Island Home: A Neighborhood Rich in Knoxville History

The iconic South Knoxville neighborhood of Island Home is named after the model farm and the country home of prominent Knoxville resident Perez Dickinson (1813-1901). Dickinson was a Massachusetts-born merchant, banker, farmer, educator, and cousin of poet Emily Dickinson. Perez Dickinson had moved to Knoxville in 1829, where his brother-in-law, Joseph Estabrook, was serving as the principal of the Knoxville Female Academy and later as the president of East Tennessee College (today, the University of Tennessee). After a brief stint as an educator, Dickinson cofounded the mercantile wholesale firm, Cowan and Dickinson, in 1831 and helped established another wholesale firm, Cowan, McClung and Company, in 1858.

In 1869, he purchased more than 600 acres on the south side of the Tennessee River and an island of about 200 acres. He then established a model stock farm (primarily used for research) and agricultural experimental station and called it “Island Home.” A grand Italianate home was built in the early 1870s for his wife, who died before the home was completed. Dickinson was reported to have spent just one night at the house, preferring to sleep at his primary home on Main Street in downtown Knoxville. The Island Home house featured a long, sweeping drive and was surrounded by formal gardens. Dickinson is said to have been gracious in sharing this home with the community. He entertained locals and visiting dignitaries and encouraged various civic groups, organizations, and churches to hold meetings and events at Island Home.

The citizens of Knoxville became even more interested in Island Home after the Gay Street Bridge was constructed in 1898. Before the bridge was completed, a streetcar company was granted an easement to install tracks across the bridge. Prior to streetcar access, South Knoxville had always been fairly isolated from the developing city on the north side of the river.

After Perez Dickinson’s death in 1901, property ownership passed to his family members. In 1905, real estate developer Harry H. Galbraith purchased 300 acres of the farm for $40,000. In April 1911, Island Home Park Company purchased 120 acres from Galbraith, directly west of the original farm gates, for a new residential subdivision. The subdivision featured a convenient streetcar line running down the median of Island Home Boulevard. Large stone entry gateposts, city water, paved streets, concrete sidewalks, electric streetlights, and a public park along the river were other popular selling points. Existing trees were preserved, and additional trees were planted along the boulevard. The neighborhood lies on land that formed the front approach to the Dickinson farm, and Island Home Boulevard follows the path established by the original drive to the home. Initial development growth was concentrated on Island Home Boulevard and Spence Place. The neighborhood residents were middle and upper class business, medical, real estate, and political professionals. Residents included a former Mayor of Knoxville and actor/comedian Archie Campbell.

The craftsman style is the most popular house design represented in the Island Home neighborhood. Typical architectural details include large porches, casement windows, low-pitch gable roofs, tapered columns, dormers, and decorative elements like brackets, lintels, and exposed rafters. The neighborhood also has lovely examples of Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, and American Foursquare architectural styles.

In 1924, the Tennessee School for the Deaf moved to its present campus located at the eastern boundary of the neighborhood after selling their original 1848 downtown Knoxville building to the City of Knoxville for a new City Hall. Perez Dickinson’s Island Home house, although extensively modified from its original design, still exists and serves as the school superintendent’s residence.

Island Home is rich in Knoxville history and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. The historic district consists of 91 contributing houses along Island Home Boulevard, Spence Place, Fisher Place, and Maplewood Drive. Homes have been well-maintained and continue to represent the pride of ownership that was part of Perez Dickinson’s original vision for his “Island Home.”

Knox Heritage preserves structures and places of historic or cultural significance for our community. Established in 1974 as a non-profit educational corporation, our organization works to protect and raise awareness of what is beautiful and irreplaceable in East Tennessee.