Tennessee Modernism: R.F. Graf House by Herbert Graf

Structure: R.F. Graf House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Herbert Graf
Date: 1923
Tidbit: In the early 1900s, Knoxville had an architectural firm called R.F. Graf & Sons, a firm comprised of architect R.F. Graf working alongside his architect sons (a family business, you know?). At some point, one of the sons (Herbert) left the firm to strike out on his own. The local Knoxville newspaper claims that Herbert studied architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright, although I have not been able to corroborate this statement. Regardless, Herbert was clearly influenced by the prairie modern style of architectural design.

Herbert didn’t make it out on his own, however, so he returned to Knoxville and rejoined his dad’s firm. In the mid 1920s, Herbert served helped design a house for his father, the R.F. Graf House (Herbert was chief designer).

R.F. Graf & Sons used the house in their marketing brochure

The Graf family lived in this house until 1961, when they sold it to Dr. J.P. Cullum. I’ve never seen an interior shot, but the house is still extant and in perfect condition so maybe the owners will open the place up for a tour at some point.

Knoxville News Sentinel article from March of 1961

Tennessee Modernism: Daniel House by James Fitzgibbon

Structure: Dr. Robert Daniel House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: James Fitzgibbon
Date: 1947
Story: In the early 1940s, the University of Oklahoma had two professors, Dr. Daniel and Prof. James Fitzgibbon. Dr. Daniel was a rockstar English professor in his mid 20s. Prof. Fitzgibbon was in charge of campus planning, and taught at the architecture school. Eventually, in the mid 1940s, they parted ways, and Dr. Daniel travelled to Knoxville, Tennessee to teach English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Soon after he arrived, Dr. Daniel decided it was time to build his family a house. So he called up his old friend Prof. Fitzgibbon (who was now teaching at the NCSU School of Design) and asked him to design something for him that was out of the box. “I think most existing dwellings are old-fashioned,” mused Dr. Daniel. “There was [oddly] more freedom of design before the war.”

At that moment in time, framing timber for houses was scarce. So Fitzgibbon got creative: taking inspiration from WWII quonset huts, he designed a structure that was essentially a double-wide quonset hut, with 18 ribs forming the (literal) skeleton of the house.

The construction of the house was a cost-cutting, classroom-esque environment. Fitzgibbon’s student George Qualls supervised the build, UTK students (including a football player, a band member, and a grad student) provided the labor, and input was given by UTK Faculty (namely, art department professor Buck Ewing). Dr. Daniel’s stepson, who was studying architecture under Fitzgibbon, also contributed.

Upon completion, the house was a hit. Architectural Forum covered it in August of 1950, however Dr. Daniel still had one main frustration: guests kept asking him when the quonset hut ribs were going to be covered!

Over time, the house fell into disrepair. But then, in the mid 80s, architect Peter Calandruccio bought + renovated the house. Shortly before he passed away, Fitzgibbon stopped by the house, visiting Calandruccio and looking over the restoration. Calandruccio documented his extensive restoration in a 1986 article of Fine Homebuilding magazine.

As of the time of this blog’s writing, the Daniel House is currently for rent as an AirBNB.

Tennessee Modernism: Residence by (and for) Harold Hahn

Structure: Harold Hahn Residence
Location: Farragut, Tennessee
Architect: Harold K. Hahn
Date: 1970
Tidbit: Modernist architecture arrives in different areas at different times. In East Tennessee, it trickles in during the 1950s, and then goes full force in the mid 1960s due in large part to the creation of the University of Tennessee’s school of architecture (in 1965).

This late arrival of modernism means that 1970s architecture (at least in East Tennessee) can have look an awful lot like earlier stages of modernism. Case in point, this gorgeous house out in Farragut, Tennessee. Designed by architect Harold K. Hahn as his personal residence, this beautiful home features all of the traditional markings of a post-and-beam modernist house, despite being designed towards the end of the mid-century period.

Tennessee Modernism: Livingston House by Richard Neutra

Structure: Philip Livingston House
Location: Chattanooga, Tennessee
Architect: Richard Neutra
Date: 1955
Story: Sometimes, when you see a marvelous mid-century house, your heart starts to flutter. If it flutters too much, you’ll need to go see a cardiologist. Now, as luck would have it, the owner of the house we’re featuring in this blog was indeed a cardiologist, his name was Dr. Philip Livingston.

Now Dr. Livingston (I presume) was one of Chattanooga’s best doctors. His wife, Jean, was a big player in state politics. So, being the power couple they were, they decided to build a custom house. They turned to the man, the myth, the legend Frank Lloyd Wright. Eventually, however, things with Wright didn’t work out. One wonders if, like the owners of the Shaw House, the Livingston’s found their conversation with Wright to be “considerably one-sided”?

