Structure: James Wert House Location: Nashville, Tennessee Architect: Robert Anderson Date: 1969 Story: James and Jane Wert had just moved from the forested lands of of Northern Wisconsin to Nashville, Tennessee. James, a metallurgist by trade, had just accepted a teaching job at Vanderbilt University.
The family longed for the feel of the forest, so they commissioned Nashville architect Robert Anderson to design them a house that was, according to Jane Wert, “lodge and woodsy.” The resulting house had a lodge-y feel to it, with an exterior made out of western cedar and a roof made of cedar shingles. The house is sited on a forested lot filled with maple, locust, and hackberry trees.
Anderson’s goal, he said in an interview, was to make the house “be humble to its surroundings.”
The original steps up to the house were concrete framed by redwood. Photos from 2017 show they’ve since been replaced.
PS: this blog owes its existence to the intrepid soul that found, scanned, and uploaded these vintage images… Collyn Wainright!
Downtown Knoxville has always been an important part of East Tennessee. But Downtown Knoxville wasn’t always on the cutting edge of modern design. So, in 1957, a group of local business owners created the Downtown Knoxville Alliance (DKA), an advocacy group whose goal was to “promote the downtown district as a major attraction for shoppers throughout East Tennessee and other parts of other states.” Headed up by Aubrey C. Couch (the longtime manager of the Tennessee Theater), the DKA executed three unique projects to revitalize downtown Knoxville, each one featuring local Knoxville architects. Let’s have a look at the three projects.
Structure: The Promenade Location: Knoxville, Tennessee Architect: Painter, Weeks & McCarty Date: 1958 Story: Gay St (the main street running through Downtown Knoxville) shops had a problem. After you parked your car one block off of Gay St, you had to walk up to Gay St before you could even begin perusing the downtown shopping.
So the DKA tasked the minds at architectural firm Painter, Weeks & McCarty to come up with a solution for this inconvenient shopping experience.
Their solution was “The Promenade,” a platform on the backside of the Gay Street stores. This created what the architects called “back fronts,” and allowed shoppers an attractive look at all of the stores (despite the fact they were looking at the back of the stores). The platform was held up by concrete “spider leg” supports, and enabled downtown shoppers to park their cars, walk up onto the platform, and straight into the store of their choosing.
Shoppers could then move through the store and exit directly onto Gay St, no roundabout route required.
Although it would later be torn down to make way for more parking, The Promenade was a big success, a success which led the DKA to pursue their next project…
Structure: Market Square Mall Location: Knoxville, Tennessee Architect: Ben McMurry Jr (representing the AIA East Tennessee) Date: 1962 Story: One block off Gay Street is Market Square.
In the olden days, Knoxville, Tennessee’s Market Square was a circular street that ran around the Market House . The Market House was where citizens of all types (fisherman, farmers, flower vendors, etc.) bought and sold their wares.
In 1960, the building was torn down, making space for an area that was a lot more flat (and a bit more like the Market Square that exists today).
The new Market Square Mall emulated traditional malls (think: the National Mall in Washington D.C.).
But McMurry didn’t just replicate other malls, he brought his modernist sensibilities to the table and gave the project a contemporary twist: concrete canopies to give shoppers and leisure-seekers respite from the sun.
The concrete canopies featured screens (of every color) that businesses could lower when the sun sunk lower in the sky. The project was very well received, even getting a feature in Architectural Forum (April 1962).
There’s no doubt these screens took a lot of inspiration from the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Johnson Wax Building.
There was some talk of building out Market Square Mall to be more department store focused, but that idea never came to fruition (see the renderings below).
Alright, let’s check out the third project
Structure: Gay/Way Location: Knoxville, Tennessee Architect: Ben McMurry Jr (of Barber & McMurry) and Bruce McCarty (of Painter, Weeks & McCarty) Date: 1964 Tidbit: In early 1962, DKA decided that since the Market Square Mall was such a success, they wanted to revitalize Gay St itself.
Calling the revitalization “Gay/Way,” DKA retained the services of the two architects who’d worked on on the previous two projects.
Although it would take a few years to fully manifest, Gay/Way essentially added a large, covered walkway above the Downtown Knoxville sidewalk.
Gay/Way also gave the downtown shops a chance to remodel their storefronts, updating them with more mid-century look and feel.
