Knoxville’s Market Square has a long and storied history full of ups and downs, but as a center of community and commerce, it has changed surprisingly little.
In 1853, land speculators William G. Swan and Joseph A. Mabry purchased a tract of land just off of Union Avenue, at the time being used only for pasture. Ever the keen businessmen, they decided to donate a small portion of this land to the city for construction of a market house where local farmers could sell their goods. Of course, if this new center of trade took off, the land surrounding it would become substantially more valuable for Swan and Mabry!
By the end of the Civil War, Market Square was already a city fixture. Business was booming, and it had become enough of a local destination to be a frequent choice for activities such as association meetings and polling stations. The first ever permanent City Hall for Knoxville was built at the north end of the Square, and businesses of all kinds sprung up on the periphery to take advantage of the constant hustle and bustle.
Market Square suffered a bit of a setback in the early 20th century when a Knoxville ordinance banned alcohol for the whole city. That, combined with new development of suburbs and convenient streetcars to move people to and fro, led to a steady decline in the businesses and patrons in Market Square. By 1925, even City Hall had moved a few blocks away.
A downtown revitalization effort in the late 50’s led by mayor George Dempster ultimate turned Market Square into what it is today. A campaign to tear down the old Market House and turn the location into a pedestrian mall was hotly debated, though the decision was ultimately sealed by fate when the building partially burned down in 1959. Since then, Market Square has steadily increased in visibility and providence, attracting new vendors, new patrons, and new events every year until it became the cultural center of Knoxville that it is today.