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

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