Tennessee Modernism: Knickerbocker House by Edgar Shelton

Structure: Dr. Kenneth Knickerbocker House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Edgar Shelton
Date: 1955
Tidbit: In 1946, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville hired an English professor named Dr. Kenneth Knickerbocker. Whilst Dr. Knickerbocker was traipsing about the campus (dressed in a tweed jacket and horn-rimmed spectacles, I’d imagine), Dr. Knickerbocker met an associate professor of mechanics named Edgar Shelton. Shelton would eventually start his own architectural firm (Edgar G. Shelton & Associates) and so, in 1955, when Dr. Knickerbocker was ready to have a custom house designed, he looked up his old pal. Bringing his mechanical engineering chops to bear, Shelton designed him a solid house that featured a cinder block structure and tons of windows.

In fact, the house’s indoor/outdoor vibe was so notable that it was used in an ad for a local window dealer, the ad proudly proclaiming, “Plan now for window beauty like this!”

Tennessee Modernism: Medical Building by Mann & Harrover

Structure: Medical building
Location: Union City, Tennessee
Architect: Mann & Harrover
Date: 1953
Tidbit: Built for a group of eight doctors, this medical building was designed to give each of the doctors’ offices light and views. The waiting room (above) featured an exposed steel-frame cage with its “three roof bays framed with diamond-shaped steel trusses diagonally crossing each other and interlocking at the crossing point.” (PA July 1960)

Eventually the building was demolished to make way for a more modern medical building (pictured below).

Tennessee Modernism: McCarty Cabin by Bruce McCarty

Structure: McCarty Cabin / E.H. McCarty Summer Home
Location: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Architect: Bruce McCarty
Date: 1952
Story: If you’ve ever searched Google for Knoxville mid-century modern architecture, chances are pretty high you’ve seen work designed by legendary Knoxville architect Bruce McCarty. Not even this blog is immune to Bruce’s charm…as evidenced by our recent feature on the two residences he designed for himself.

But more than just a talented architect, Bruce was a family man. Now, Bruce’s mother “E” lived in Orlando, Florida. Every so often, she’d come up to Knoxville to visit Bruce and his family (especially her grandkids). Sometime around 1950, E asked Bruce to design her a summer cabin, something near to Knoxville that had enough room for the family to come stay with her when she visited.

Original house rendering (© McCarty Holsaple McCarty)

First, the site. They selected a wooded, five-acre parcel of land in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. In the winter, when the trees thinned out, the hilltop lot looked straight out at the Smoky Mountains.

1950s photo of the cabin’s south-facing exterior (© McCarty Holsaple McCarty)

Next, the functionality. Bruce wanted to ensure the house would be able to serve two functions: it would be a summer home for E, yes, but it also needed to be a place where he and his three brothers (along with their families) could vacation — separately or all at once!

Let’s talk layout. The cabin is a split level house with a mirrored layout. The sleeping area is the upper level and the living area is the lower level.

Each upstairs bedroom features its own outdoor balcony which cantilevers over the ground. In the early days, these floating balconies were used as sleeping porches!

The space connecting the two bedrooms forms an indoor sleeping balcony. From the balcony, you can look out over the downstairs living room or look out to the south (to get the view of the Smokies).

1950s photo of the cabin’s heavy stone living room (© McCarty Holsaple McCarty)

Material-wise, the house features an impressive amount of mountain stone. It forms the fireplace and a lot of the living room wall, making the house feel very, very solid. Originally, the house did not have air-conditioning, so the heavy stone worked to keep the house cool in the summer. Speaking of solid, the floors in the downstairs are built of Tennessee Marble, waxed until it shines.

There is an abundance of wood throughout the cabin which offsets the harshness of the stone. The glass (especially in the huge living room) was all salvaged by Bruce from old store fronts!

