Tennessee Modernism: Fairhill by Cliff May

Structure: Stewart Henslee House (called “Fairhill”)
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Cliff May
Date: 1949
Story: In the early 1940s, a Knoxville, Tennessee furniture salesman (Stewart Henslee) joined up with the Navy. He was stationed at Naval Base Coronado (NBC), a base that sits on the island of Coronado, California (an island just off the coast of San Diego, California). While stationed there, he met + fell in love with one of the Coronado residents, Miss Marjorie Walbridge. In 1942, the two of them were married on the West Coast.

Two years later (1944), Stewart and Marjorie purchased 384 acres of property that formerly belonged to R.L. Sterchi. The land, out in West Knoxville, was extremely rural and came with a 40-acre lake.

Stewart Henslee (left) holds young Marjorie, Marjorie Henslee (right) holds Stewart Jr

Now, since Marjorie was from Southern California, she was quite taken with the styles of architecture that were native to her home state. Styles that evoked the old ranches that used to dot the arid California land. Stewart was amenable towards the style as well, having been stationed in California for some time. So the couple commissioned up-and-coming California architect Cliff May to customize one of his designs for them. If you’re not familiar with Cliff May, here’s a great primer on him. Cliff May was known for designing California ranch-style houses, so it only seemed right that the Henslee’s had him alter one of his California ranch-style plans for their new Knoxville residence.

The photo below is a plan Cliff May called the “Postwar Demonstration House,” and it bears a striking resemblance to the house May ended up customizing for the Henslee Family. It’s quite possible they visited this house (or a house much like it) in San Diego as Cliff May was heavily promoting his houses in the Southern California area.

© University of California, Santa Barbara
These are the actual blueprints of the Henslee’s house

The Henslee’s called their new home “Fairhill.”

Marjorie Henslee photographed from the porch of her Cliff May-designed home, “Fairhill”

Unfortunately, things did not stay fair on that hill for very long. Given both of their wealth and status (Stewart was the head of the Fowler Brothers Furniture Co, Marjorie came from a wealthy family due to her great uncle helping create the Libby-Owens-Ford glass company) the couple went through a very public divorce in early 1963. Later that year, Stewart died of a heart attack. The house itself stood up on it’s hill as the land around it slowly got carved up and sold. The house was eventually demolished around 2012, and to this day the house’s former site is just an empty dirt lot.

Another one bites the dust

Tennessee Modernism: 2 mid-century houses by Bill Kleinsasser

Editor’s note: This post only features very tiny photos, and for that I apologize. Just imagine they were taken with a little flip phone, that’ll give them a nostalgic quality.

Long ago, weather was forecasted out of weather stations. These weather stations were run by the federal government. The U.S. had a weather station located at McGhee Tyson Airport, which was run from 1941-1960 by a man named William “Ted” Kleinsasser Sr. Ted was well-liked, partially because he was a good weatherman, but also because he introduced and taught Western-style square dancing to East Tennessee.

In 1960, Ted’s car slammed headfirst into the railing of a bridge. Shortly thereafter, he was let go from his weatherman job. In an effort to improve his condition, Ted checked himself into a psychiatric treatment center up in Asheville, North Carolina. Upon finishing his treatment, the doctors told him to get interested in something that would keep him physically fit and also keep him interested.

Ted & Mabel outside their house (1972)

Ted went back home to Alcoa, Tennessee, and became an enthusiastic gardener. Now Ted owned four lots, two had regular houses on them, and on the other two, he gardened. Let’s pause Ted’s story and talk about his son Bill.

William “Bill” Kleinsasser Jr was raised in Alcoa by Ted and his wife Mabel. Bill was an athletic fellow, and ended up going to Princeton (and getting an All-American mention despite being there on an academic scholarship). He took a break from Princeton to serve in the Korean War, but returned to get his MFA in architecture.

It is during this point (around 1956) that Bill did two awesome things. First, he met-and-married Ann Biester. Secondly, he designed a house for Knoxville businessman Oliver Wright Sr., the owner of a local hardware + appliance store. The house is a marvelous post and beam house that sits high atop a hill. Its views are spectacular.

Structure: Oliver Wright Sr House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Bill Kleinsasser
Date: 1956

Man, what a house. Ok let’s finish up Bill’s bio. During his time at Princeton, Bill crossed paths with many notable architects including Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, Hugh Hardy, and William Turnbull. After he graduated Princeton, he was a busy man. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in France, had a private practice (in Doylestown, Pennsylvania), worked with Marc-Joseph Saugey (in Geneva, Switzerland), and did a stint in the office of Louis Kahn (in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). In 1965 he became professor of architecture at the University of Oregon where he would teach for 34 years.

Ok, back to Ted! In the late 1960s, Bill was on sabbatical from UO, and he was in Alcoa, Tennessee, visiting home. Bill took a look at the large limestone ledge that ran through his dad’s property and said “Pop, why don’t you build a house here?”

The limestone ledge that ran through Ted’s property

Ted thought it over, then said “If you design it, I’ll build it.”

The house was made out of Western red cedar, stained and weathered until it was gray. The interior was mostly made out of pecan paneling. The ceiling was made of Douglas fir, topped with insulation, over which a tar roof was poured, capped by a layer of limestone chips.

Interestingly, none of the stones on the rocky property were moved to make way for the house, the house was engineered around the stones. This was in keeping with one of Bill’s architectural tenants: that architecture should respond to place.

