A Brief History

The Knox County Courthouse, located on Main Street in downtown Knoxville, was built in 1885 and served as our county’s courthouse until the completion of the City County Building in 1980. The courthouse sits on Lot 36 of the original 1791 plat of the town of Knoxville. This lot is directly across the street from the courthouse location set aside by Knoxville founder, James White (1747-1821). The first three courthouses were built on that site in 1793, 1797, and 1842.

In 1883, Knox County government decided to replace the 1842 courthouse with a more modern building and purchased the land directly across the street – location of the 1793 government blockhouse that was built by the United States Army to protect the town from Indian attacks – for $26,000. Construction of the fourth and current courthouse began in 1884 and was completed in 1885 at a cost of $82,000. The original building (the central section) was built by Knoxville building contracting company, Stephenson and Getaz. The design was based on an architectural plan from New York firm, Palliser, Palliser & Company, who were best known for their mail-order plans for residential homes. The 2.5-story brick building with its imposing clock tower contains a mixture of architectural styles that includes Queen Anne Revival, Colonial Revival, and Gothic Revival.  

Until the early 20th century, most Knoxvillians lived and worked downtown or in the surrounding neighborhoods. By this time, the courthouse was too small to house the expanding county government. To address this overcrowding, in 1919, a 3-story wing designed by local architectural firm Baumann and Baumann was added to each corner of the 1885 building. In an effort to maintain the character of the original design, the exterior architectural elements were closely matched in the additions, and the new structures increased the space by 50%. 

On the courthouse lawn are several monuments, including those which mark the graves of Tennessee’s first Governor John Sevier (1745-1815) and his second wife, Katherine (Bonny Kate). Sevier served as Governor of Tennessee from 1796 until 1801 and then again from 1803 until 1809. He died in 1815 while on a presidential mission to Alabama and was buried there near Fort Decatur. In 1897, the body was brought back to Knoxville and reburied at the base of an obelisk – a reported 10,000 people attended the service. Sevier’s first wife, Sarah (Sadie) Hawkins, died in 1780, and a monument to her memory was placed beside the grave marker of Sevier and was dedicated on June 2, 1946, the 200th anniversary of her birth.

There is also a marble arched monument, built in the 1910s, at the corner of Gay Street and Main Street that honors the memory of Dr. John Mason Boyd, “Our Beloved Physician.” Boyd (1833-1909) was a well-known doctor, surgeon, and civic leader. Additional monuments on the lawn commemorate the signing of the 1791 Treaty of the Holston and one to honor veterans of the Spanish American War.

On the 100th anniversary of the construction of the courthouse, a complete exterior and interior restoration took place from 1985 until 1990, which included the restoration of the original Seth Thomas Clock Company clock and the 4,500-pound clock bell. 

Today, the old courthouse still hosts some court functions and is home to a variety of Knox County Clerk offices. 

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.