Last week when I was in Knoxville, I decided to go exploring in an area of town that is less well known. It’s an area known as Mechanicsville. I’ve visited this neighborhood before after my coworker from UPS had mentioned an abandoned school on a hill. That school is the former Rule High school (or so it says on the wall of a building there).
For those who have not visited the area, it’s located on the northwest side of the city, and is not frequently traveled by nearby residents or tourists. In fact, when I asked some of my local friends if they’d ever been there most had never even heard of it.
I think the area is generally avoided because it is an impoverished community. Many of the residents live in ‘project’ neighborhoods of run-down homes with barred windows and deteriorating slums. Essentially, there isn’t much within its boundaries to draw a tourist.
It’s in these neighborhoods however that I find myself filled with wonder. I wonder about the history of the area, and how it came to be so destitute. I wonder about the lives of the people there, and imagine the neighborhood in its heyday. As a photographer finding an abandoned space is like finding a hidden gem. And so, I was simply driving down a street that ends on the hipster side of town when I found what appeared to be an abandoned fortress engulfed in kudzu vines. To me it was the epitome of a fairytale, like a scene out of the secret garden or the castle asleep for one hundred years.
Upon approaching there were a number of care takers mowing the front lawns, and the old buildings seemed somewhat maintained. I asked one of the groundskeepers about the place and he told me it used to be a college.
I had found Knoxville College. The website for Knoxville College states :
‘Knoxville College was founded in 1875 as part of the missionary effort of the United Presbyterian Church of North America to promote religious, moral, and educational leadership among the freed men and women. Its mission today is a direct outgrowth of the purpose of its founding.
Knoxville College opened as a normal school for the training of teachers, but was designated a college in 1877.’
I asked the caretaker if he’d mind if I took a stroll around the campus, and he suggested that it would be ok, but to be very careful, to stay on the road, and to not enter the buildings as he’d already seen three vagrants exiting the buildings in the few hours he’d been working.
So, with his permission I decided to stroll down memory lane.
What is most fascinating about this abandoned campus is how quickly it has deteriorated. As I had finished my round of the campus, a security guard approached me from a vehicle saying “this is private property, you’re trespassing.”
He was amiable enough though and didn’t try to press charges or force me to leave. I told him I’d asked the maintenance crew if I could wander about, and he told me that they had ‘no authority.’ So in talking with him I learned that the college grounds were maintained by the alumni association. It was only recently abandoned in 2013. In fact, parts of the campus, including the library and a few residence halls and buildings remained in operation while other parts of the campus were in in a state of disrepair.
Another kid who was also wandering the grounds told me about the recent history of fires and vandalism. He’d visited the college while it was still in operation. He’d seen first hand the rapid deterioration from an active campus, to college that had lost its accreditation in the early 2000s, to a campus that dwindled and its ceased to exist. In its final years of operation the college had been desperately reaching out to international students who came to the college somewhat unaware of the current conditions of the campus. Some students were living in dormitories that had been condemned.
Eventually the campus was forced close its doors due to lack of enrollment and funding to keep its buildings up to code. Its unfortunate because it is a space that touched the lives of many. Dr Martin Luther King Junior even gave the commencement speech in 1961, inspiring young graduates as they embarked on their professional lives.
Today, the alumni association still has hopes for the repair of parts of the college, but it actively denies access to the grounds. So, even though I managed to snap a few pics, I cannot encourage the practice by other curious travelers and photographers.