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.

3 thoughts on “Tennessee Modernism: Shaw House by George Fred Keck

  1. Pingback: Tennessee Modernism: Livingston House by Richard Neutra – Tennessee Modernism

  2. Actually there is a lot more to this story including some significant changes. I moved into this house in 1952 as a 7 year old and my mother lived there till her death in 2000. If you wish further information about this fascinating and innovative house, contact me.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s