1950s photo of the cabin looking into the kitchen. Living room is on your left, the patio is on your right (© McCarty Holsaple McCarty)

Lastly, let’s talk about the living room + the view. Frank Lloyd Wright is known for using a technique architects call “compression and release,” where a smaller room with a low (compressed) ceiling opens (releases) directly into a larger room with a view of the outdoors. In the cabin, Bruce employee this technique in an excellent way. When you enter the house, you go down a few stairs and enter into the living room which has very, very low ceilings. It doesn’t feel claustrophobic per se, but the structure pushes you to look ahead. And what lies ahead (at the south end of the room) is stunning: a two-story glass window looking out at the most incredible view of the Great Smoky Mountains. When you’re seated in the living room, this glass almost disappears. The structure of the windows is designed in such a way as to never restrict your view. Looking left or looking right reveals only more nature.

Here you can see the low ceiling of the living room
Looking down from the balcony, you can see the ‘release’ of the space as it opens up to the view

Now, you may have noticed that this blog is a bit more experiential than some of my previous blogs. That is because I have visited this place in person, I’ve seen it with my own two eyes! The McCarty cabin recently hit the market, and was purchased by a modernism-loving couple. The new owners have spent the past six months renovating the house, updating its internal systems and giving it a little more modern functionality.

Mid renovation, don’t mind the mess!

The owners were kind enough to let me document the renovation and see the finished product. However, not content to keep the McCarty cabin to themselves, the house can be rented on AirBNB! I couldn’t be more grateful to the new owners and would like to express my heartfelt thanks to them for letting me help bring the history of this architectural gem to light.

Oh and here’s a bunch more photos!

Tennessee Modernism: McCarty House I and II by Bruce McCarty

Much ink has been spilled about Knoxville architect Bruce McCarty. Bruce was born in Indiana, studied architecture at Princeton, and left school to serve as a P-38 pilot in World War II. After finishing up his undergrad at Princeton, he did a stint as a draftsman in the Knoxville office of Barber & McMurry. He eventually left to attend the University of Michigan and received his MArch there.

Bruce McCarty at Princeton

In 1949, once he decided to put roots down Bruce took a job as a draftsman at a Knoxville firm called Rutherford & Painter. In 1955, after Rutherford had retired, Bruce became a partner in the firm of Painter, Weeks & McCarty which eventually morphed into McCarty Holsaple McCarty (a firm which continues to this day).

The early parts of Bruce’s career were characterized by imaginative modernist homes scattered all around the city (although there’s a large concentration of them in West Knoxville). However, we’ll save these various interesting structures for another blog. Today’s focus is on the two houses Bruce designed as his own personal residences.

Structure: Bruce McCarty Residence I
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Bruce McCarty
Date: 1950
Tidbit: I wish I had a ton of photos, information, really anything about Bruce’s first house, but I’ve got nothing. It resides in the posh Sequoyah Hills neighborhood and has been owned by only a handful of owners. Maybe we’ll get some photos of that house at some point!

Structure: Bruce McCarty Residence II
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Bruce McCarty
Date: 1959
Story: If you were disappointed at how few photos there were for Bruce’s first house, don’t worry. Bruce’s second house hit the market in 2017 and thankfully the sellers (Bruce’s children) took the time to take lots of beautiful photos of it.

The house is arguably Bruce’s masterpiece. It’s perched on a wooded lot and overlooks the Tennessee River. The structure is a tri-level house with a T-shaped floor plan. It’s built on a 10-foot structural grid and all of the columns and beams are set on a 10-foot module. Bruce and his wife Elizabeth (whom he met on a blind date) lived there for over 40 years and raised their children there.

When Elizabeth passed away in 2016, the children decided to sell the place. The house itself is a time-capsule. Just about every aspect of the space is original, including the parquet, brick, and cork flooring, the jalousie windows, and the wood + brick exterior. I’ve included some of my favorite photos of the house below but if you want even more photos Curbed and the Knoxville News-Sentinel have got you covered.