Eventually, Knoxville decided that mid 1950s design wasn’t really it’s jam. The city then spent then next 50 years or so removing the modernist projects and turning the downtown back into a more traditional looking downtown (see below)
Structure: Charles Davis House Location: Knoxville, Tennessee Architect: Bruce McCarty Date: 1960 Tidbit: Charles B. Davis was a co-founder of a Knoxville advertising firm called Lavidge & Davis. There’s also a potential that he worked at the ad agency Davis Newman Payne.
At some point, he contracted architect Bruce McCarty to design a modernist house for him high atop a hill, overlooking the Tennessee River and the Smoky Mountains. That’s about all I know on this house which is good news for you, dear reader, because it gets you into the photos faster!
Structure: Hamilton National Bank, Bearden Branch Location: Knoxville, Tennessee Architect: Robert B. Church III Date: 1974 Story: Banking, as we know it, has been around for centuries. In the early days of what we might call “modern banking” (think the 1800s), banks wanted to project stability and safety. Their architecture reflected that goal (see, for example, the East Tennessee National Bank building below).
As the 20th century rolled around (and as money movement got safer and more streamlined), banks began modernizing their business practices and, along with it, their architecture. Hamilton National Bank was an East Tennessee bank that went full in on architectural modernity.
Created around 1930 as the Hamilton National Bank of Knoxville, the bank began an ambitious project in the 1950s to build new branches throughout East Tennessee. The branches were designed by architects from the community in which the branch was built.
Since it was their main hub of operation, Knoxville was special to Hamilton National Bank. Throughout the 1950s, they constructed a handful of tasteful mid-century banks, each one unique.
But it wasn’t until the early 1970s that Hamilton National Bank designed what this humble architecture blogger considers their best work. They hired Knoxville firm McCarty Bullock Church Holsaple (now McCartyHolsapleMcCarty) to design them a bank. The firm tapped their principal Robert B. (Bob) Church III to helm the project.
Church designed a stunning building which featured a precast concrete fascia (with the bank’s name etched into it) and four brick pillars at each corner which, due to the fact they weren’t structural, gave the roof a bit of a floating appearance.
According to architectural historian George Dodds, the bank was “remarkably civic-minded”: Hamilton National Bank asked the architect to design a “basement meeting room… that could also be used by local community groups and operate separately from the bank, even when the bank was not open.” Imagine that!
Church’s talent was on full display inside the bank, where cool slate floors contrasted sharply with a warm wood ceiling.
Today’s tale, however, ends with architectural tragedy. As time went on, the structure would change hands many times. In its last iteration, the building held First Tennessee Bank’s financial advisors. And while those advisors probably offered good advice on money matters, they had no good advice to give when First Tennessee Bank (the entity) decided to tear the building down and replace it with a building as generic as the strip mall within which it is located. Let us watch the progression happen.
Structure: Thomas F. Faires Residence Location: Memphis, Tennessee Architect: Thomas F. Faires Date: 1960 Tidbit: The houses architects design for themselves are always interesting to observe. Today, we’re looking at the house of a prominent Memphis architect named Thomas F. Faires.
The literature is pretty sparse on Faires. What we do know, is this: Faires was born in Mount Pleasant, Tennessee and got his architecture degree from Georgia Tech in 1928. Shortly thereafter, he founded his own firm (Thomas F. Faires & Associates) and did architecture and engineering as a contractor for the military. I’d imagine he helped design armories and the like. During World War II, he served in the military and, upon retiring (and being given the Purple Heart), he went right back to doing architecture around Memphis and for the military.
Hopefully we’ll find out more about this talented architect as time passes, but in the meantime, let’s take a look at the residence he designed for him and his family. It just recently sold and they did a nice job staging + photographing it.
Structure: Bramlett Enterprises Motor Hotel (unbuilt) Location: Memphis, Tennessee Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright Date: 1956 Story: Tennessee Motor Hotels (aka motels) in the 1950s were a fantastic thing. The recently bourgeoning middle class (fueled by the return of WWII troops) led to an increase in cars, car travel, and car recreation such as trekking to national parks. Motels provided simple, inexpensive lodging for these types of overnight trips.
Motels tended to be much smaller and simpler than hotels. They were often long, single-story buildings that allowed travelers to just drive their car right up to the door of their room.
