dartboard.

Cosmo likes history, and this place has some. It opened up as the Dutch Diner around 1937, was later the S&S Sandwich Shop, then Turner's Cafe. Millworkers and car salesmen would come in here for lunch and after work. By 1942, it was known as the Corner Grill.

How it got that name isn't obvious. Technically it's on the corner of Central and Fulton, but Fulton's nothing but a little access road to Irwin Street, hardly big enough to have a name. City directories indicate that when this place was first known as the "Corner Grill," Fulton Street wasn't even there, and it wasn't on the corner of anything. But this is a neighborhood famous for weird corners. The most confounding corner in Knoxville, the acute intersection of Broadway and Central, is just a loud shout away.

The Corner Grill was a beer joint even in those earliest days. Ernestine Purkey remembers it when she was a girl. "When I walked by there, I thought that place stunk because it smelled like beer." Later, as a restaurant manager of the old Dixieland, she knew the owner of the Corner. When he ran into some sales-tax troubles, she offered to take over the place. "Ernie" Purkey became known for her homemade chili and cheeseburgers. Just a dozen minutes by foot from downtown, her Corner drew lawyers and politicians to mix with the regulars. She says she's seen governors and congressmen in here, but she's too discreet to name them.

It became better known as the Corner Lounge after Ernie stopped serving breakfast, concentrating her efforts on the evening crowd. Beginning in 1969, she had reason to. A handsome young fellow from Fountain City, fresh out of the service, showed up at the Corner and wanted to play piano. Ernie remembers her response: "If he can play, he can play," she said. "I don't want to hear no damn banging."

For the next decade, Con Hunley was an even bigger draw than Ernie's chili. Women came in hopes of meeting Con; men came in hopes of meeting women. On Thursday nights, especially, the small place was packed. "It just grew and grew till I'd have to open the door and let somebody out and somebody in."

She put out a sign over Central, shaped like the lid of a grand piano: Home of Con Hunley. He played there even for a couple years after he signed with Warner Brothers and his songs began climbing the country charts.

Ernie sold the place in 1988; it's been through some bumpy times since then, closed altogether for the last four years. Cosmo and the owner, Mike Moore, are giving it another go. The neighborhood's changed in the last 20 years; several of the old-line businesses have closed, but there seem to be more residents in nearby Old North. And, as one pipe-smoking patron observes, "you don't have the dope, the whores, and the derelicts you used to."

When they talk about the Corner's heritage, old-timers and the new management tend to mention music: not only Con, but the Step Brothers' extravagantly big country band, and synthesized keyboard man Gary Poteet, whom Cosmo calls "the best one-piece show in town." Poteet's triumphal return to the Corner last month drew around 40. But the Corner Lounge is one of Knoxville's most literary bars, partly by merit of its description as the cops' favorite hangout in some of David Hunter's crime novels (it was "Chet's Place" in Jig Saw Man).

It's also one of the few remaining businesses that serve as locations in Cormac McCarthy's classic novel, Suttree, which is set in the early 1950s. The Corner's mentioned as a familiar refuge more than once in the novel; it's where Suttree goes after his daring escape from St. Mary's in stolen orderly's clothes, a "strange apparition to enter the dim of the little tavern...."

The Corner's reopening may be auspicious; the several hundred members of the Cormac McCarthy Society will hold their annual convention in Knoxville next year, to celebrate the silver anniversary of their favorite novel. They'll surely want to pay homage.

March 6, 2003 * Vol. 13, No. 10
© 2003 Metro Pulse