In any event, they ended up deciding to work with architect Richard Neutra. Many, many words have been written about architect Richard Neutra. He was a Viennese architect who worked for master architects in Europe before coming to the U.S., doing a stint with Frank Lloyd Wright, and then making his way to Los Angeles. He would go on to design some of the most iconic mid-century houses of the era, many of which you’ve probably seen. If you want a good introduction to Neutra, read the Los Angeles Conservancy’s write-up on him.

Neutra’s works were focused in-and-around Southern California. Outside of California, Neutra only designed a handful of houses. Very few are in the south, and this is his only Tennessee design. The original budget for the house was $30,000 (~$288k today), but the final cost ended up being closer to $100,000 (~$961k today). That exorbitant amount of investment got the Livingston house some very special attention from Neutra.

The house itself was chock full of unique features such as a darkroom (Dr. Livingston was an amateur photographer) and an ahead-of-its-time floating TV stand.

Neutra was a talented watercolor artist, and he often sketched + painted the houses he designed. At some point, he painted two watercolors of the Livingston House.

Unfortunately, as often happens, the house decomposed for many years until a developer bought + razed it in 2015.

If you want to read more about this fantastic space, the late Gavin Townsend spent copious amounts of time researching + writing about it, read about it over on the SAH Archipedia. This post (and this blog, probably) owes its existence to Gavin and the amazing work he did during his lifetime.

Tennessee Modernism: The 3 mystery houses of Vista Road

I try to fill this blog full of details, architects, and backstories…but sometimes you’ve just gotta share a mystery. Perched up on a high hill are three mid-century houses that sit right next to each other. The houses give off a strong Prairie Style vibe (a-la Frank Lloyd Wright) but in terms of actual details, this trio of houses remain a mystery.

Structure: Mystery Hill House #1
Location: Louisville, Tennessee
Architect: Unknown
Date: 1945
Tidbit: A fellow architectural enthusiast toured this house when it was for sale in 2012, and he took a bunch of photos. View them here.

Structure: Mystery Hill House #2
Location: Louisville, Tennessee
Architect: Unknown
Date: 1953

Structure: Mystery Hill House #3
Location: Louisville, Tennessee
Architect: Unknown
Date: 1960

Tennessee Modernism: Bon-Air Motel by Painter, Weeks & McCarty

Structure: Bon-Air Motel
Location: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Architect: Painter, Weeks & McCarty, Bruce McCarty (associate)
Date: 1953
Story: Gatlinburg, Tennessee has always been known for its motels. Long ago, in the 1950s, motel owners were local families, working to profit off of the ever-increasing amount of travelers headed to the Smokey Mountains. 1950s motels were uniquely designed, with the building trying to set itself apart from the panoply of other motels. Some motels used good architectural design, some motels used kitsch.

Gatlinburg businessman Bon Hicks and his wife decided to go the good design route. Now, the Hicks were no strangers to good design. The year prior to building the motel, they’d had Knoxville architect James T. Mitchell design them a custom house.

But we’re not here to talk houses, we’re talking motels! The Hicks commissioned Knoxville firm Painter, Weeks & McCarty to design what would become the Bon-Air Motel. The motel sat up on a 60’ hill overlooking the highway into Gatlinburg. Architect Bruce McCarty brought his considerable talents to bear on the design, creating an exterior of grey mountain stone offset by warm, natural cypress wood. The original design had a very organic look (invoking Frank Lloyd Wright’s design ideas). The motel won awards, and received a write-up in Architectural Forum (February of 1954).

Unfortunately, as Gatlinburg’s architectural vocabulary shifted towards Kitschy Mountain Chic, the motel was renamed the Bon Air Mountain Inn and was remodeled. A-Frame-esque additions were placed on top of the flat roof of the original design (ostensibly to give it a more mountainous feel).

1980s Brochure showing the remodel
1980s Brochure showing the remodel
1980s Brochure showing the remodel

Eventually, the motel was demolished and replaced with a large condo complex.


Tennessee Modernism: Knoph House by Felder Weeks

Structure: Nic Knoph House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Felder Weeks
Date: 1967
Tidbit: Nic Knoph was ready to build his dream home and he wanted it to have a stunning view (as dream homes are wont to do). So he selected a site on a sheer cliff overlooking Fort Loudon Lake. He enlisted local architect Felder Weeks, of the firm Painter & Weeks, to design the magnificent structure. Once it was finished, the house featured a funicular that took you from the dock to the house. But the true highlight of the house was the “River Room” (photo at top), a room which cantilevered 14 feet over the lake, giving the inhabitants the “feeling of being on a ship’s prow.” The house still stands and looks to be in great shape.

Layout of the Knoph House
Historical aerial photo from 1969
Historical aerial photo from 2020

Tennessee Modernism: Shaw House by George Fred Keck

Architects (and brothers) William & George Fred Keck were thrilled. They had been asked to design a “House of Tomorrow” for the 1933 Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago. During construction of the house, however, a funny thing happened. As the workers built the house, the greenhouse effect from the glass facade being installed trapped so much heat in the house that the workers were able to work in short-sleeved shirts despite it being freezing outside.

