Tennessee Modernism: The 2 Glass Box Houses of Sequoyah Hills

Sequoyah Hills is a historic neighborhood in Knoxville, Tennessee. Its historicity is emphasized by all of the gorgeous (and traditional) turn-of-the-century houses that fill its lush streets.

However, set amongst the traditional structures are two houses that look a bit out of place. Echoing a Miesien style, these two mid-century modern houses are in conversation with each other. Both feature large, square living rooms made of glass and steel. Both of the houses are perched atop hilly lots with views of the Tennessee River. Both of the structures have their hefty steel living rooms tempered by natural stone.

Ok enough with the poetry, let’s have a look at the two spaces.

Structure: James Ferguson House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Carl F. Maples Sr
Date: 1950
Tidbit: James Ferguson was the business administrator at the East Tennessee Tuberculosis Hospital. His father was a homebuilder, so he and his wife had been dreamin’ and schemin’ about how to build their own house. This structure probably existed long before they brought their ideas to an architect to realize.

Structure: Dr. Harry Jenkins House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Ben F. McMurry Jr
Date: 1955
Tidbit: Dr. Harry Jenkins was a progressive doctor. An obstetrician, Dr. Jenkins was giving speeches in support of birth control as early as 1941. What he lacked, though, was a house that showcased his progressive ideals.

Now, Dr. Jenkins lived in Sequoyah Hills, just down the road from the Ferguson house. The Ferguson house must have had an impact on Dr. Jenkins because in 1955, he selected a hillside lot overlooking the river and commissioned 28-year-old architect Ben McMurry to design a house for him that shared an awful lot of similarities with the other house. The house won an AIA award at the 1958 Gulf States Regional conference. Interestingly, Dr. Jenkins sold the house seven years later.

Tennessee Modernism: Koprowski House by James Embrey

Structure: Joseph Koprowski House
Location: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Architect: James A. Embrey
Date: 1970
Tidbit: In the mid 1960s, violinist Joseph Boleslav Koprowski moved to Gatlinburg to become the concert master for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. He had Gatlinburg architect James Embrey design him a house up on the one of the tallest hills in Gatlinburg. Unfortunately, the 2016 fires burned this house down. Also, I apologize for the tiny photos but they’re all that’s left 😞

Tennessee Modernism: 3 houses designed by Herbert Millkey Sr.

Last week we explored the Timberlake area, a secluded enclave of modernism tucked just below the Tennessee River. However, there is one mid-century house from that area that I left off out of the blog. The oversight was intentional, don’t worry. I wanted to talk about the three modernist houses designed in East Tennessee by Herbert Millkey Sr, and I wanted to do it all at once.

Millkey was an Atlanta-based architect who studied architecture at the University of Cincinnati (BA), and at Yale University (M.Arch). There he had his was a principal in two firms (Moscowitz, Willner & Millkey and Millkey & Associates) and was a regional director at the AIA. On an interesting side note, his son, Herbert Millkey Jr was also an architect. Junioer co-founded the one of the first interracial architecture firms in Georgia (called, cheekily, Millkey & Brown).

Tarlee Brown (L) and Herbert Millkey Jr (R) in 1978

Ok. Back to Senior! Herbert Millkey Sr’s practice was mostly focused on commercial architecture, with the two notable exceptions. The first was a house he designed for cartoonist Ed Dodd in Atlanta, Georgia.

The other notable exception to Herbert Millkey Sr’s commercial heavy practice was his own residence in Nancy Creek, Georgia (now demolished).

But enough about Georgia. Let’s dive into the Tennessee connection, shall we?

Structure: Robert Fiddler House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Herbert Millkey Sr.
Date: 1956
Tidbit: Mr. Fiddler worked at Rich’s, which was headquartered in Atlanta. He and hsi wife fell in love with mid-century modern style architecture after seeing Mr. Millkey’s personal residence featured in a magazine. Unfortunately, the Fiiddler house was eventually remodeled into oblivion (turned into a McMansion).

Structure: Frederick Fisher House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Herbert Millkey Sr.
Date: 1957

Structure: William Way House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Herbert Millkey Sr.
Date: 1955
Story: Now we come to the part of the story left out of the Timberlake blog. The house was designed for William Way, the head of the Transportation Department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Unfortunately for the Ways, William died of a heart attack a year after the house was built.

