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)

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