Structure: Ted Kleinsasser House
Location: Alcoa, Tennessee
Architect: Bill Kleinsasser
Date: 1969

As I finish writing, it occurs to me that I should have called this blog entry Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (in modernism)

Tennessee Modernism: Glass House by (and for) Bill Shell

Structure: Glass House // Bill Shell Residence
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: William “Bill” Starke Shell
Date: 2002
Story: Although we rarely venture this far outside of the mid-century era, this house deserves an honorable mention. Inspired by his time spent working with Mies van der Rohe in Chicago, University of Tennessee Professor Bill Shell bought a wooded parcel of land in 1978. Then, over the next 22 years, he designed and built this house, paying cash as he went. It’s ability to sit in both an old paradigm while being built recently is a testament to its timeless (if sterile) shape.

Tennessee Modernism: Gentry House I and II by Dr. Robert Gentry & James C. Freer

The only current photo of Gentry House I

Structure: Robert Gentry Residence I
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: James C. Freer, Dr. Robert Gentry (designer)
Date: 1965

The Story:

There are very few Renaissance men in this world. Dr. Robert H. Gentry Jr, however, was one of them. Born in Denton, Texas, Dr. Gentry spent his undergrad studying physics at the University of Texas. While there, he taught basic architectural classes focused around the mathematical side of architecture.

It was here that his deep passion for architecture began to develop.

After a brief stint working as a physicist for Monsanto, Dr. Gentry changed his career path and went to University of Texas at Galveston Medical School, earning his M.D. in psychiatry. After graduation, in the late 1950s, he did 2 years of residency in Galveston, TX, 1 year of residency in Washington D.C., finally landing at the Fort Sanders Presbyterian Hospital (now the Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center) in Knoxville, Tennessee. Dr. Gentry quickly took to the marvelous climate of East Tennessee, becoming a prolific hiker. Of interest, Dr. Gentry’s father (Robert Gentry Sr) was a very skilled woodworker, a skill he passed along to Dr. Gentry. A wood worker working and walking in the woods? How about that.

The pull of the mountains proved too much to resist. Dr. Gentry and his wife decided to settle + build a house in Knoxville.. 

It took them all of 1964 to design their home’s floorpan. Why so long? Dr. Gentry was quite taken with an idea Frank Lloyd Wright had pioneered: designing a house with no right angles (no Wright angles? Ok I’ll stop). Following in the FLLW footsteps, Dr. Gentry created a hexagonal floor plan for his house that primarily used 60º or 120º angles.

Dr. Gentry’s handcrafted wooden model (right), a satellite of the house (left

The next six months were spent working with Knoxville architect James C. Freer, a Cornell-educated architect who’d just opened his own shop (in 1963). Although the ideas for the house all came from Dr. Gentry, Freer helped turn them into reality. 

The 4,800 sq ft house was a marvel. It featured a two-story entryway (replete with floor-to-ceiling glass windows) which was separated from the living room by a stream. The stream had goldfish living in it, and the stream was fed by a small waterfall bubbling out of a 10-foot rock formation. A little bridge allowed you to cross from one room to the other. 

Dr. Gentry’s woodworking skills were on full display: the Wurlitzer piano in the living room had custom (contemporary) legs he’d made, the dining room table was a 9-foot hexagonal creation, and the hallways featured handmade walnut fixtures. No molding was used in the house, all of the wood was mitered by hand. 

The name of the Gentry House I? “Appalachia”.

Wait, did I say Gentry House I? As in there’s another? You bet there is. And there are pictures, too. 

Structure: Robert Gentry Residence II
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Dr. Robert Gentry (designer)
Date: 1978

The Story: The Gentry’s built their first house in 1965. But roughly 10 years later, the couple got divorced. So in 1975, Dr. Gentry bought a forested parcel of land in the Sequoyah Hills area of Knoxville, Tennessee. Architect James C. Freer had already passed away (in 1971), so although he wasn’t actively involved in the design of Gentry House II, it’s clear that his earlier collaboration on Gentry House I was the basis for Gentry House II: the unique wall angels, the two-story entryway, the stream running through the living room. Ok, we’ve spent enough time talking about Gentry House II, let’s get to the pictures!

Tennessee Modernism: An introduction

Welcome to Tennessee Modernism, a blog chronicling the mid-century modern architecture of the Volunteer State.

Let’s get right to it.

Who is writing this blog? I am an architectural enthusiast named Andrew Oxenham, but most everyone calls me Ox
Are you interviewing yourself right now? Yes, yes I am
Ok, well what is this blog, exactly? This blog is my humble attempt at finding and drooling over documenting the mid-century modern architecture that I find in Tennessee
When you say “mid-century modern”, what time period are you talking about? Everyone’s got their own definition of this, but in Tennessee, modernism starts in the 1930s and goes until the early 1970s
Wait, wait first you said “mid-century” and now you’re saying “modernism”, what gives? Modernism is the genus, mid-century is the species. Modernism includes styles like Googie, Streamline Moderne, etc.
That makes sense. What else should we know? Well, I started this blog because–
This is getting wordy, can you just do an FAQ? Ok

FAQ:

  • What kind of camera do you shoot with? Usually just an iPhone
  • Why are your pictures so good? I’ve got a gift
  • Do you consider yourself the next Julius Shulman? Is that even a question?
  • Do you live in a mid century modern house? Not yet