Beginning in 1832, Drury Paine Armstrong (1799-1856) established a gentleman’s farm and house
for his wife and family just west of downtown Knoxville. He named the farm “Crescent Bend” for
the commanding view of a majestic crescent bend of the Holston River, now called the Tennessee
River. The Armstrongs moved into their new home on October 7th, 1834.
Drury Armstrong’s Crescent Bend started with 600 acres of land on the north side of the river, and a within few years he acquired another 300 acres on the south side. He owned several other tracts of land in and around Knoxville, upon one of which a famous Civil War battle, the Battle of Armstrong’s Hill, would be fought. In addition to these land holdings, he also owned 50,000 acres of wooded and pastoral mountain land in Sevier and Blount Counties, Tennessee. He gave the name “Glen Alpine” to his land between the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River and the East Prong of the Little Tennessee River. This land today makes up about 10% of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Drury Armstrong was an active leader in business, his church, and many civic endeavors. He served as a register of the East Tennessee Land Office, a director of the Union Bank, and a United States assignee of bankruptcy. For thirty years he was a trustee of the East Tennessee College, which later became the University of Tennessee. He was an elder at First Presbyterian Church. Although untrained in architecture, he saw to repairs and improvements to his church, the town’s courthouse, and the original buildings on the Hill at the college, besides designing Crescent Bend. In 1842 he was chief marshal for the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Knoxville. His father, Robert Armstrong III (1774-1849), one of the founding fathers of Knoxville, was one of the honorees at the 1842 celebration.
During his lifetime Drury divided his Crescent Bend farm between his two sons, Marcelus Muriot Armstrong (1832-1896) and Robert Houston Armstrong (1825-1896). After his father’s death in 1856, Marcelus, nicknamed “Whack,” took up residence at Crescent Bend with his wife, Mary Elizabeth “Betty” McGhee Armstrong. Robert and his wife, Louisa Franklin Armstrong, built their own house, Bleak House, some 500 yards to the west on the Crescent Bend Farm.
During the Civil War, the house was used by both Union and Confederate Armies as a command center and hospital. Thousands of soldiers encamped and fought skirmishes on Crescent Bend farmland. Originally the Union Army controlled Crescent Bend and built an earthen fortification around the house; began on the western side of the house, wrapped around the back of the house, and connected with Kingston Pike on the east. This defensive earthen trench work gave the Union Army a commanding view of the river and the pike leading into town.
On November 18, 1863, Union Brigadier General William P. Sanders was mortally wounded on Crescent Bend farmland where the present Second Presbyterian Church now stands and died the next day at the Lamar House in downtown Knoxville. It is believed that a Confederate sniper shot Sanders from the tower at Bleak House. The Union Army changed the name of its main fortification in Knoxville from Fort Loudon to Fort Sanders in his honor. In the days after Sanders’s death, the Confederate Army advanced and captured Crescent Bend. The house was then used as a command center for Confederate General Kershaw, who was in charge of the Confederate artillery that attacked Fort Sanders on November 29th, 1863.
Crescent Bend is also noteworthy for this era for possibly being a safe house on the Underground Railroad. Descendants of the Armstrong family have said that the hidden trapdoor beneath the main staircase led to a room where runaway slaves were sheltered.
During Reconstruction the Armstrong sons returned to Crescent Bend to raise their families and work their farm. They remained there until they both died in 1896.
In 1898 Crescent Bend was sold to Jerome Templeton, a Knoxville attorney who later became a well-respected judge. The Templetons remodeled the house extensively in the Victorian manner. A turret, large front porch, and a new wing to the house significantly altered the original design. The new wing was later destroyed by fire, but the other changes were left intact until the Percy Lockett family bought the house in the early 1920s.
Mrs. Lockett removed the Victorian additions in an attempt to restore some of the original character of the house. This sensitive attempt at restoration was somewhat successful in blending the original structure with a garage and servants’ quarters on the west side of the home. After the Locketts’ death, their daughter, Mrs. Philip Bonsal, inherited the house. Mrs. Bonsal was the wife of United States Ambassador Philip Bonsal, who served as Ambassador to several countries, including Switzerland and several South American Countries. Philip Bonsal was the last United States Ambassador to Cuba. As the Bonsals’ residence was in Washington D.C., Mrs. Bonsal decided to sell the house.
By 1974, the house had been cut into apartments in which University of Tennessee students lived. Talk about Knoxville was that the home was slated for destruction and it was to be replaced with a 26-story student housing building. To stop the demolition and future destruction of other homes in the area, Kingston Pike was declared a scenic highway, upon which no structure over two stories could be built. The Toms Foundation was then offered the opportunity to buy the house to restore it for a house museum displaying the Toms antique furniture and silver collection. The Foundation began restoration that year after consulting architectural firms and historical experts. During restoration the house was opened to the public for one day, July 4th, 1976, to celebrate the United States Bicentennial. The house museum was completed by July 4th the next year and has been open to the public for tours since then.
For the 1982 World’s Fair, The Toms Foundation built the William Perry “Buck” Toms Memorial Gardens. This three-acre formal Italian garden includes nine terraces and five fountains that overlook the majestic crescent bend of the Tennessee River.