Tennessee Modernism: 1958 Better Homes & Garden ‘Idea Home’ by Omer Mithun

VERY SPECIAL EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s blog is TennMod’s second ever guest blog. It was written by my good friend (and partner in crime) Michelle Kroft. Although she’d rather be off photographing modernist houses in Middle Tennessee, she was kind enough to take the time to help make TennMod a well-rounded repository for the modernist architecture of Tennessee.

Structure: 1958 Idea Home (plan 2809-A)
Location: Nashville, Tennessee
Architect: Omer Mithun
Date: 1958+
Story: Throughout the early twentieth century, home plans were a standard feature in house magazines. Prospective homeowners could flip through the magazine, purchase the plans they saw with a phone call, and then hire a local company to build it. This would effectively get the homeowners an architect-designed home at a fraction of the cost. One of those house magazines was Better Homes and Gardens (BH&G, for short), which you’ve no doubt heard of. The magazine is a long-running juggernaut. It started in 1922 and is still going strong today!

If you’d picked up a 1940 issue of American Home, you would have discovered this house plan for a 700 sq ft cabin designed by legendary architect Richard Neutra

BH&G’s mid-century era home plans featured some stunning designs. As an example, in the September 1957 issue, the magazine teamed up with acclaimed San Francisco-based architectural firm Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons to design the first “Idea Home” (photos below). They designed the T-shaped floor plan with separate public and private spaces, meant to compliment inside and outside living zones. The house was billed as “… a blueprint for your future, a forecast of a way of living best suited to your family.”

Ok. Now, let’s talk about the house we came here to talk about, shall we? The September 1958 issue of BH&G included six Idea Homes, one of which was the Five Star 2809-A plan, an attractive post and beam design by a Bellevue, Washington area architect named Omer Mithun.

Can we just pause for a second an admire the living room of this house Omer Mithun designed in Seattle, Washington?

Plan 2809-A was the smallest (and the worst-named) of the floor plans, clocking in at 1,218 sq ft. Its smaller footprint meant, however, that it was a bit cheaper than the other five designs, despite retaining many features of the larger plans.

The BH&G article about the house read, “Room arrangement adapts to a small or growing family. There’s a choice of places for living and dining. Large closets are where they’re handiest. Central hall joins (yet separates) three bedroom ‘quiet’ wing and active, daytime areas. Living expands through view and use of fenced-in patio garden.”

This particular plan proved quite popular, and you can find examples of it in Keene, Texas (below, left) and in Walla Walla, Washington (below, right).

There are two known examples of this home plan in the greater Nashville area. First up, the one in Madison, Tennessee.

Next up, the one in South Nashville, Tennessee.

The son of the original owners of the South Nashville home reached out and sent over these wonderful original photos of the place.

During a little bit of driving, a home with a very similar look/feel was found in rural Rutherford County. It’s possible that it also was adapted from that same floorplan.

Tennessee Modernism: House that HOME built by Bruce McCarty

Structure: House that HOME built
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Bruce McCarty
Date: 1957
Story: It’s not often there’s a silver screen connection to Tennessee architecture, but today, there is! In the 1950s, NBC was airing a show called Home. The show was hosted by entertainer Arlene Francis and broadcaster Hugh Downs. The show was a hit. At a time when the largest shows brought in ~6M viewers, Home amassed an audience of over ~2M. Very impressive.

Hugh Downs (far left) and Arlene Francis (second from left)

The show was to feature a segment called ‘House that HOME built’, a segment co-sponsored by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). The segment’s goal was to convince the viewers that glass-filled, flat(ish)-roofed, modern homes would work anywhere in the country, not just in sunny California.

NBC spent $200k (~$1.9M today) to build the revolving set. It featured a kitchen, a workshop, and an area to demonstrate the effects of weather on various items

There are rumors that the ‘House that HOME built’ segment was the brainchild of none other than Joseph Eichler. Eichler, a marketing man at heart, hoped the segment would help him sell houses (which he was building out in California).

An Eichler blueprint and completed house (in Southern California)

Jumping over to California for a second, Eichler built tracts of houses that were very modern. Because Eichler himself was a builder (not an architect), he used a handful of modernist architectural firms to achieve a contemporary for his tract houses. Some of the firms he used were Jones & Emmons and Anshen & Allen.