Over time, new owners added on + remodeled the house, while still retaining a lot of its original character.

Tennessee Modernism: Daniel House by A.L. Aydelott & Associates

Structure: Harry Daniel House
Location: Bristol, Tennessee
Architect: A.L. Aydelott & Associates
Associate architect: Chia-Yi (Charles) Jen
Date: 1953
Tidbit: As best as I can tell, Harry Daniel’s parents were East Tennessee royalty. They owned a massive historical residence called “Almathea” which they used to hold their vast collection of art and regularly host dinners and events. At some point, Harry became the owner of the property, sold it, and commissioned the firm A.L. Aydelott & Associates (out of Memphis) to design him a new, contemporary residence.

The principle architect for the house was an architect named Chia-Yi (Charles) Jen. Jen was born in Tianjin, China in 1925. He graduated with a BA there and then immigrated to the US in 1948 to study at Yale. He received his MArch in 1951 and promptly began working in AL Aydelott’s Memphis office. You can see Jen’s keen eye for modernism all throughout this house.

The house’s central living area was specially divided up into 10 areas, each designed for a particular purpose. The house is ~10,900 sq ft, and features 5 bedrooms, 7.5 baths, and sits on 7 acres. The house was arranged on a long, in-line plane in order to give everybody in the house maximum views with maximum privacy.

The house made a huge splash, getting a feature in House & Home (July 1954). Its exterior still seems to be in pretty decent condition (judging by the 2015 listing photos), but there aren’t any interior pictures of the place and interiors are often a casualty of modernity.

Tennessee Modernism: The Modernist Houses of Timberlake

In 1947, a group called Maloney Heights Inc. purchased a large, forested lot right off of Alcoa Highway with a singular goal: turn the area (dubbed Timberlake) into a subdivision designed for the group members to live in.

Maloney Heights Lot Reservation Map (1948) (© Maloney Heights, Inc.)

Maloney Heights Inc. was made up of architects, engineers and construction professionals, which meant that their skills were exactly what was needed to design, plan, and build a neighborhood from the bottom up. Of note, architects Charles I. Barber (of Barber & McMurry) and D. West Barber (his cousin) were shareholders in Maloney Heights Inc.

The group created an architectural standard for how the homes should look. The provision said each building should conform and be in harmony both with the “external design with existing structures in the subdivision” and also “with respect to topography.” The result was beautifully designed homes, each one sited on a wooded lot that gave them a wonderful view.

View from the A.W. Cain House

By 1953, 27 homes had been built. In 1962, the remaining lots had been filled with unique and beautiful houses. Alright. Enough back story. Let’s dive into the architecture, shall we?

Structure: Dr. Hefley House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Raymond Guay
Date: 1962

Structure: Robert C. Brown House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Robert C. Brown (with assistance by an architect friend of his, one who worked at the TVA)
Date: 1952

Photo of the house circa 1953

Structure: A.W. Cain House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Barber & McMurry
Date: 1952
Tidbit: When it was finished, this house was described as being “built like a TVA dam using steel beams and concrete.”

Structure: Millard Warren Residence II
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Millard Warren
Date: 1950
Tidbit: Back in the day, houses were often built to showcase products. Case in point: Millard Warren designed and built his house to showcase “Southern Cast lightweight stone.” Warren was a VP at the Southern Cast Stone Company, so the house served as a sort of living advertisement.

Photo of the house circa 1959

Structure: Millard Warren Residence I
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Millard Warren
Date: 1938
Tidbit: I know I’m straying from the legacy of the Timberlake area for a minute but stick with me. The Timberlake house Warren designed + built for himself wasn’t the only house he’d created to showcase his sturdy stone wares. Back in the late 1930s, Warren designed an extremely modern house right off of the newly-created Alcoa Highway. The house was modern in its design, and it caused quite a stir. The insurance folks were extremely happy that it was made of stone and concrete, and it was dubbed un-burn-down-able. But its most unique invention? A pool on the roof that theoretically was supposed to keep the house cool in the summer and freeze in the winter (allowing the kids to ice skate on it, no joke).

The house still stands, although its white concrete has been painted brown and a huge addition was added. The updates, however, are solid. It looks like they added a wing onto either side, along with a pitched roof. I guess the water-as-a-roof wasn’t so great after all.