Tennessee Modernism: TVA Office by Vincent G. Kling

Structure: TVA Operations Office Building
Location: Chattanooga, Tennessee
Architect: Vincent G. Kling
Date: 1965
Tidbit: In 1965, the TVA had a problem: their offices were scattered throughout 18 offices in Downtown Chattanooga, not exactly an efficient use of space. Progressive Architecture said the scattered TVA buildings “resemble[d] the organization of items in a woman’s purse.” 😂

To simplify their footprint, the TVA commissioned architect Vincent G. Kling to design them new operations office. The 540,000 square foot building would have been perched on the banks of the Tennessee River, just below the Chickamauga Dam. The serpentine-style of the building was meant to reflect the winding nature of the river it set beside.

Although the beautifully designed building’s planning stage got a feature in Progressive Architecture (April 1965), the structure never left said planning stage and was not built.

15 years after Kling’s proposal, the TVA would end up building new offices for its operations. The buildings (pictured below) were located in downtown Chattanooga (versus overlooking the river) and the design was considerably less inspired than the one Kling originally proposed.

The TVA’s current office buildings in downtown Chattanooga

You can see the archival footage from its 1982 opening here.

Tennessee Modernism: Shavin House by Frank Lloyd Wright

Structure: Seamour Shavin House
Location: Chattanooga, Tennesse
Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright
Date: 1951
Story: I can’t believe I’ve not yet profiled the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in Tennessee! Ok. First things first, this blog owes a lot to the work of the late Gavin Townsend along with the intrepid work of passionate Wright fans from all over the globe.

In the mid 1940s, Seamour and Gertrude (Gerte) Shavin bought a hillside lot high on a ridge above Chattanooga’s central downtown. There’s a bit of vaguery about how exactly the couple came to work with Wright. John Shearer claims that the couple had planned to use a local architect who ended up moving out of town. A Wall Street Journal interview with Gerte Shavin tells the story a bit differently. According to her account, the couple wrote a letter to Frank Lloyd Wright asking him to recommend them a good architect. He wrote back saying “The best one I know is myself” (a comment which would be very much in character for FLLW1).

The view from the Shavin House

In any event, the Shavin’s desired to live in a nontraditional house which is how, in 1949, they ended up visiting Taliesin (East) to discuss their desires with Frank Lloyd Wright in person. The couple received their final plans a year later when they visited Taliesin West — maybe FLLW didn’t trust sending his plans by mail?

Frank Lloyd Wright never did visit Tennessee, instead assigning Taliesin apprentice Marvin Bachman (who was killed in a car crash before the house was finished) to oversee the construction. In my own, very biased opinion, Mr. Wright not visiting Tennessee this was a missed opportunity for him, as I think he would have enjoyed it here very much. He may even have become a Volunteer fan.

The house is a Usonian style house, a term Frank Lloyd Wright coined to describe a house that embodied the ideas of a well-designed, simple, small house of moderate cost built for the American middle class. Usonian houses were designed with local materials, which is why the Shavin House’s exterior is build out of crab orchard stone and Louisiana cypress wood.

As with many of his other houses (and probably as another cost-saving measure), the Shavin House is full of Wright-designed furniture which was probably built on site.

Here’s just a few more photos because the place is so dang photogenic.

Marvelous photo taken from a blog on the same topic (by Jared Sebby)

1A note on Frank Lloyd Wright’s initials. All around the web, you’ll see Frank Lloyd Wright abbreviate as FLLW. This perplexed me, so I went in search of why that is the case. Here and there, someone will erroneously suggest that it’s because he was christened “Frank Lincoln Wright” so, when he changed his name to “Loyd”, he kept the two L’s to represent both names. In actuality, however, the double L is a Welsh way of of spelling, it’s a letter in and of itself. Frank Lloyd Wright often wrote his initials this way in the red squares that he sometimes placed in homes he’d completed.