The Eichler-built house on the left was designed by Jones & Emmons, the one on the right by Anshen & Allen

Back to our feature programming. So Eichler (along with the NBC execs) convinced Jones & Emmons to design a prototype house for the segment. The idea was to design a house that was modern but could sit well in any climate, one that could be built by builders from anywhere in the U.S.

Scans from the original House that HOME built brochure (via KC Modern)

The resulting design was the ‘House that HOME built’ model, take a look!

The design was then made available to other architects/builders around the country for $200 with the stipulation that, if you bought the plans, you’d build one model which would be open to the public.

NBC published a House That Home Built publication called ‘HOME in review’. Here, Arlene Francis displays the Jones & Emmons designed model

Back in Knoxville, home builder Martin Bartling (an active member of the NAHB), saw an opportunity. He attempted to build one of the Jones & Emmons designs in 1955. A March 1, 1955 notes that he planned to have the house built and “on exhibit for 30 days from June 4.” Like many other homebuilders in the U.S. who attempted this type of quick turnaround, Bartling doesn’t appear to have been successful.

Undaunted, Bartling come up with an alternative plan. Instead of having a local builder use Jones & Emmons plan, why not have a local architect create their own design and then have House that HOME built feature it? After receiving special permission from NBC, Bartling worked with Knoxville architect Bruce McCarty to design Knoxville’s very own House that HOME built.

Upon completion, NBC had the McCartys (Bruce & his wife Elizabeth) come to the HOME studio in New York and sit down with the show’s hosts. The interview, which was never aired, featured Bruce discussing his house’s design and how it accurately met the needs of young, American families.

Hugh Downs and Arlene Francis at left, Bruce and Elizabeth McCarty at right

The house was featured in Knoxville’s 1957 Parade of Homes, and, once the parade was finished, was sold to its first owners Loyd and Frances Wilson.

Bartling stands outside Knoxville’s House that HOME built to commence the opening of the 1957 Parade of Homes

Tennessee Modernism: House by (and for) Ben McMurry Jr

Structure: Ben McMury Jr Residence
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Ben McMurry Jr
Date: 1951? (the question mark is because I’m like 90% certain on that)
Story: At its heart, today’s blog is a father/son story. Let’s start with the father, shall we? Ben McMurry Sr (1885-1969) was an East Tennessee architect who, along with another architect named Charlie Barber, practiced his discipline at a firm called (appropriately) Barber & McMurry. The firm was founded in 1915 and continues to this day (under the stylized name BarberMcMurry Architects). Soon after starting his firm, in 1923 to be exact, Ben McMurry Sr designed a home for his family in the Sequoyah Hills neighborhood of Knoxville, Tennessee.

Designed in 1923 by Ben McMurry Sr as his own residence

It was in this house that Ben McMurry Sr raised his son Ben McMurry Jr (1926-1989). Surprising no one, McMurry Jr went on to become an architect as well. He joined the Navy right out of high school, and left when WWII ended in 1945. From there, he headed studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, and, upon returning home, joined his father’s firm.

Ben McMurry Sr (left) looks over architectural plans with Ben McMurry Jr (right)

Best as I can tell, McMurry Jr went to UPenn from about 1946-1950. At that time, UPenn’s architecture was Beaux-Arts style, and the architectural program was under the auspices of George S. Koyl. However, a shift towards modernist styles of architecture was already well under way. Architects in Philadelphia (like Louis Kahn, Oscar Stonorov, and George Howe) were all designing structures that featured international style and Bauhaus influences. McMurry Jr definitely came away influenced by the early modernism present either in Philadelphia or featured in architectural magazines of the time.

Carver Court housing (left) in Coatesville, PA, was designed by Louis Kahn, George Howe and Oscar Stonorov around 1941. The Roche House (right) was designed by Stonorov & Kahn in Whitemarsh Township, PA in 1945.

