The Lost L&N: Remembering a Forgotten Tavern From Downtown’s Darker Years

Doctor,

When I lived in Knoxville in the mid- to late-1970s, the pre-World’s Fair years, there was a great restaurant/bar called the L&N, where I had my first egg roll. Not to be confused with the much larger L&N Depot, which was transformed by the fair, the fine establishment I’m referring to was up on a hill I think near the Old City Hall on Summit Hill. I’ve tried to find the site but my guess is it was taken down as part of the downtown connector tunnel? Any help you can offer on its years in business and exact location?

Thanks,

Rick Locker

My Dear Mr. Locker:

We too have fond memories of the L&N, from that period well over 30 years ago. Its fate was ironic. Around 1980, it was the only place open in that benighted part of town, the life of that neighborhood’s party. In 1982, it was adjacent to the World’s Fair’s “Folklife Festival,” a daily presentation of acoustic country and blues for small audiences, and probably the lowest-key part of the six-month exposition. During that strange time, the L&N Hotel often seemed like a wallflower, left out of the bright, noisy fun. 

To clarify for those who might be confused, the main L&N station is the big, elaborate 1905 red-brick-and-marble building that’s still standing—more than that, handsomely renovated and now the home of the STEM Academy. It housed a series of restaurants from 1982 until sometime early in our own century. But that’s not what we’re talking about.

Near the L&N station is the old L&N freight depot, which housed restaurants, too, even more recently, the Butcher Shop, which closed several years ago. That’s not what we’re talking about, either.

You’re remembering the establishment that was in the old L&N Hotel, at what was then considered 723 Western Avenue. It was across Western, now called Summit Hill Drive, from the old station. It was near the Foundry, and tall enough to be a presence on the viaduct—but it was not really close to the Old City Hall (that is, what’s now LMU Law School). The L&N Hotel was a few hundred feet down the hill, and across Henley to the west.

It was a weatherbeaten, rectangular brick building, interesting to look at if not beautiful. Hard to picture today, it was the L&N’s railroad hostelry, though not a very big building, by hotel standards. The several hotels near the Southern station were much larger and fancier. Although the L&N Hotel was never an architectural icon, it might be called one of Knoxville’s first preservationist conversions of the modern era.

As a latter-day attraction, sometimes listed as the “L&N Hotel Tavern & Restaurant,” it was a sunny, offbeat sort of place, existing a little bit outside of the usual orbits, a little bohemian, a little scruffy Knoxvillian, a sort of freer-wheeling version of the then-voguish fern bar. It was a resort for college students who wanted to go somewhere their parents had not heard about. It was kind of off the grid, not downtown exactly, but not Fort Sanders either. It was legal, as far as we know, but most of its clientele would have been happy about patronizing it if it weren’t.

Its original proprietors were named Dan Reinhardt and Ching Yu. The former was known for his woodwork and interior architecture  (Reinhardt was later half of Zeke & Dan’s, the Fourth & Gill institution which evolved, indirectly, into Sassy Ann’s); the latter was known for his cuisine. The L&N’s offbeat menu included distinctive Chinese food, but also “spiders,” sweet-potato fries that were unlike anyone else’s.

It was not exactly on a hill, but sort of beside one. Its foundation was down on the bottomland. It was older than the viaduct, so most of the building was below the level of the viaduct. But there was an embankment in back, with a sloping gravel parking lot, and you more or less entered the building on its top floor. It went through a couple of articulations, but we remember one that had some sort of unusual rustic theme, with a unique chandelier of some sort.

It’s interesting to remember that for most of the time the L&N Hotel was thriving as a restaurant, the big L&N station across the road was an abandoned hulk.

The L&N Hotel is one of several reasons we’re hesitant to join in the bandwagon opinion that downtown was “dead” in those days, as people are fond of saying. On a good night, the L&N was a good deal of fun. But you had to know about it.

We don’t remember the place after the fair, but city directories indicate the “L&N Hotel Restaurant and Lounge” was still in business until 1983, whereupon it became something with the touristy-sounding name of “Smoky Mountain Country Restaurant and Lounge,” but only for a short time. The building at 723 Western Avenue was listed as empty in 1985, and in 1990 first appears the chilling phrase, “torn down.”

