Site Visit By D. Fran Morley
My husband is a fiddle player by trade, and recently, he had to be in Knoxville for a concert. I thought it was a perfect opportunity to go along and check out a new boutique hotel in the city, The Tennessean. It turned out to be a better decision than I expected as not only was The Tennessean perfectly lovely, it was close enough for us to walk to his gig at the Laurel Theater (an old church turned venue that holds around 70 people), and to walk a few short blocks the other direction from all the excitement of downtown Knoxville; it was next to the city’s World’s Fair Park, just across the street from the Knoxville Convention Center, and a couple blocks from the University of Tennessee campus. What more does anyone need? More about the hotel below, but first some background.
The Scruffy Little City That Could
In 1982, Knoxville surprised the world by hosting a World’s Fair. Despite serious doubts from bigger cities (a New York newspaper called Knoxville a “scruffy little city”), it turned out to be the last successful world’s fair event held in the U.S., attracting more than 20 participating countries and over 11 million visitors from around the world. In the years since, the city struggled with what to do with the 70-acre site that adjoins the University of Tennessee campus. Eventually, the 500,000-square foot Knoxville Convention Center was built on the site of the old U.S. Pavilion at the fair, the Knoxville Museum of Art (which offers free admission to permanent and rotating exhibits as well as indoor and outdoor event space) was built where the Japan Pavilion once stood, and Park Pavilion, a venue with multiple ballrooms and meeting rooms was built on another site.
In 2002, the city reopened the area as World’s Fair Park and reopened the fair’s signature structure, the Sunsphere, in 2007.
Directly across the street from the convention center and adjacent to the Park Pavilion, the building that is now The Tennessean was originally an office building, first for the fair and then for other businesses. When the current owners turned it into an 82-room boutique hotel two years ago, they kept a lot of the original layout, according to Melanie Carlton, marketing manager, who took me on a tour of the property. “That makes us unique in several ways,” she said. “The regular guest rooms aren’t just cookie-cutter box shapes; there are actually seven different room types. The corner offices were perfect to use as our large suites, so each has a different layout, some with additional half-baths in the sitting area.”
Several of the suites are “king-king” and give guests room to spread out with more than 700 square feet, which, as Carlton noted, is larger than some city apartments. The hotel’s largest suite is the Governor’s Suite, an incredible 1,646 square feet, with an expansive living area with gas fireplace, a dining table that seats up to 8 and even a grand piano. I don’t know if the hotel considered this, but the piano is appropriate, since Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, Tennessee’s governor when the World’s Fair was in operation, is an accomplished pianist.
In addition to the suites that are large enough for small meetings, The Tennessean has a 16-seat executive board room equipped with all the latest high-tech bells and whistles, and additional event space in The Drawing Room, the hotel’s restaurant and bar. The Tennessean is adjacent to Park Pavilion and shares the event space there with the Holiday Inn World’s Fair.
The Tennessean’s tag line is “personal luxury hotel,” and that is an apt description. It’s Knoxville’s only AAA four-diamond hotel, was named the “South’s Best Hotel” by Southern Living magazine in 2018 and was named the 25th Top Hotel in the South by Conde Nast Traveler. The hotel has a 24-hour concierge service, valet parking, a Tesla charging station, a very attentive front desk staff that greeted us by name when we returned to the hotel, and even has a personal butler service for guests staying in the Governor’s Suite.
Knoxville is surrounded by rivers and at The Tennessean, everything from the names of the floors, to the carpeting and the artwork on each floor has a water theme. In the lobby, there is a one-of-a-kind depiction of the city and the Tennessee River created out of hundreds of books, each hand covered and strategically placed on a wall of shelves to create the wall-sized art work.
Before this visit, we had no idea how cool Knoxville’s downtown is. Since it is only a short walk from the hotel, we made several trips over our stay.
The city’s historic Market Square seems to be where something is always happening, and we happened upon a chalk festival when we visited. The main thoroughfare of Gay Street is filled with unique shops and galleries of all sorts and some really fun places to drink and dine. At Cruz Farm Ice Cream, the line was all the way down the block shortly after a theater production had let out. We were surprised, but we took the advice of a local who told us to just walk around for a while and come back in 30 minutes or so.
We had no problem filling that time browsing and people watching, and when we returned, we were rewarded with no line—and some of the best ice cream we’ve ever enjoyed. Can’t recommend this place enough, and the servers are all so cute in their 1950s-style dresses.
A little further afield, we explored Knoxville’s Ijams Nature Center, which offers biking and hiking trails, paddling, rock climbing, and tree canopy experiences, along with event spaces. One of the trails there connects to the city’s Urban Wilderness Trails, with more than 35 miles of paved and natural surface trails along the river and throughout the city. One could easily step out the door of The Tennessean and walk for hours, through the city, the UT campus, along the river, into the hills, or wherever adventure takes you. We intend to explore more on our next visit.
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