Quick aside about the Philadelphia architecture scene: About a decade after McMurry Jr studied at UPenn, a group of architects (known as the “Philadelphia School”) would push against the Miesian concept of architecture, pushing their designs to a more postmodern place. If you’re interested in that movement (which included architects like Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi, and Romaldo Giurgola), Curbed has a solid article on the topic.

Reflecting on McMurry Jr’s own house’s design (see below), I will say it speaks to an architectural trend of floating box houses which sit atop their raised concrete foundation.

At left, the George Matsumoto Residence (1953). At right, the Jim Sherrill residence (1957), both in North Carolina

Ok back to Knoxville. By about 1951, the 1923 house McMurry Sr had designed was becoming a bit crowded (and probably a bit too traditional) for McMurry Jr. Thus it was that McMurry Sr and McMurry Jr designed and built a little studio + office just behind the 1923 house.

The studio was christened the “little house” and the 1923 house was termed the “big house.”

A covered walkway takes you from the house to a covered storage area

However, that little studio+office didn’t last for long. Just a couple of years later, McMurry Jr added on to the studio, turning it into 2 bed, 1 bath, ~1,400 sq. ft. house.

The “little house” got a little mention in a 1955 Knoxville News-Sentinel article about how glass was changing architecture

Why the remodel + addition? Well because in 1954, McMury Jr had met, fallen in love with, and married Betsy Parrott! The two of them were planning a family and needed the space (and probably some rooms versus just a studio).

McMurry Jr with his first wife Betsy Parrott

A local newspaper quoted Betsy as saying McMurry Jr (who was 6’4”) was “the only man she ha[d] ever been able to look up to”. The McMurrys would go on to have their first two children in the “little house.”

A final history of the “little house.” In the 1980s, it was purchased from the McMurry Sr Estate by Anne Lester (an architecture professort at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville) and her husband Bill Lester. The Lesters sold it to the Heller family, and they rented it to Dillon Luttrell (whose photographs of the house appear all throughout this article). The Hellers eventually sold it to the Trainer family, and the Trainers now currently own both the “big house” and the “little house” — how about that for some property deed recording! When I spoke to the Trainers, they said they’d remodeled the place last year, keeping as much of the mid-century look as they could.

PS (if a blog can have such a thing): I would like to heartily thank Martha McMurry, Ben McMurry III, and Dillon Luttrell for helping me parse together the story of this gem of a structure. I would also like to thank architectural historian Claass HAUS for helping me with the Pennsylvania-era history.

Tennessee Modernism: Christus Gardens by Tom A. Windrom

VERY SPECIAL EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s blog is TennMod’s first ever guest blog. It was written by my good friend (and pamphlet archivist) Brian McKnight. Although his passion is collecting history on film (as documented on his YouTube page), I appreciate him taking time to help make TennMod a well-rounded repository for the modernist architecture of Tennessee.

Structure: Christus Gardens
Location: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Architect: Tom A. Windrom
Date: 1960
Story: Ronald S. Ligon opened Christus Gardens’ doors to an enthusiastic crowd on August 13, 1960. Getting to opening day, however, wasn’t an easy task.

In the left photo, Ronald Ligon (in the suit, on the right) shakes hands with the first group to visit Christus Gardens

Let’s explore the full story. This one starts, as most stories do, with a dream. Ronald S. Ligon had a dream. His dream was to open a museum dedicated to telling the story of Christ. Ronald S. Ligon also had a plan, and his plan was to buy an existing motel in the Smoky Mountains and turn it into a museum.

Ronald just standing there with a smile on his face — his dream had come to life!

However, when a real estate guy (Prichard Barnes) showed Ronald a parcel of land on River Road, Ronald knew he had to build his museum from the ground up.

With the perfect spot obtained, he was off to find the perfect design, but finding an architect to design a structure to house 71 biblical characters in 10 large dioramas proved more difficult than one might think.

Ronald visited several architectural firms, but no one would take up his project. Thinking back, Ronald recalled firms saying “Well, you see we are quite too busy at this time to consider your ideas, but maybe we might get around to it at some future date.” This put a damper on Ronald’s search. “Such enthusiastic responses were becoming commonplace” he said at one point.