Tennessee Modernism: House by (and for) Stapleton Long

Structure: Stapleton Long Residence
Location: Morristown, Tennessee
Architect: Stapleton Long
Date: 1964
Story: Today’s house is something you don’t quite expect to discover in a small down in East Tennessee.

I’ll save the wonderful story for after the photos, let’s look at this incredible space!

STORY TIME!

Stapleton “Stape” Long

The year is 1944. The place is central Virginia. A young man named Stapleton “Stape” Long was on leave from the navy. Stopping off at a soda shop, Stape was introduced to a college student named Jane. Two years later, they were married.

I’ve gotta say, no one meets their true love in soda shops anymore and I think the world is worse off because of that fact. Bring back soda shops!

Jane Long

After she graduated with a teaching degree, Jane taught elementary school while Stape finished up his architecture degree at the University of Virginia (UVA).

The couple (now with two daughters in tow) moved to Morristown in 1964. Stape had been offered the position of chief designer at the Berkline Furniture company, a chair manufacturer headquartered in Morristown, Tennessee. It was later that year that Stape got to work designing the family’s house (pictured above).

While getting his degree at UVA, Stape was mesmerized by the serpentine walls which were present on the campus. You can see his homage to the serpentine walls in the construction of his own house (below).

Stape was quite a creative fellow. While at Berkline he designed a couple of unique chair prototypes that were out of this world. One of the chairs was called the “Year 2000 Chair”, and it featured a telephone, a sun lamp, a television, a massager and a a hair dryer (among other “features”). The other chair I found reference to was called the “Futurama Chair”, a space-blue recliner with an automated switch on the arm that would bring up a glass “bubble” (like an astronaut helmet) and place it over the chair’s occupant.

A 1960s Berkline Furniture ad

One interesting anecdote about Long, though, is that he at one point he helped Fowler Bros (a furniture store in Knoxville, Tennessee) design its street-facing furniture showroom…apparently the man could design both chairs and architecture.

Berkline looks like a company that was always pulling stunts to get in the paper!

In 1989, after 35 years at Berkline, Stape retired, spending his free time sketching, painting, and woodworking.

Stape poses proudly with his painting “Bell Towers of Morristown”, a painting which won a local Morristown poster competition

Editor’s note: the current owners of the home seem to think that Stape got an assist designing his house. They seem to recall him working with a Knoxville firm on the design, however the firm is unknown. If that ends up being the case, have no fear, I’ll track down who it was at some point.

Tennessee Modernism: Bianculli House I and II by Mario Bianculli

Structure: Mario Bianculli Residence I
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Mario Bianculli
Date: 1941
Story: Italian-American architect Mario Bianculli came to work for the TVA at the beginning of 1936. Shortly thereafter, in 1938, he met and married Katherine (Kay) Potts, a Knoxville schoolteacher.

Artist’s profile of Mario Biancull

Kay’s family lived in Chattanooga, so not too long after they were married, the Bianculli’s travelled there and an interesting thing occurred: as they walked down a Chattanooga street full of shops, they spied a wallpaper so beautiful that they both proclaimed it beautiful in unison. They marched into the place selling it and bought out the entire store.

The Bianculli’s were living in an apartment in Knoxville, and really didn’t have any plans to design their own house. But after becoming bewitched by the hydrangia-patterned wallpaper, they determined that they must design a house suitable to be covered in its glory. They found themselves drawing house plans constantly, so they knew the time had come.

As a (somewhat) side note, Mario was quite the artist. Check out this design he drew while working at the TVA.

Ok. Back to the house build. With the wallpaper secured, the Bianculli’s needed land. The young couple wanted land and a view of the Smokies, but they didn’t want to be too far outside of Knoxville. And just a mile outside of the city, they found exactly what they were after: a steep lot full of pine trees with a valley below it, rolling hills past the valley, and, beyond that, the hazy Smoky Mountains.