End note 1: this blog owes its existence (and extensive detail) to the hard work of the Timberlake Community. They took the time to interview, collect, write, and save their history down and if you want to browse through the immense amounts of work they’ve done, head here: https://www.timberlakeknox.com/

End note 2: there is a very notable house in the Timberlake area that I left out of this post. I’ll be detailing it at another time, don’t @ me.

Tennessee Modernism: Highlander Folk School by Stanley C. Reese

Structure: Highlander Folk School, Allardt Campus (unbuilt)
Location: Allardt, Tennessee
Architect: Stanley C. Reese
Date: 1933
Tidbit: You may know of the Highlander Folk School (now called the Highlander Research & Education center). But you may not know about the time that ambitious school tried to create a new headquarters.

In December of 1933, after having been gifted 200 acres of land near Allardt, Tennessee, the Highlander Folk School decided to create a new, more prominent campus to function as their headquarters. The goal was to transition by 1934. The co-founder (and director) of the school, Myles Horton, took to the newspaper to proudly proclaim this new goal.

Reese’s drawing mixes a bit of prairie style with arts and crafts (a-la Greene & Greene)

The school commissioned architect Stanley C. Reese to design the new headquarters. Reese was a Chattanooga-based architect at the TVA, although its unclear if he worked at the TVA when he was commissioned. Reese was tasked with making a structure that would awe those who beheld it, and Reese delivered. His plans were hefty and stunning, receiving praise in Pencil Points (June 1936), specifically for their detail. The plans included a dorm large enough for 15 students, a furniture-making shop, and a teacher’s cottage. What the plans lacked, however, was practicality.

In February of 1934, the school wrangled some volunteers to help build the structure. In order to keep costs down, they were instructed to use only wood and sandstone found on the property. Every day, in the bitter cold, the ragtag 15-person crew of college students and employed factory workers attempted to cut + haul 85 tons of sandstone from the quarry. It proved to be an extremely slow process, one which took until September of 1934. In October, with no money left to support the new build, the school called the Allardt project quits.

Horton’s article proclaiming the new venture featured this picture of the 28-year-old Reese

Tennessee Modernism: Smoky Mountain Cabin by Allen Lape Davison

Structure: Bill Davison Cabin
Location: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Architect: Allen Lape “Davy” Davison
Date: 1968
Story: Before Frank Lloyd Wright passed away (in 1959), he founded Taliesin Associated Architects, an architectural firm comprised of his apprentices. Led by architect William Wesley Peters, the firm’s goal was to advance Wright’s vision and complete any in-process projects that FLLW left when he passed.

Beaver Meadows Visitor Center by Taliesin Associated Architects

William Wesley Peters’ right hand man was a gentleman named Allen Lape Davison (Davy to his friends). Although Davy was never actually licensed as an architect, he was a skilled architect nonetheless.

Oh and he was also a helluva a painter.

Pastel (by Davy) of the Arizona desert (courtesy of Celeste Davison)

Davy had a brother named Bill who lived in Knoxville, Tennessee. When Davy and Bill were kids, they built many a happy memory at their family’s mountain house in Lake Mohonk, New York. Now that he was grown, Bill wanted to create mountain memories for him and his family. And for that, he would need a mountain home. So around 1969, Bill asked Davy to design him that mountain house, and Davy readily agreed.

Davy’s rendering via Celeste Davison (© Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation)

The brothers selected a spot high on a mountain in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, one with views of Cove Mountain on one side and Mt. Leconte on the other. Using the 4’4″ square unit system that Taliesin was known for, Davy designed a 1,338 sq. ft. mountain cabin complete with a winged roof (painted Taliesin red), orange shag carpet (offset by blue leather chair coverings), and built-in furniture throughout.

The soul of the house, as the local newspaper put it, was the “mammoth fireplace wall that [rose] from the conversation area to the rooftop.” It was both “prominent” and “hospitable.” Looking out towards the view, the glass came to a peak, almost seeming to float (due to the lack of structural support near the glass). Bill and his family dubbed the house “Piney Woods”, which was what their childhood cabin in New York had been called.

Southwestern pattern in the conversation pit? But why??