A rendering Tom A. Windrom did for the Gatlinburg Ski Club Lodge

Eventually, a close friend of Ronald’s convinced him to talk with Tom A. Windrom of the Memphis-area firm Windrom, Haglund and Venable. This meeting went well, and Windrom took on the project with great enthusiasm. You might say Ronald and Windrom were a match made in heaven (😉).

Windrom’s design contained over 22,000 square feet of space, appropriate for displaying the large dioramas recreating significant chapters in the life of Christ.

The exterior was built using unpolished marble blocks combined with split-face ashlar (masonry made of large cut stones) streaked with pink and black markings.

The eye-catching marble patterns were used to great effect in the rotunda, a circular enclosure independent of the museum which connected to the enclosed lobby.

Also noteworthy were the solar screen paneled arches constructed of tiles lining the marble walls.

Christus Gardens closed its doors in 2007, but was reopened under the name “Christ in the Smokies” a year later.

As of January, 2021, the museum’s lease has been purchased by Gatlinburg Skylift Park leaving Christ in the Smokies without a home, and leaving the future of Windrom’s building uncertain. Here’s to hoping the new owners (Skylift Park) know a good thing when they see it. Fingers crossed. Or say a prayer.

Tennessee Modernism: Rich’s Dept. Store by Stevens & Wilkinson

Structure: Rich’s Department Store
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Stevens & Wilkinson (Barber & McMurry, associates)
Date: 1955
Story: We do an awful lot of house stories here on the blog, this is true. But today, we’re doing a Knoxville city landmark: the department store called Rich’s.

Rich’s was a chain of department stores that was founded in Atlanta in the late 1800s. Under the chain’s founder, Morris Rich, the chain grew and grew, achieving immense commercial success in the south.

Rich’s first flagship store in downtown Atlanta. Built in 1924.

The company’s second owner (Morris’s son Daniel) continued to oversee great success for the chain. When Daniel’s son Richard (who went by Dick) took over in 1949, he had a mind to (1) expand outside of George and (2) modernize.

How about that vintage Rich’s credit card!

So, in the early 1950s, Dick commissioned three legendary artisans to create a massive, modern new Rich’s in Knoxville.

The office of Stevens & Wilkinson

First, Dick commissioned the Atlanta based architectural firm Stevens & Wilkinson to design the modernist, three-story full-line store. The building’s design received an AIA award when it was built…and you can see why!

The resulting building featured lots of glass, green glazed brick on the front, red glazed brick on the side, and a wavy concrete awning as an accent.

This photo (via Inside of Knoxville) shows the green and red brick simultaneously
When I say this brick was a big deal, it was a big deal. The Knoxville newspaper made sure to mention it many times

Although the interior photos (from the Library of Congress) are low-resolution, may I draw your attention to the furs section!

Next, Dick got ahold of notable mid-century landscape architectural firm Eckbo, Royston & Williams to design the landscaping. This firm was known throughout the U.S. for helping to blend architecture into its surroundings, even if the surroundings were man-made.

The Tucson Community Center landscape (in Tucson, AZ) designed by Eckbo, Royston & Williams

Eckbo, Royston & Williams were up for the task, surrounding the department store with terrain that was walkable, accessible, and scenic (despite the building being on a major street).

In the mid-century era, the landscape was equally as important as the building, as department stores like Rich’s were hubs of community activity.

A farmer’s market takes place in the shade of the concrete wave awning

With the building designed and the landscape planned, Dick commissioned a lighting specialist named Abe Feder to light the building. When he passed away in 1997, the New York Times called Mr. Feder a “master of lighting in all its forms.”

You can see the lighting Feder (right) used in this nighttime photo of Rich’s

I couldn’t find a color photo of the Knoxville store all lit up but here’s an image of the Georgia store at Christmastime (below, left). You can see how lighting played a big part of the store’s look and feel. The photo below on the right is the Knoxville store at Christmastime.

One interesting anecdote about Christmas. Every year, in the Atlanta Rich’s, a great big Christmas tree would perch atop the multi-level bridge. Mark Millkey, son of architect Herbert Millkey Sr (whom we’ve written about on the blog previously) told me that he thinks his dad may have designed the bridge. Regardless of the bridge’s pedigree, Mark shared this amazing anecdote about the bridge at Christmastime, “Once a year around the holidays, possibly on Thanksgiving, the bridge was the site of a choral performance. There was a different choir on each level, with the youngest performers at the bottom, and a professional choir (with a formidable soprano) at the top. As I recall, the performance always culminated in a performance of O Holy Night, at the end of which the tree atop the bridge was lit.