Ledwell Motel (left) and Alto Congress Motel (right), both in Gatlinburg, Tennessee
For example, when a Taliesin apprentice named JC Caraway was asked in 1952 to design a motel in Spring Green, Wisconsin, the resulting structure (first called the Rest Haven Motel, now called the Usonian Inn) came out exactly as you’d imagine. Long, flat, easily accessible by car.
Now, you wouldn’t expect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a motel. After all, his lodging designs tended to be a lot, uh, larger. One of his most famous lodgings, the Imperial Hotel (in Tokyo), was a massive structure, large 250-room complex that was one of Japan’s premier hotels during its heyday.
But during the 1950s, Frank Lloyd Wright did in fact design a few motels. Often, they looked very much like a Wrightian take on a motor hotel. Single story, accessible by car, with a bit of a twist: circular versus the more “modern” square look that was popular at the time.
A particular favorite of mine is the Daniel Wieland Motor Hotel (1955)
It was during this motel designing mid 1950s period when a company called Bramlett Enterprises asked Wright to design a motor hotel for them in Memphis, Tennessee. Wright obliged in a very Wrightian way: by delivering them a “motel” that really shared none of the characteristics of motels.
The plans were more hotel than motel. Designed around three towers (each with three elevators in them), the structures were seven stories tall and one featured a different rooftop attraction. Tower one featured a restaurant, tower two a lounge, and tower three a swimming pool.
Unfortunately, this structure was never built, and until just recently, only lived on scraps of paper.
Recently, however, two insanely talented fellows (Steve Virzani and Razin Kahn) spent time creating a digital model and a 3-D visualization of what the project would have looked like, have a look.
Structure: Garlinghouse Plan #8160 Location: Knoxville, Tennessee Date: 1957 Tidbit: In the mid-century era, a house didn’t have to be custom to be architect designed. You see, architects would often design and submit their house plans to house plan books / catalogues. Sometimes, the plan book companies would send employees out across the country to find, measure, and draw house plans they thought would have sell well (and have popular appeal).
All a potential homeowner would have to do would be to acquire a catalog, find a house plan they liked, call up the house plan company, pay for the house plan… and voilà! They’d be well on their way to having a (semi) custom house built. If you want to look through lots of old house plan books, Internet Archive has a great collection of digitized catalogs.
In Knoxville, Tennessee, is a great illustration of this house plan phenomenon. Built in 1947, this is a cute, rather unique looking house.
The house’s plan comes from a very popular house plan publication called Garlinghouse. The house’s plan, #8160, cost $22.50, and was described as a “contemporary flat roof type home” with a “practical and roomy floor plan.”
Structure: Donald Newton house Location: Knoxville, Tennessee Architect: Robert Judd Date: 1968 Story: Today’s story starts (as many of them do) with a real estate listing.
As I was perusing old Zillow listings, I came across a beautiful house made of glass, wood, and natural stone. Down below the photos, the listing contained this funny little line: “This Frank Lloyd Wright style property was designed by the same architect that did the Kentucky Lake Lodge.” First, I had a laugh. As the photos below will illustrate, there was nothing Wrightian about this house.
The other part of the sentence did not make me laugh, but it piqued my curiosity. It was the first clue to figuring out who this mysterious architect might be… so into the historical records I went.
First, the lodge. In the early 1960s, the TVA worked with the state of Kentucky to take a bunch of lakeside land and turn it into a place that tourists would want to vacation. The resulting park (Kentucky Dam Village) featured a restaurant, lots of lodging, a marina, and endless walking trails.
The highlight of the park was the Kentucky Dam Village Lodge, a marvelous structure overlooking the Kentucky Lake, a place replete with motel rooms, a pool, and this incredible floating copper fireplace.
Now, back in Knoxville, there was a civil engineer who worked at the TVA. His name was Donald Newton. Newton was not just a civil engineer, he was also a leaders at the Knoxville Society of Friends (Quakers). When the society was in need of a new meeting house (in 1961), Newton helped them find a nice wooded spot of land to build on. What a helpful fellow!
Some years later, Newton would build himself a home just down the road from the meeting house. Newton reached out to the architect who had designed the Kentucky Dam Village Lodge, an architect named Robert Judd (based out of Louisville, Kentucky). My hunch is that Newton knew Judd from his days helping the TVA design the Kentucky Dam Village project.
How solid is my theory? Let us examine the evidence by comparing pictures from the Kentucky Dam Village Lodge against the Newton house, see if we can’t spot the similarities.
