Rock of Ages

East Tennessee’s Marble Industry

East Tennessee marble is prized the world over. Come explore the industry that launched the rock’s fame and crowned Knoxville as the Marble City!

November 19, 2016 to May 14, 2017
Rogers-Claussen Feature Gallery

The marble industry was once an important sector of East Tennessee’s economy. By the mid-1850s, East Tennessee marble from Knox County had been chosen for the interiors of the Tennessee State Capitol and marble from Hawkins County was being installed inside the new House of Representatives and Senate wings of the United States Capitol. In the decades that followed, East Tennessee’s varicolored marble was sought by architects and patrons for the interiors of public buildings: state capitol buildings, courthouses, and city halls. Tennessee marble would soon also be ordered for high traffic railroad terminal flooring across the United States and Canada.

In the 1870s, with the example of Knoxville’s handsome new Custom House, the marble became known for its strength and durability as an exterior stone. The Custom House marble was extracted from a quarry in the Forks of the River district, near the confluence of the French Broad and Holston rivers. By 1873, this quarry was being operated by the Knoxville Marble Company, one of East Tennessee’s first modern marble businesses. Others were soon to follow on both sides of the Tennessee River, the Crescent Marble Company in the Boyd’s Bridge area providing marble for the Memphis Custom House (completed 1885) and the Ross and Mead Marble quarries, developed by John M. Ross in the Island Home section, furnishing marble for two exemplary museum buildings: the Morgan Library (1906) and the National Gallery of Art (1941). While the Mead quarry pit is now filled with water, the integrity of the Ross quarry has been preserved. Both quarries are situated in Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness, within the Ijams Nature Center. What remains of the industrial landscape includes a rock wall created from marble waste blocks, two intact pits that demonstrate bench quarrying techniques, historic road traces and railroad berms, scattered piles and stacks of marble blocks, and the location of the former railroad bed.

Along this same railroad line, about 4 miles south in the Vestal neighborhood, is the Candoro Marble Company’s office and mill buildings. Candoro, founded in 1914, housed a marble mill, finishing plant, and shipping office for the John J. Craig Companies, which had quarries in both Knox and Blount counties. The company office building, a Beaux Arts masterpiece designed by Knoxville architect Charles Barber in 1923, is a fine example of exterior use of light pink marble. The interior walls and floors served as a showroom for the types and finishes of marble offered by the company.

Reminders of the once prominent Tennessee marble industry can be seen today, in late-19th, early-20th century buildings on Gay Street and other corners of downtown, in building facades, steps and entranceways, and interior lobbies. The Knoxville Post Office and Federal Building on Main Street is a particularly fine example dating from the 1930s. And Knoxville, a city that has won national recognition for historic preservation, continues to embrace its marble heritage in modern buildings. Notice how seamlessly the new three-story East Tennessee History Center adjoins the original Custom House and how the exterior marble of the contemporary Knoxville Museum of Art brings the building’s formal geometry to life.

Rock of Ages: How East Tennessee Marble Formed

Rock of Ages: Working East Tennessee Marble

Rock of Ages: East Tennessee Marble’s Legacy

Structures with Tennessee Marble Exteriors

Ramsey House, Knoxville, Tenn. (1797)

Knoxville Customs House, Knoxville, Tenn. (1874)

James Blackstone Memorial Library, Branford, Conn. (1896)

Adriance Memorial Library, Poughkeepsie, N.Y. (1896)

The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, N.Y. (1906)

Mechanics National Bank Building, Knoxville, Tenn. (facade) (1907)

Chilhowee Park bandstand, Knoxville, Tenn. (1910)

The Holston, Knoxville, Tenn. (lower Gay St. and Clinch Ave. facades) (1913)

James J. Hill Research Library and St. Paul Public Library, St. Paul, Minn. (1917)

Richard C. Lee U.S. Courthouse, New Haven, Conn. (1919)

Candoro Marble Company Office/Showroom, Knoxville, Tenn. (1923)

U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, Knoxville, Tenn. (1934)

Tennessee Supreme Court Building, Nashville, Tenn. (1937)

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1941, 1978)

National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. (1975)

Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, Tenn. (1990)

East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, Tenn. (2005)

Howard Baker Center for Public Policy, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tenn. (2008)


Special thanks to the exhibition lenders for their generosity and willingness to share history, as well as the families/friends of marble workers who came forward with stories
Guest curator: Susan W. Knowles, Ph.D., Digital Humanities Research Fellow, Center for Historic Preservation, Middle Tennessee State University
Volunteers: Denise Alfrey, Dan MacDonald, B. J. Wiseman
Special thanks: Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection, Knox County Public Library, Steve Cotham, manager, and staff; Center for Historic Preservation, MTSU, Dr. Carroll Van West, director; Tennessee Marble Company, Monica Gawet, president; TDS Exhibits; Ullrich Printing; Tennessee Division of Geology, Peter J. Lemiszki, Ph.D., chief geologist, East Tennessee Field Office; East Tennessee PBS, Chris Smith, William Isom; Molly Gilbert, Tennessee Pink Marble Trail; Knoxville Museum of Art, David Butler, director; University of Tennessee Department of Art, Beauvais Lyons, chancellor professor; Kate Katomski and Judd Mulkerin, Quarry Project-Tennessee; Ijams Nature Center; Tennessee State Library & Archives; Tennessee Historical Commission; Knox Heritage​; George Webb, Tennessee Books & Autographs; Candoro Arts & Heritage Center, Sharon Davis, board president; Jean Vestal; Don Byerly; John J. Craig; Jeff Craig; Sonja Jones; Finbarr Saunders; Priscilla Rogers; Justin Dothard; Paul James; Tom McAdams; Zada Law, MTSU, Department of Geosciences; Lucy Gump; James Hooper
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