The Currier School Fire

Last night most of West Knoxville smelled of smoke as the wind carried ash from Rocky Hill to Hardin Valley. A large wooden structure behind Bruster’s Ice Cream caught fire in the Rocky Hill area, prompting onlookers and news coverage from all over town. Most had the same question. What is that building and why have I never noticed it before?

The building was the Currier School, and it is the most eerie, bizarre and ominous building I have ever set foot in. I am fairly familiar with it and its history. As  teenagers, my friends and I loved nothing more than finding new abandon buildings to slip into and explore. I suppose trespassing isn’t smiled upon, but we always thought if that was the worst thing we were doing, we were doing alright. For a long time, new members of our posse had to pass a test before real induction. They had to go with us to what we called “Wonder House,” a bizarre six story house of horrors hidden just by the tree cover behind Bruster’s in Rocky Hill.

We learned that what we had called Wonder House was actually the Currier School. Built in 1930 by the same architect who designed the iconic Sterchi Building, the school predated Rocky Hill Elementary as the main hub for children in a then very rural part of West Knoxville. In spite of my borderline obsessive efforts, I have never been able to find anyone who attended that school, or even knew of it when it was operational. The school closed down in the 1950s when Rocky Hill Elementary opened, and was sold to a private owner. This is when its odd history took a drastic turn.

The best way to explain what this building was like is for me to describe it to you as I first saw it, floor by floor. The building had been gutted. All that remained was its six story wood frame, old but certainly very sturdy. From the outside it looked foreboding. The rugged building towered over the tiny homes across the street, empty, quiet and ominous. It seemed impossible that a building so large could be invisible from nearby Northshore Drive, but it was.

Getting in the building was never easy. The undergrowth around it was thick and high, and the ground was always covered with shattered glass. The backyard was littered with what might have been valuable antiques, had someone known or cared enough to take them. We had a lot of fun messing around with a century old exercise bike that we found rusting on the lawn.

The front door was boarded up, and impossible to enter through, though it was here that we found embedded in the wood the nameplate that revealed to us the identity of the ancient structure. We slinked around in the brush until we found both a basement entrance (a snake hung from the ceiling in this doorway) and a side door. As none of us were feeling particularly courageous on that day, we took the side door. The ground floor was dark and dank. Most of the main room was littered with lumber and nothing else. A walkway was cleared to the main staircase and another room.

The first room we came to held some very fascinating historical items that I fear are now forever lost to the fire, as well as some very creepy oddities. In this room we found: an old abacus, a chalkboard that still had the name “Billy” written on it, a 1950s school nuclear disaster safety manual, old News Sentinel articles, and perhaps the most unexplainable mystery of the entire building.

These treasures were cast upon a pile of trash. Not just any trash, hundreds and hundreds of uniform empty milk jugs that covered the floor from corner to corner, stacked knee high. I still have no clue or idea where they came from, who left them, or why they were concealing a host of historical artifacts like the ocean tides to a buried treasure. Likely we will never know.

From there we took the stairs up to floor two. The second floor was unremarkable. There were no interesting fossils or spooky rooms. It was a large and open space. The walls had been removed and the horror below seemed to wash away in the open air.

On floor three, the whole building took a turn. It went from an old but creepy building to a mad house. It was on floor three that we noticed a chimney in the living room. Protruding from the middle of the floor in the middle of the building was a lone chimney. It had no attached fireplace, nor seemingly any function or reason. We were creeped out.

On floor four it got weirder. Here we saw the first of several staircases to nowhere. There were staircases coming out of the floor, and going into the wall were there was not now or ever any door or passage. Like frightened children in a house of horrors we shivered, waiting on some masked ghoul to pop out and scare us. But this was real. There were more such staircases throughout the upper levels of the building.

On floor five, we found picnic tables built out on windowsills, narrowly supported and hanging like a swinging drawbridge over a gorge. Naturally we tested them out. This was still weird, but for stupid teenagers it was very cool.

On floor six we found relief. While the architecture remained fiendish, with several rooftops built over larger rooftops giving way to a gazebo atop them all, the view was so splendid it felt impossible to be afraid. When we reached the peak, we felt certain we had found a hidden Knoxville treasure. It was in a relaxed moment atop the building that I once accepted a bet to let my friends leave early and walk down alone after dark in this tower of terror. Best $10 I ever made.

When we left, we did some major research on the school, the building and their histories. Online information about this long forgotten structure is scant, and few people, even those in my family who have lived here for eight or nine decades, seem to know anything about it. Our best efforts yielded this story: the school was sold to a family in the 1950s who needed a project for their retired grandfather. He had been a contractor. The man suffered from dementia, and the paradoxical structure was the result of his deranged labors. It sounds too fantastic to be true, but then again so does everything else about this story. If you know anything about this fascinating old building, have any pictures that do it justice, or have an interesting story, please comment and share.

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