William Keck & George Fred Keck’s House of Tomorrow (1933)

William & George Fred noticed this phenomenon, and began incorporating it into their designs. They found that this type of passive heating was not only good for the environment, it could often save the homeowner 15-20% on their energy bill.

Fast forward to 1951. Down in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Dr. Clarence Shaw was ready to have a house built for him and his family. He had some friends (the Shavins) who were in the process of having a house designed + built for them by Frank Lloyd Wright. Dr. Shaw figured, why not have the world-renowned architect design a house for him as well? After a bit of correspondence with the master architect, however, it wasn’t going well. Wright didn’t seem to care about the housing needs Dr. Shaw was expressing. Shaw described his back-and-forth with FLLW as “considerabl[y] one-sided.”

Gerte Shavin sits in the house Frank Lloyd Wright designed for her and her husband Seamour

Now although Frank Lloyd Wright had designed the Shavin’s house, architect Marvin Bachman (a FLLW apprentice) was overseeing the construction in Chattanooga. When Dr. Shaw and FLLW couldn’t work out a deal, Marvin Bachman stepped in to help design their house. Unfortunately, Mr. Bachman was killed in a car accident with the Shaw house plans only partially completed.

This minuscule scan of the blueprints was featured in the house’s for sale brochure, and I only include it here because it proves that the blueprints exist. Hopefully, at some point, we’ll get a high-rez scan of them.

Structure: Dr. Clarence Shaw House
Location: Chattanooga, Tennessee
Architect: George Fred Keck
Date: 1952

After Mr. Bachman’s untimely passing, Dr. Shaw began corresponding with Chicago architect George Fred Keck. The result of their collaboration became one of the only passive-solar houses in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The house was sited on sloping hillside lot of approximately 2.5. To the south was an unobstructed view of the Tennessee River (which was ~1 mile away) and, several miles beyond it, Missionary Ridge. When the house was built, there were no other residences or structures between the home and the river. The property the house sat on cost ~$3,000 to purchase, with the house costing about ~$40,000 to build.

Mrs. Shaw on the terrace of her house

Let’s dive into the details, shall we? Quick call out, most of these details were provided by Dr. Shaw’s son Bill Shaw and I am eternally grateful to him for his thoroughness.

Dr. Shaw’s stipulations for the house were that it have minimal maintenance and maximum efficiency. Accordingly, there were no painted surfaces internally or externally. The exterior was built of concrete block (that featured a pinkish hue), Masonite, and glass.

The interior walls which weren’t concrete block were made of Douglas fir. The ceilings also were made of Douglas fir. The floors on the main level were made of poured concrete.

The second floor featured three bedrooms and a 1.5 bathrooms. The house originally featured cork flooring (dreamy) which was later swapped out for carpeting (less dreamy). The master bedroom overlooked the living room, opening to the 22’ ceilings. However, the master could be closed closed off with folding wood sliders. The other two bedrooms were originally one large room which could be divided with a floor to ceiling folding wood slider as well. As the kids got older, a permanent wall was constructed to improve privacy. All storage was built in including dressers and storage benches and desks along all south facing windows.

The main entry was from the north west. Walking into the house placed you in a narrow, windowless area. From there, you’d walk into great room with a large living room which flowed into the dining room.

Fun anecdote from Bill Shaw, “There was a planter area along the south wall (in the living room) which connected underground to the outside. Combined with the full south exposure, plants grew luxuriously. There was a Ficus Pandurata planted which started off with 3 leaves and eventually grew to the ceiling 22 feet above and across much of the living room glass, requiring regular pruning.” In the below photos you can see the tiiiiiiny Ficus in the small b&w photo, and how monstrous it is in the photo on the right.

The kitchen was a linear room with an electric range, two built-in electric ovens and pink (!) steel cabinetry. The most recent listing photo shows that this has pretty much all gone the way of the buffalo.

I mentioned earlier that the house was designed to incorporate a passive solar system. This is how it worked: The roof extended about five feet along the entire south side of the house. That way, in the winter when the sun was lower in the sky, the sun could still get in and reach the back of the north wall. In the summer, with the sun higher in the sky, direct sunlight never entered the main room.

Clerestory windows were present essentially on the entire north, east, and west walls to vent heat during the summer. In the living room, Bill notes, they required a long ladder to access. The north portion of the house was bermed into the natural upward slope of the lot (up to the level of the second floor) providing added insulation and protection from the north exposures and moderating temperatures during summer. The original roof was flat and made of tar and gravel with the rim surrounding the periphery so that water would pool and provide cooling. A water pipe with a drain and float valve allowed maintenance of water on the roof during the summer.

One other anecdote that Bill shared I couldn’t find any photographic evidence of, however it’s worth noting. He told me that originally, there was a 10’ green house dug halfway into the ground at the southeast corner of the house. It had a a potting room which connected to the living room via a short flight of stairs. I’d imagine that that eventually became the garage/workroom, but don’t quote me on that.