SEVIERVILLE, TENNESSEE'S ARCHITECTURAL WONDERS
Picturesque and significant, these iconic buildings are a testament to our community’s renowned African-American construction companies and craftsmen of a century ago.
Sevier County Courthouse
African American contributions stand so tall in Sevierville, Tennessee, that—even if they’re unaware of the history—many visitors snap photos of one of the most iconic examples.
The Sevier County Courthouse was built in 1896, the same year that the state of Tennessee celebrated its centennial. In 1976 it became the first courthouse in the state to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Designed in the Beaux Arts style, its bricks were made by African-American brick masons. It’s the iconic standout in the Sevierville skyline, and for more than 30 years has been home to a statue of Dolly Parton on its front lawn, a tribute to the superstar by her hometown community. Millions of visitors flock to the site each year with cameras in hand.
“The Courthouse was built using bricks made locally in a kiln just outside of town by some well-respected African-American artisan builders,” says Carroll McMahan, Sevier County Historian. “Black builders constructed nearly every important late 19th and early 20th century public building in the county. Its tight-knit community produced at least a dozen brick masons, prolific all-black construction companies, and an exceptional carpenter and furniture maker.”
Perhaps the best-known of these builders was Isaac Dockery (1832-1910), a native of Sevier County who was born a free man. He established brick kilns near Sevierville on Allensville Road and often inscribed his initials, I D, and sometimes a date on his bricks as a trademark. After the Civil War, Dockery and his family made bricks for many buildings in Sevierville, including the Masonic Lodge, the New Salem Baptist Church, the original Murphy College building, and the Sevier County Courthouse. A talented master builder, he taught several generations of brick masons, including his sons, sons-in-law, and grandsons.
For almost a century, the Dockery-McMahan family (two of Isaac’s daughters married into the McMahan family) held a key role in bricks and brick construction in Sevierville. “Their brickwork is distinctive and they used different styles of bonds, which is the pattern in which bricks are laid,” says Carroll. “They were well-respected craftsmen in town who built some of Sevierville’s landmark buildings.”
Fred S. McMahan
Isaac Dockery Historical Marker
“I’m so proud of that brick!” says Betty McMahan, who married Isaac’s great-great-grandson Joseph Leak McMahan, who worked in his family’s brick business part of his life. She once found a stray brick made by Isaac Dockery lying underneath her husband’s grandparents’ house. “It’s marked with his initials, I D, and the year 1871.” Even without markings, the bricks are distinctive: “They’re bigger and don’t have holes in them,” she says. “They’re very heavy!”
The family’s brick companies, which included Riverside Steam Brick Company as well as JF and N (for its founders Jim, Fred and Newt; Fred attended Knoxville College and later received his master’s degree in architectural engineering from the University of Illinois) are responsible for many Sevierville structures. JF and N took special pride in having built the first Baptist Church in downtown Sevierville. “That was built in 1923,” says Betty. “Joe’s grandmother told me the women even helped: They climbed up the ladder and brought water. That church is a beautiful, picturesque building, and it’s still standing, though not currently occupied.”
In a joint effort with the Works Progress Administration, the JF and N Construction Company workers also built the former Post Office, which now houses the Sevier County Heritage Museum. The Colonial Revival-style building was completed in 1940 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Founded in 1995, the museum is located just one block from the iconic courthouse. Admire the brickwork then step inside to see displays and artifacts from Native Americans and first settlers, the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War II, and local history.
Old Sevierville Post Office
Robert A. Tino Gallery
Lewis C. Buckner is another noteworthy African American builder in Sevierville. A highly skilled carpenter, cabinetmaker, house builder, and wood artisan, Buckner was born a slave in Jefferson County. After the Civil War, he learned his trade in Sevierville as an apprentice to Christian H. Stump, a white furniture and cabinetmaker originally from Michigan. In the 1870s, Buckner launched his own cabinetmaking business and by the late 19th century he was building houses with Italianate-, Queen Anne-, and Victorian-style architectural elements throughout Sevier County. His original works are extremely creative; he rarely made two pieces alike. He favored natural elements; a unique flower motif became his signature trademark. Many of his structures still stand, and several houses in the area boast decorative details such as porches, staircases, and mantels that he constructed.
To see some of Buckner’s work, visit the Robert A. Tino Gallery. The Gallery is in a house built in 1844, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. When the home was renovated in 1880, Buckner was commissioned to hand-carve the exquisite staircase banister, embellished railings and posts, mirrored mantle, and several tables.
See more examples of Buckner’s work in the parlor at Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant, Sevierville’s oldest restaurant. The bungalow-style farmhouse was built around 1920 as a private home. The house was Buckner’s last noted commission and still retains his interior woodwork.
More Architectural Wonders……
It’s worth taking the time to drive by these local treasures:
The Dwight & Kate Wade House is a private residence completed in the fall of 1940. It’s a near replica of the Garden Home at The Town of Tomorrow exhibit of the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. While on their honeymoon, the Wades purchased the plans for this home designed by Vera Cook Salomonsky. The two-story house combines Art Moderne and Colonial Revival styles and features parapeted end façades, a gambrel roof covered with slate, and twin chimneys on each end. The side porch is supported by Doric columns, in the shape of a half-circle.
The Harrisburg Covered Bridge is an 83-foot-long covered timber truss bridge across the Little Pigeon River that’s still functional. Located off Old State Highway 35 near U.S. 411, it’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places and was built in 1875 to replace the original bridge destroyed in a flood that same year. It’s one of only four historic covered bridges in Tennessee.
The Harrisburg Covered Bridge