It’s interesting to imagine what would have become of it if the building had survived just a few more years.

Your query reminded us of a much-older one that we haven’t yet been able to answer:

Dear Doc Knox:

In the early 1980s, there was a piano player named Russell who played upstairs in the Copper Cellar (above the entrance) and occasionally at the L&N Bar, across from the depot. We were friends—however, his last name I can’t remember. Can you find out his name?

David Kerr

Dear Mr. Kerr:

We apologize for the four-year delay. There should be a register for piano players of the past, so we can just look them up. We apparently didn’t come on the right nights to meet the pianist. We’ve confirmed through some old jazzhounds that it did indeed employ one, at times at least. Maybe someone out there remembers.

Yr. Obt. Svt.,

Dr. Z. Heraclitus Knox, L.N.N.

What historical mysteries have you that need solving? Send them (one at a time) to the doctor in care of editor@metropulse.com.

 

Did Knoxville Have a “Slave Cemetery,” or is it a Mislabeled Google Map?

Dear Doc:

Today, while exploring the area via Google Earth, I came across a spot on marked “Slave Cemetery.” It was at the end of a dead-end road called Ventis Lane in the Heiskell/Powell area. The reason I found it odd is because I didn’t think this was ever a particularly wealthy enough area to have slave owners. I didn’t know if there was more you could tell us about this or not.

Thanks,

Eric Savage

My Dear Mr. Savage:

If by this area you mean Knox County, you may have been victim of an oversimplification. The Knoxville area, and East Tennessee in general, had fewer slaves per capita than many–perhaps most–parts of the South did. There are several reasons for this fact, a large one being that the topography does not lend itself to large plantations of the sort that employed hundreds of slaves at once, as did some parts of the broad and flatter Deep South.

That said, there are two facts that are contrary to assumptions we often hear.

1. Knox County, 150-200 years ago, was home to dozens of people who would be considered, by any Tennessee measure, wealthy. Many of the early landowners, including those in the Heiskell/Powell area, were large landowners and ran productive farms or plantations.

2. You didn’t have to be wealthy to own slaves. Slaves weren’t cheap, but, adjusted for inflation, probably less expensive than an automobile today. Thousands of Tennessee families owned just one or two.

So even if the Knoxville area’s slave ownership was small by South Carolina or Alabama standards, Knox County did have slaves, hundreds of them. It’s estimated that at the time of the Civil War, over 4,000 slaves lived in Knox County. Many of them worked on farms, but a large number of them were concentrated in the city, working as cooks, house servants, chauffeurs.

Google Maps is wonderful, but a quick caveat: What you find there is not always strictly true in our familiar world. For some months or years, that site indicated an “airport” at the corner of Church and State. We walked around the corner to check if anything about First Presbyterian’s old corner had changed since the last time we’d been by there.

Z. Heraclitus Knox

Dear Dr. Knox:

Along the sidewalk on Walnut between Vine and Cafego, there is a large slab of what appears to be marble. Right now it serves solely as the boundary of the Eagles Club parking lot. I suspect it was once a step to something much grander. Was it?

Sincerely,

Cary Wiedman

My Dear Cary:

We welcomed this opportunity to take a stroll on a blustery January afternoon. The block indicated is just across Walnut Street from the side of the 1880s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. On the north side of Summit Hill Drive, Walnut Street is very quiet. Cafego Street, surely named for 1930s Vol hero George “Bad News” Cafego–the popular player was also know as “the Hurryin’ Hungarian”–is the last of several names for that street extending a block or so west of Walnut.

What we saw were six marble or limestone plinths lining the sidewalk, end to end, that obviously predate the parking lot, in general and in specific. Big chunks of stone like this, not necessarily steps, were often used as dignified retaining walls around urban lawns, especially in the late 19th century. You see them in Fourth and Gill and Fort Sanders. It looks like this one may once have included an iron fence anchored into it. And it’s possible that they’ve been moved since their original placement.

The crest of what was long called Summit Hill, and before that Gallows Hill, was mostly residential. It wasn’t necessarily a wealthy neighborhood, but a comfortable one.

That block remained entirely residential until the 1920s, when the Indestructible Mosaic and Tile Works opened there. After several decades on the northern end of Walnut Street, that place, eventually known as the John Beretta Tile Co., moved to Sutherland Avenue.