Mario took charge of the house’s exterior + structure, Kay handled the interior design. The house itself was simple, built to take advantage of the view. The living room, as expected, was built to maximize the aforementioned wallpaper. The front door was located in such a way as to discourage salesmen.

Kay’s resourcefulness was on full display in the creation of custom furniture. She turned a copper coil from a refrigerator into a floor lamp. She used wooden rolling pins (handles removed) as bases for lamps. The ceiling was oyster white, the walls were neutral colors, and the chartreuse curtains were custom made by a New York friend of Mario’s.

The house was featured in both an issue of The American Home and Architectural Forum (December 1943).

The house could use a bit of sprucing up, but still is in decent condition

Structure: Mario Bianculli Residence II
Location: Chattanooga, Tennessee
Architect: Mario Bianculli
Date: 1945
Tidbit: Mario Bianculli left the TVA in October of 1945 and moved to Chattanooga. The first thing he did was to design him and Kay a house overlooking the Tennessee River. The house is considered the first modernist house in Chattanooga, a town which would eventually hold houses designed by both Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright. According to the late Gavin Townsend, the house’s most striking feature, its asymmetrical butterfly roof, was inspired by Le Corbusier’s unbuilt design for Maison Erràzuriz (in Chile).

Bianculli House II borders a prep school which eventually bought the house and turned it into classrooms

Tennessee Modernism: House by (and for) Liesje Ketchel

Structure: Liesje Ketchel Residence
Location: Oak Ridge, Tennessee
Architect: Liesje Ketchel
Date: 1970
Tidbit: In 1970, Dr. Melvin Ketchel (a biologist with a PhD from Harvard) was hired to head up the Oak Ridge Population Research Institute. His wife, Liesje Ketchel, had a BA in psychology and an MArch from Harvard. So, while Dr. Ketchel was off working, Liesje set about designing her family a house, one that blended her knowledge of how humans lived with her knowledge of design and construction.

Liesje hard at work designing her residence

One of her most interesting inclusions was an indoor pool placed right next to the master bedroom, a feature the Ketchels had experienced at their previous residence back east.

The house sold in 2017 and, thankfully, the listing agent had lots of beautiful photos taken of this unique house. Let’s have a look:

The house seems to have changed very little since it was built, which is marvelous to see.

Tennessee Modernism: The 2 Glass Box Houses of Sequoyah Hills

Sequoyah Hills is a historic neighborhood in Knoxville, Tennessee. Its historicity is emphasized by all of the gorgeous (and traditional) turn-of-the-century houses that fill its lush streets.

However, set amongst the traditional structures are two houses that look a bit out of place. Echoing a Miesien style, these two mid-century modern houses are in conversation with each other. Both feature large, square living rooms made of glass and steel. Both of the houses are perched atop hilly lots with views of the Tennessee River. Both of the structures have their hefty steel living rooms tempered by natural stone.

Ok enough with the poetry, let’s have a look at the two spaces.

Structure: James Ferguson House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Carl F. Maples Sr
Date: 1950
Tidbit: James Ferguson was the business administrator at the East Tennessee Tuberculosis Hospital. His father was a homebuilder, so he and his wife had been dreamin’ and schemin’ about how to build their own house. This structure probably existed long before they brought their ideas to an architect to realize.

Structure: Dr. Harry Jenkins House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Ben F. McMurry Sr
Date: 1955
Tidbit: Dr. Harry Jenkins was a progressive doctor. An obstetrician, Dr. Jenkins was giving speeches in support of birth control as early as 1941. What he lacked, though, was a house that showcased his progressive ideals.

Now, Dr. Jenkins lived in Sequoyah Hills, just down the road from the Ferguson house. The Ferguson house must have had an impact on Dr. Jenkins because in 1955, he selected a hillside lot overlooking the river and commissioned 28-year-old architect Ben McMurry to design a house for him that shared an awful lot of similarities with the other house. The house won an AIA award at the 1958 Gulf States Regional conference. Interestingly, Dr. Jenkins sold the house seven years later.