As it happens, I was in one of the choirs one year when I was in high school in the mid-1970s.”

As Rich’s sales waned in the mid 1970s, the store was sold to another department chain called Miller’s (which was headquartered in Chattanooga). The Miller’s store had a restaurant, a snack bar, and a bakery counter…which makes me wonder if the store had all those things when Rich’s created it.

Rendering via the Department Store Museum

At some point, Miller’s shut down and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville took over the building to use it as a conference center building.

As is to be expected with things UTK takes over, the building is rather run down and the marvelous landscaping has all been torn out and replaced with concrete.

Both photos via the marvelous Inside of Knoxville blog

Tennessee Modernism: Space House by Curtis W. King

Structure: Space House
Location: Chattanooga, Tennessee
Architect: Curtis W. King
Date: 1972
Story: When you visit this blog, you’ve got one type of mid-century modern architecture on your mind. It’s got straight lines, lots of glass, a flat roof, that sort of thing.

California architect Richard Neutra sits atop his rather modern VDL Research House in Silver Lake, California

Today, however, we’re gonna take a little psychedelic detour from all of that. So put on your tinfoil hat, we’re about to talk aliens (sort of).

These stickers, designed by Native Made Co, are fantastic and you can buy them. Buy the left one here, buy the right one here

Around 1965, Finnish architect Matti Suuronen was designing an easy-to-build vacation home for a friend, one that could be erected in mountainous skiing areas that were hard to access.

For all things Futuro House, visit TheFuturoHouse.com — those guys know everything

The Futuro House, as it was dubbed, possessed the ability to be built on uneven terrains. The structure’s egg shape was composed of 16 fiberglass segments bolted together, supposed by four concrete piers and a concave steel frame. The egg-shaped part was pre-assembled, delivered to the remote site by helicopter.

What I’m about to show you next is not a Futuro House. What I’m about to show you next, however, is located in Tennessee.

The Space House

The aptly named ‘Space House’ was created by a Chattanooga building contractor named Curtis King, and it served two primary purposes: The first purpose was as a swanky bachelor pad for his son. Originally, the bedroom doors on were padded with black leather to give the place a 70s lounge vibe.

But more importantly, the house served as a prototype for what Curtis King hoped would become a whole development of spaceship houses. I have no doubt that he was inspired by models of the Futuro House colony (below).

Unlike the 500 square foot Futuro House, however, the Space House clocks in at just under 2,000 square feet. All that square footage makes it easy to fit 3 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms inside of it. The master bedroom is in the center of the spaceship, and although it has no windows, it does have a large skylight to illuminate it.

Like many future-looking designers, Curtis King was working in the vein of visionaries such as Buckminster Fuller, trying to reimagine the dwellings within which humans (or aliens?) lived.

Buckminster Fuller’s prefabricated ‘Dymaxion house’

But unlike prefabricated houses (which were often made using lightweight and inexpensive, pre-produced materials), the Space House was built using a steel frame covered with a concrete shell. The concrete shell is then wrapped in fiberglass.

Whereas a Futuro House might weigh about 9,000 pounds, the Space house weighs somewhere between 55-60 tons.

The late architectural historian Gavin Townsend wrote that originally, the house had windows which “ringed the entire structure at one-foot intervals.” These windows were “Custom manufactured in Huntsville, Alabama” and are “composed of amber-colored acrylic panels.” Unfortunately, over time, many of the windows look to have been removed.

When it was built, the house was a hit. Curtis King estimated that somewhere between 20,000 – 30,000 people visited the house’s site during its construction. Despite the popularity of the house, however, its exorbitant cost (somewhere in the neighborhood of $250,000) and weighty construction meant that it was not suited for mass production.

The house still stands, and you can visit it if you’re looking for an architectural experience that is (argggghh, don’t say it), out of this world.

