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The Bistro at the Bijou Restaurant is located in one the most historic buildings in downtown Knoxville. As the fourth oldest building in Knoxville, it originally was built as a private home for Thomas Humes who unfortunately died of a skin ailment before the construction was completed. His widow opened the house as a hotel and tavern. It was the center of social activity for the community and was known as the grandest hotel in the South.

 

The Bistro at the Bijou RestaurantThis Renaissance style building was originally built with three stories, using state-of-the-art technology circa 1820. It also implemented a basement which housed the root cellars, coal bins, and supplies necessary to sustain what was then a frontier town hotel. In a massive public-works project, the city of Knoxville decided to level out the hilly sixteen block downtown area. The ridge where the hotel sat was lowered and the hill at the 100 block of Gay Street was raised, turning the hotel into a four story building. The former basement opened onto the sidewalk (now the Bistro) and a balcony was added to the original front door. It was from this balcony that Andrew Johnson addressed the city of Knoxville in his vice-presidential campaign. Other presidents who were guests at the hotel include: Andrew Jackson, Rutherford B. Hayes, James K. Polk, and Ulysses S. Grant.

 

President Grant, however, stayed at the hotel before he was president. During the Civil War, the Bijou was occupied by Union forces from 1863 until well after reconstruction began. Its primary use was as a hospital. It was here that General William P. Sanders was brought after being wounded during a skirmish on Kingston Pike. He died in the bridal suite of the hotel on November 18, 1863. In this time of war, the Union did not want their troops to know of the General’s death; he was secretly buried in the graveyard on Market Street, at midnight, two days after his death. It is General William P. Sanders’ ghost whom is believed to be the wandering spirit on the premises.

 

In 1895 the hotel was sold and became known as the Lamar House, undergoing a major renovation in which most of the hotel was torn down and a theatre was put in its place. The Bijou Theatre opened on March 8, 1909, with George M. Cohan’s Broadway hit, Little Johnny Jones, which introduced the songs, “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and, “Yankee Doodle Boy.” Throughout its heyday, the theatre had performances by various vaudeville acts, including the Marx Brothers, and legitimate theatre starring Ethel Barrymore and Tullulah Bankhead. After the advent of film, the theatre fell on hard times and degenerated into an X-rated movie house in the 1950’s. In 1975, she was rescued from the wrecking ball by Knoxville Heritage, a local preservation society, and has since been renovated. Presently, the theater hosts mainly musicians, community theatre, and the Knoxville Chamber Orchestra.

 

The lovely lady who graces the bar here at the Bistro is known as Miss Lil. She was painted in the late 19th century by James Patten, an artist of indeterminate origin, but with excellent taste in women. In addition to being housed in Knoxville’s fourth oldest building, the Bijou Theatre has an atmosphere that’s perfect for live music and the performing arts. Many performers and music fans consider the Bijou the best-sounding room in Knoxville, and with a capacity of just over 700, every seat in the house is a great one.