Family members, neighbors and fans plea to save iconic Neyland/Briscoe home, which is scheduled for demolition by the University of Tennessee
2111 Terrace Ave. is an address that holds a lot of history in Knoxville.
That site features the house where Gen. Robert Neyland, legendary Tennessee football head coach, lived from 1927-1929. It also was the residence for Knoxville artist Russell Briscoe for 30 years after Neyland called it home. Briscoe began painting in 1957, detailing the city’s history with oil paints, brushes and an easel he set up in the family room.
The University of Tennessee has owned the house on Terrace Avenue since 1964, but it has sat vacant for nearly two years. UT’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety occupied the house until May 2016, when it relocated the department to East Stadium Hall along Tee Martin Drive.
UT has set a time frame for the house to be demolished soon.
Tyra Haag, director of media relations for UT, says that “an exact date has not been set to take down 2111 Terrace Ave.” and that “[the university has] been working with the nearby homeowner to address any concerns related to the demolition plans and will continue to communicate plans with them moving forward.”
Haag also says that a guideline has been followed in determining the house’s fate.
“As with all properties older than 50 years old, we must follow a state process that requires us to assess the significance of the structure, consult with the Tennessee Historical Commission (THC) and subsequently receive approval of the State Building Commission (SBC) for the demolition,” she says. “In late July 2016, the SBC approved the demolition. It’s just not possible to renovate the home due to excessive costs. And because of its condition, no one else can be assigned to the building.
“Several UT buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, including Ayres Hall and the Tyson Alumni House. Both have significant historical and architectural value and are used as a classroom, administrative office and alumni gathering and service space and will be for the long term. A key goal in our master plan is to optimize use of our existing land to accommodate the growing needs of our campus within our institutional zone, recognizing the land constraints we have with the Tennessee River, major highways, downtown and the Fort Sanders neighborhood and Cumberland Avenue business district.”
Neighbors with properties surrounding the Neyland/Briscoe house have been outspoken on the topic, saying that saving the historic landmark is their unanimous consensus. One of the neighbors, James Mason, would like to see the house preserved.
“Of course, the Neyland/Briscoe house has history for both the city and UT,” he says. “UT tends to ignore groups like Knox Heritage that are trying to preserve the history of the city. UT has torn down many of the houses in this neighborhood, some of which were really fine houses.”
Mason says that UT could follow a path like what in-state, private university Vanderbilt takes with regard to preserving buildings.
“They like to tear down their historic buildings on UT’s campus, such as Estabrook Hall,” he says. “In contrast, Vanderbilt took their oldest engineering building, where I used to work as a lab technician, and completely refurbished it to be their graduate school of management.”
Mason continues, describing the current condition of the house at 2111 Terrace Ave.
“I am not surprised they want to take down the Neyland/Briscoe house,” he says. “They have deliberately neglected it, doing things like letting the roof leak until they had mold problems. It has a new roof now because insurance paid for it after the 2011 hail storm. The house, in its current condition, does not look like much architecturally, but the more you study it, the better it seems. There are some unusual features, like the tower room on the northeast corner. It is a lot bigger inside than it looks from the street.”
Jack Neely, local author and historian, executive director of the Knoxville History Project and a leading proponent of preservation efforts around the area, discusses the matter of keeping and maintaining the house moving forward, as well as honoring its history.
“The house was just a private residence for many years, unassociated with UT at all,” he says. “The Russell Briscoe family lived there for about 30 years after Neyland. Briscoe was an insurance executive who while he lived there taught himself to paint and became better known – beloved by some – as an artist depicting scenes from local history.”
On the campus of the University of Alabama, there is a museum dedicated to legendary coach/player Bear Bryant. An average of 40,000 visitors experiences the exhibits annually according to the museum, which houses trophies and honors Bryant’s career accomplishments.
Would a museum honoring Neyland, the coach that Bryant never defeated and against whom went 0-5-2 (including Bryant’s tenure at Kentucky from 1946-1953), work at 2111 Terrace Ave.?
“Coach Neyland was one of the most interesting college football coaches in American history, both for his military service in two world wars and for his extraordinarily unusual football strategies,” Neely says. “He is fun to talk about, and his career can still amaze people. There has never been a coach much like him.”
However, Bryant benefited from the exposure television provided in an era that saw the device grow in popularity and affordability, showcasing his talented Alabama teams to a national audience in a coaching career that lasted through the 1982 season. Neyland, whose career took place at a time before games were televised nationally, is revered locally, but a museum of archives, trophies and exhibits could help broaden the general’s appeal by telling his on-field story and by detailing his military background, too.
