Excavations at 40KN334 Downtown Knoxville, Tennessee

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 24

Katherine Wright
Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research

In June and July 2013, Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research (TVAR), under contract with Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), conducted Phase III data recovery excavations at 40KN334, a site just to the west of present day Market Square  in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. During the course of this project, TVAR conducted both historical document research and archaeological investigations with the purpose of learning more about the early settlement of Knoxville, urban domestic site use, and change in the transition from an agriculturally-based to an industrially-based economy.


1890 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of the project area.

Although Knoxville was first settled in the early 1780s, the project area lies outside of the original Knoxville city plan. By 1890, the project area featured seven individual residences, a portion of an eighth residence (Kern House), and a boarding house known as “the Windsor.” In addition, the project area extends into a portion of a lot I refer to here as “the Mission Home” and later the site of Roberts Flats.

The Windsor Hotel first opened its doors in early 1889 and was a three-story structure “furnished in the most modern style,” according to a local paper. The building featured two store rooms on its first story and flats on the upper stories. During its lifetime, the building housed a dressmaker’s shop, a doctors’ office, a drug store, a lighting company, and the meeting hall for Unitarian church service, among other things.

The Mission Home, founded by Reverend  John R. Lauritzen, a German Lutheran minister, and his wife Louisa S., opened on June 18, 1890 as a refuge for homeless women and children, as well as those attempting to leave prostitution. In exchange, the women were required to convert to Christianity and participate in washing and sewing work. The building also served as a detention center for women convicted of city violations such as prostitution and drunkenness. To accommodate more women, the Mission Home relocated in 1892 and the building was razed in order to build Roberts Flats.

Constructed ca. 1900, Roberts Flats is named after Reuben Z. Roberts, who acquired the building lot from Mary J. Askin in 1888. The brick apartment building consisted of three stories and a basement.  At its inception, Roberts Flats contained four units. It later grew to contain 29 units by the 1950s. The building housed between 13 and 36 tenants who generally held working-class jobs such as bookkeeper, traveling salesman, sign painter and watchmaker. The building was razed in 1981.

Kern, his wife Henrietta, and their 11 children moved into the Kern House (within the project area) in 1872. It was a two-story Italianate residence with several outbuildings, such as two stables and a carriage house. The house was razed in 1937.


The Kern House ca. 1880.

Peter Kern was a former mayor of Knoxville and arguably one of Knoxville’s most influential businessmen during the latter half of the nineteenth century. His family legacy continues, as the Kern Bakery still has a prominent presence in East Tennessee. Kern was born in 1835 near Heidelberg, Germany, and immigrated to the United States in 1854. When the Civil War broke out, he joined the Confederate Army and was later wounded in battle. Sometime between August 1864 and April 1865, Kern was arrested in Knoxville by the occupying Union troops and was forced to remain there until the war ended. He began selling cookies to Union troops toward the end of the war, which eventually lead to the establishment of the extremely successful Peter Kern Company. In 1875, the Kern Building was constructed on the southwest corner of Market Square, which still stands today.


Foundation walls of Roberts Flats during excavation

During excavations at 40KN334, brick  walkways, foundation walls, and thousands of artifacts were uncovered. Based on the recovery of creamware, pearlware, dark olive green glass, free-blown bottles, cut nails, and thin flat glass, the eastern portion of the site is the oldest, perhaps dating as early as the 1820s.  Although the Mission Home is first seen on a map in 1871, the artifacts recovered during excavations point to an earlier construction.  Furthermore, a number of children-related artifacts, such as marbles, slate writing tablets, and porcelain doll parts, were recovered from the Mission Home area.

Following Reconstruction, Knoxville began experiencing growth and industrial and commercial development. The older building in the eastern area of the site was razed and replaced by the Kern House. The presence of a successful politician and businessman supports the archaeological findings, such as a higher percentage of fine earthenware and cut glass, and indicates that the neighborhood inhabitants belonged to more affluent classes. There was growth in the Knoxville housing industry as the local population increased. The establishment of public utilities undoubtedly facilitated turn-of-the-century developments of apartment complexes like Roberts Flats in the western portion of the site to meet some of the growing demand for housing.


Bottles: a, Bromo-Seltzer Emerson Drug Company; b, Buckeye Pile Ointment; c, Cheesebrough M.F.C.Co. Vaseline; d, Hood’s Sarsaparilla C.I. Hood & Co.; e, Carter’s Ink; f, Dr. King’s New Discovery for Consumption; g, Cher O soda

In general, it appears that this block of Knoxville started out as a middle- to lower-upper class neighborhood in the mid-nineteenth century as evidenced by the artifact assemblages from Mission Home and excavation unit contexts.  This is further supported by Peter Kern establishing his residence within the block.  Sometime around the turn of the century the dynamics of the block began to change as seen in historic documentation describing the residents of the block as primarily boarders and immigrants. The final transition occurred with a predominance of commercial uses of structures within the block.