First, here’s a historical and modern-day picture of what was called the “Executive Cottage”:
And here is the living wing of the Netwon house:
Next, here’s a modern day photo of the Kentucky Dam Village Lodge:
And here’s the main room of the Newton house:
I’m sold, and we’re gonna mark this case solved so I can add the rest of the house photos for your viewing pleasure.
In 1965, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) decided that it was time to upgrade their Greek life. The school proposed a Fraternity Park, complete with 13 new frat houses…all designed by local architects.
The frat houses were designed around a common property that included streets, sidewalks, parking, and recreation areas. Not all of them were mid-century modern, so I’m leaving off the traditional houses.
The frats were all located in Knoxville, Tennessee, and they were all built in 1965, so I’ll leave that out of the building details. And you know, speaking of brevity, I won’t waste too much more time with the background: it’s a block of frat houses, you get the idea. Let’s jump into the architecture!
Structure: Sigma Alpha Epsilon Architect: Barber & McMurry Tidbit: The tree in the center of the courtyard was called the “make-believe tree.” Design wise, looks like those windows never materialized and the tree ended up on the outside of the exterior wall. Also, did those arches not get built either?
Structure: Kappa Alpha Architect: Painter, Weeks & McCarty Tidbit: This eventually became Phi Kappa Psi
Structure: Sigmi Phi Epsilon Architect: Painter, Weeks & McCarty Tidbit: This mildly interesting frat got a huge remodel in 2011 and is now, uh, not so interesting
Structure: Pi Kappa Alpha Architect: Painter, Weeks & McCarty
Structure: Zeta Beta Tau Architect: Good & Goodstein Tidbit: this house is now Pi Kappa Phi
Structure: Sigma Nu Architect: Abernethy & Robinson Tidbit: the only non-Knoxville architects, Abernethy & Robinson were located in Johnson City, Tennessee. The original building might have implemented a curved front, possibly modified after the original structure was built. It could also be that my black and white rendering is just not showing that detail. The building, despite its uniqueness, was torn down and replaced with a super generic building sometime in the 2010s.
Structure: Lamda Chi Alpha Architect: Lindsay & Maples Tidbit: this house is now Alpha Epsilon Pi
Structure: Delta Tau Delta Architect: W. Glenn Bullock Tidbit: this house is still in fantastic condition, which is awesome because it draws some strong design inspiration from the famous architect Louis Kahn
Structure: Alpha Tau Omega Architect: Morton & Sweetser Tidbit: This structure was essentially remodeled into oblivion. Sometime around 2007, a pitched roof was added along with a new foyer which kind of ruined the whole effect.
R.C. Smith Jr was a young city councilman. So young, in fact, that when he ran (at the age of 26) the local paper ran a piece discussing just how young he actually was. After being elected as a councilman, he was appointed as Knoxville’s law director. His particular area of focus was cracking down on homebuliders who built homes without the proper permits.
Being heavily involved with building codes is probably how he came to know architect Carl F. Maples, principal at a Knoxville architectural firm named Lindsay & Maples. One article I read said that R.C. succeeded Maples as president of their local Sertoma Club chapter in 1952. I’ve gotta assume that at some point, Smith just said “how about it, Carl, wanna design me a house?”
Structure: R.C. Smith House I Location: Knoxville, Tennessee Architect: Carl Maples Date: 1953 Tidbit: I could find very little in the way of photos of this house, which is a bummer because it’s so beautiful. The exterior sports a redwood / crab orchard stone combination that sits quite nicely on the site. All of those windows serve a great purpose: overlooking the Tennessee River.
In mid 1955, R.C.’s wife asked him for (and received) a divorce. However, shortly after that (in 1956), he remarried and used his new marital status as an opportunity to move his new family into a new neighborhood.
Structure: R.C. Smith House II Location: Knoxville, Tennessee Architect: Lindsay & Maples Date: 1960 Tidbit: I stumbled across this house because its listing told me it was designed by architect Hubert Bebb. That, however, turned out to be fake news. Instead, an ad in the local paper (by the home’s builder) revealed that it was designed by Knoxville architectural firm Lindsay & Maples. My gut says R.C. went and asked Carl Maples to design him a second house. The house sports quite a unique interior and is located in a neighborhood that features a lot of architect-designed homes.
Not to end today’s blog on a dour note but in 1962, shortly after his second house was finished. R.C.’s wife asked for (and received) a divorce. 😞 Think he had a third house built for himself?