“Bryant did it in the national-TV era, wearing a distinctive houndstooth hat everybody remembers,” Neely says. “There was a while that we all – those of us over 40, at least – felt as if we knew Bear Bryant well, and Bryant’s era ended 30 years more recently than Neyland’s did.”
Neely says that he would be interested in seeing the house turned into a museum and that others “would be interested enough to visit a Neyland house museum,” as well. It could become a staple of recruiting visits for student-athletes in all sports at the university.
Alex Porter, vice president of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity, also is in favor of turning Neyland’s former house into a museum in order to avoid demolition. Phi Delta Theta’s fraternity house’s backyard, at 913 S. 21st St., adjoins the backyard of 2111 Terrace Ave.
Porter says that he and his fraternity brothers “will do whatever it takes to avoid having Neyland’s house demolished.”
A revival of the house could mean that backing will need to come through a petition. Knoxville resident Greg Minton has spearheaded an effort of gathering signatures to plea for the house’s revival. The petition can be found here.
“2111 Terrace Ave. deserves to be preserved and turned into a museum dedicated to one of the greatest coaches in college football history,” he says.
Former Tennessee Volunteers players also have tackled the issue, discussing the $38,000 project to tear down the house that Neyland lived in for three seasons during which UT recorded an overall record of 26-0-3 and outscored opponents 824-96.
Will Ofenheusle, offensive lineman for the Vols from 1998-2002, says, “We owe a lot of what we have done as a program to Neyland. It was an amazing thing that he did for our school.”
Ofenheusle continues, saying that Neyland “was ahead of his time, an innovator, and a lot of his legacy gets washed away just because of the time and the years that have passed.”
A museum housed in the same building that the general read the morning paper would change that. The demolition of Neyland’s house also hits home to Jayson Swain, UT wide receiver from 2003-2006.
“Every single game of my career at UT, we recited the game maxims,” he says. “The stadium is named Neyland, and there is a beautiful statue of Neyland in front of [it]. It is just weird not to try to preserve the house where our legendary coach lived. I think a museum would be so great. Before some of the changes to the football complex, there was a space that allowed fans to see the deep history of Tennessee football, but that is not here anymore. It would be good to have that around again.”
Philip Jones, a walk-on defensive lineman (1973-1974) under Bill Battle, echoes Swain’s thoughts in that he wants “Neyland’s house saved and turned into the ‘General’s Museum’ with a lot of Vols and … Army history.’”
Robert Neyland, Jr., Gen. Neyland’s son, and his son, Blake Neyland, also would like to see the house saved with an option of turning it into a museum. Both recently discussed the topic in a story with Saturday Down South.
“I am sure to a lot of people – our family, too – that the house has meaning to it,” Neyland, Jr. says in the article. “If they decide to turn it into a museum, it would be a nice idea. That house he lived in was just barely before I was born in 1930, four years after he became the head coach. It would be nice to do something to the house to honor him.”
In the article, Blake Neyland says, “For personal sake, I am nostalgic, and … any connection with the past with him means a lot to me; a museum would mean something to me.”
Reminiscing fondly about her family’s long history in Knoxville, Cathy Briscoe, Russell Briscoe’s granddaughter, says that at least five Briscoe-owned buildings in the Fort Sanders neighborhood and surrounding areas have been subject to demolition over the course of the last 150 years. As a result, she hopes UT places an impetus on preserving this remaining property.
Peruse the catalog printed by the East Tennessee Historical Society in order to complement an ongoing exhibit of Russell Briscoe’s paintings (which is on display on the third floor of the organization’s Gay Street museum), and it becomes apparent why honoring the artist’s legacy is so important to her.
Containing images of nearly all of her grandfather’s known works, the catalog features pastoral scenes depicting Knoxville’s agricultural past mingling with intricately detailed illustrations of specific landmarks downtown, in the Smokies, along Kingston Pike and at various points of interest elsewhere. Russell Briscoe’s talent was obvious and immense, and his paintings shed quite a bit of light on how East Tennessee developed over time.
Cathy Briscoe remains hopeful that initial discussions between UT and parties interested in saving the home (which began on May 8) will yield positive results. She credits the university to being open to exploring all possible channels for action.
“UT is still open to saving it and have explored avenues with Phillip Fulmer for recruiting purposes and with UT Hospital for a Ronald McDonald-type house, but nobody has taken on a firm interest just yet,” she says. “UT is still open for realistic ideas and someone to step up in saving it.”