Tennessee Modernism: Irwinton by James T. Mitchell

Structure: Richard Irwin House (called “Irwinton”)
Location: Ten Mile, Tennessee
Architect: James T. Mitchell
Date: 1953
Story: The year is 1945, the place is Houston, Texas. Alya Dean Smith (a native of Ten Mile, Tennessee) was visiting her brother, a lawyer named Cyril J. Smith. While they visited, Alya was introduced to a successful oilman named Rich Irwin. One year later, Alya and Rich were married.

Rich & Alya

The newlyweds travelled all over the world, but despite their adventures, no place made Alya as happy as East Tennessee. The Irwins often visited Alya’s mother Bessie, spending time in her modest white cottage on Watts Bar Lake.

Now, Bessie Smith owned 700 acres all around Watts Bar Lake. And one day in 1953, when Rich had climbed up to the tallest peak on the 700 acres, he decided to build him and his wife a house there.

Irwinton under construction

The first thing Rich did was get a bulldozer and start building the roads to himself. Then, he hired Knoxville architect James T. Mitchell to designing the house. They dubbed the house “Irwinton.”

View from the living room

For this house, money was no expense. When the structure was finished, it was estimated to cost over $400k (about $3.8M today).

James T. Mitchell’s sketch of Irwinton

At the time it was built, the 10-bedroom, 9,000 sq. ft. house featured the largest living room of any private residence in the United States: 50 x 30 (1,500 sq ft) along with 18 ft ceilings. An orchestra balcony overlooked the great room, and it was estimated that you could fit some 200 guests in there.

The house itself still stands, although it’s impossible to see due to its secluded nature. Some old archival photos will have to do.

Google satellite view of the house (on the left)

Tennessee Modernism: Rodgers Building by Shelton & Stachel

Structure: Howard Rodgers Building
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Shelton & Stachel
Date: 1947
Tidbit: In 1947, a Knoxville, Tennessee contractor named Howard Rodgers commissioned the local architectural firm Shelton & Stachel to design a headquarters for his operations.

A sale flyer featuring the architects’ stamp in the bottom left

The result was this building, designed in a style that’s sometimes called “Mid-Century Moderne”, “Streamline Moderne,” or “Art Moderne.” It’s safe to say there aren’t too many buildings like this in Tennessee.

The interior featured oak floors, cherry wood panelling, and those neat, custom triangular lights

Over time, the building was whatever the current owner needed it to be. Sometimes, that meant it needed to be teal.

In my opinion, the most epic part of this building’s saga is this majestic tree out front which that slowly broke down until, one day, it was bulldozed.

So long, mighty tree 😞🌳

Let’s not end on a sad note. There’s not a ton of literature on Shelton & Stachel but as best as I can find, they were a firm comprised of LC Shelton and Louis T. Stachel that formed around 1947 with a big hospital commission. Shelton came to Knoxville and was a partner with architect Frank O. Barber in the early 1940s. A drug overdose took Barber in 1941, so Shelton continued to run their firm (Barber & Stachel). Shelton had the kind of early 1940s design sensibility which allowed him to design buildings like the factory (pictured below) which he designed in 1944. This building may have been what caught Rodgers’ eye and prompted him to have Shelton design him an office/HQ.

Stachel was a native of Greeneville, Tennessee and started practicing architecture in Knoxville around 1941. Early on, Stachel worked for the TVA. However in 1957 he got a job in Mobile, Alabama with a firm called Palmer & Baker Inc. He transferred all of him (and, I assume, his firm’s) files and contracts to architect David B. Liberman.

Tennessee Modernism: Wert House by Robert Anderson

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!

Tennessee Modernism: The 3 projects which sought to modernize Downtown Knoxville

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 colorful screens that businesses could lower when the sun got too intense. Overall, the project was very well received, even getting a feature in Architectural Forum (April 1962).

There’s no doubt these concrete canopies took a lot of inspiration from the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Johnson Wax Building.

Image of the Johnson Wax Building by Frank Lloyd Wright

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.

The Gay/Way awnings are clearly visible in this Veterans Day picture from 1977
The Gay/Way awnings can be seen adjoining what is now the Embassy Suites

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)