Was it something much grander? We know for certain that anything is much grander than a surface parking lot. In this case, it may have been so grand it was arguably majestic, if we can assume there was any truth in advertising concerning the Majestic Flats, an apartment building near that site about 100 years ago.

Yr. Obt. Svt.

Z. Heraclitus Knox

Send your query of historic proportions to: editor@metropulse.com.

Did Knoxville Have a “Slave Cemetery,” or is it a Mislabeled Google Map?

Dear Doc:

Today, while exploring the area via Google Earth, I came across a spot on marked “Slave Cemetery.” It was at the end of a dead-end road called Ventis Lane in the Heiskell/Powell area. The reason I found it odd is because I didn’t think this was ever a particularly wealthy enough area to have slave owners. I didn’t know if there was more you could tell us about this or not.

Thanks,

Eric Savage

My Dear Mr. Savage:

If by this area you mean Knox County, you may have been victim of an oversimplification. The Knoxville area, and East Tennessee in general, had fewer slaves per capita than many–perhaps most–parts of the South did. There are several reasons for this fact, a large one being that the topography does not lend itself to large plantations of the sort that employed hundreds of slaves at once, as did some parts of the broad and flatter Deep South.

That said, there are two facts that are contrary to assumptions we often hear.

1. Knox County, 150-200 years ago, was home to dozens of people who would be considered, by any Tennessee measure, wealthy. Many of the early landowners, including those in the Heiskell/Powell area, were large landowners and ran productive farms or plantations.

2. You didn’t have to be wealthy to own slaves. Slaves weren’t cheap, but, adjusted for inflation, probably less expensive than an automobile today. Thousands of Tennessee families owned just one or two.

So even if the Knoxville area’s slave ownership was small by South Carolina or Alabama standards, Knox County did have slaves, hundreds of them. It’s estimated that at the time of the Civil War, over 4,000 slaves lived in Knox County. Many of them worked on farms, but a large number of them were concentrated in the city, working as cooks, house servants, chauffeurs.

Google Maps is wonderful, but a quick caveat: What you find there is not always strictly true in our familiar world. For some months or years, that site indicated an “airport” at the corner of Church and State. We walked around the corner to check if anything about First Presbyterian’s old corner had changed since the last time we’d been by there.

Z. Heraclitus Knox

Dear Dr. Knox:

Along the sidewalk on Walnut between Vine and Cafego, there is a large slab of what appears to be marble. Right now it serves solely as the boundary of the Eagles Club parking lot. I suspect it was once a step to something much grander. Was it?

Sincerely,

Cary Wiedman

My Dear Cary:

We welcomed this opportunity to take a stroll on a blustery January afternoon. The block indicated is just across Walnut Street from the side of the 1880s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. On the north side of Summit Hill Drive, Walnut Street is very quiet. Cafego Street, surely named for 1930s Vol hero George “Bad News” Cafego–the popular player was also know as “the Hurryin’ Hungarian”–is the last of several names for that street extending a block or so west of Walnut.

What we saw were six marble or limestone plinths lining the sidewalk, end to end, that obviously predate the parking lot, in general and in specific. Big chunks of stone like this, not necessarily steps, were often used as dignified retaining walls around urban lawns, especially in the late 19th century. You see them in Fourth and Gill and Fort Sanders. It looks like this one may once have included an iron fence anchored into it. And it’s possible that they’ve been moved since their original placement.

The crest of what was long called Summit Hill, and before that Gallows Hill, was mostly residential. It wasn’t necessarily a wealthy neighborhood, but a comfortable one.

That block remained entirely residential until the 1920s, when the Indestructible Mosaic and Tile Works opened there. After several decades on the northern end of Walnut Street, that place, eventually known as the John Beretta Tile Co., moved to Sutherland Avenue.

Was it something much grander? We know for certain that anything is much grander than a surface parking lot. In this case, it may have been so grand it was arguably majestic, if we can assume there was any truth in advertising concerning the Majestic Flats, an apartment building near that site about 100 years ago.

Yr. Obt. Svt.

Z. Heraclitus Knox

Send your query of historic proportions to: editor@metropulse.com.

Come one, come all! Dr. Knox answers your questions regarding the history of the Knoxville metropolis.