The house is currently a vacation rental, and the property management company has taken great care of it (despite a few changes in the fabrics).

PS (do blogs have PS’s?): A special thanks to the magnificent mid-century detective Tim Hills (of Trystcraft) for re-discovering this place. This house sat under the radar for ~50 years before I unearthed the old newspaper article about it which then prompted Tim to go hunting for (and find) it. Also, another thanks to Bill Scott for putting me in touch with Davy’s daughter Celeste Davison. Oh, and a very humble thank you to Celeste Davison for sharing her father’s work.

March 2021 update: while perusing some old local magazines for sale, a friend found this local publication (called Gatlinburg Lives). It featured the following black & white photos of the house

Tennessee Modernism: Burlington Branch Library by Mario Bianculli

Structure: Burlington Branch Library
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Prototype architect: Mario Bianculli
Library architect: Bealer & Wilhoit
Date: 1947
Story: In 1945, the librarians of Tennessee came up with a brilliant idea to have TVA Chief Architect Mario Bianculli design modern library prototypes which could be easily recreated whenever the state needed a new library.

The prototypes were, as you might imagine, differentiated by how many books they could hold. Let’s have a look at the different variations

Type 1A (pictured) could hold 2,600 books. A larger version, type 1B (not pictured) could hold 3,300 books.

Type 4 was a full blown county library and could hold 10,000 books.

In 1947, two years after Bianculli finished his prototypes, Tennessee’s librarians were ready to give his Type 2 prototype a test run. West Knoxville, Tennessee was in need of a new library brach and so, with support from local businessmen, a garden club, the PTA, and several churches, the city worked worked with local architectural firm Bealer & Wilhoit to turn Bianculli’s prototype into an actual building.

The design was very well received, so much so that Architectural Forum did a write-up of the building (in May of 1947). The building still stands and although its been less-than-sensitively modified, the original core is still in decent shape. The extension isn’t half bad, but the removal of the full glass windows is a bummer.

Google Street View of the former library building

Tennessee Modernism: Mission 66 (feat. Clingmans Dome Observation Tower)

The National Park Service (NPS) had a problem. When the NPS was created (in 1916), travel was primarily done by train. In fact, some railroad companies were responsible for the building and operation of national park visitor centers. But with the rise in popularity of the car (and the advent of the US highway system), travelers could now access parks that previously weren’t accessible. This brought about a need for new visitor centers in new places.

So, in 1955, NPS Director Conrad Wirth proposed a program (funded by the federal government) to create new visitor centers (among other facilities) all across the national parks. The goal was to have the various structures and improvements done by 1966 (the 50th anniversary of the NPS). The program was dubbed Mission 66.

A decision was made by Thomas Chalmers Vint (the director of design and construction) to design these new structures in the modernist style, reflecting the modernity of not only the NPS but also the park visitors.

Let’s take a whirlwind tour of some of the amazing visitor centers that were built all across the US.

Quarry Visitor Center by Anshen & Allen (Jensen, Utah). The circular portion has been demolished.
Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center by Rogers & Poor (Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina)

Painted Desert Community by Richard Neutra & Robert Alexander (Apache County, Arizona)

Sunset Crater Visitor Center by Cecil Doty (in Flagstaff, Arizona)

Alright. Enough non Tennessee structures, let’s talk about the two Mission 66 structures here in the Volunteer state.

Structure: Sugarlands Visitor Center
Location: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Architect: Eastern Office of Design and Construction (EODC)
Date: 1960
Tidbit: The structure was just restored in 2013 and is in really great shape. That’s it. That’s the tidbit.

Structure: Clingmans Dome Observation Tower
Location: Sevier County, Tennessee (35°33′46″N 83°29′55″W)
Architect: Bebb & Olsen
Date: 1959
Tidbit: Built as a part of Mission 66, the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower caused quite a stir when its design was revealed in 1958. Apparently Hubert Bebb and Raymond Olsen’s design was a bit too modern for the national audience.

Original drawings of Clingmans Dome Observation Tower by Hubert Bebb

Despite its controversy, the tower was quite popular with the locals and so, a year after it was announced, the tower was built.

Of note, the Shark Valley Observation Tower (designed by architect Edward M. Ghezzi in 1964) bears a striking resemblance to the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower. Great artists, I suppose?