Tennessee Modernism: Rich’s Dept. Store by Stevens & Wilkinson

Structure: Rich’s Department Store
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Stevens & Wilkinson (Barber & McMurry, associates)
Date: 1955
Story: We do an awful lot of house stories here on the blog, this is true. But today, we’re doing a Knoxville city landmark: the department store called Rich’s.

Rich’s was a chain of department stores that was founded in Atlanta in the late 1800s. Under the chain’s founder, Morris Rich, the chain grew and grew, achieving immense commercial success in the south.

Rich’s first flagship store in downtown Atlanta. Built in 1924.

The company’s second owner (Morris’s son Daniel) continued to oversee great success for the chain. When Daniel’s son Richard (who went by Dick) took over in 1949, he had a mind to (1) expand outside of George and (2) modernize.

How about that vintage Rich’s credit card!

So, in the early 1950s, Dick commissioned three legendary artisans to create a massive, modern new Rich’s in Knoxville.

The office of Stevens & Wilkinson

First, Dick commissioned the Atlanta based architectural firm Stevens & Wilkinson to design the modernist, three-story full-line store. The building’s design received an AIA award when it was built…and you can see why!

The resulting building featured lots of glass, green glazed brick on the front, red glazed brick on the side, and a wavy concrete awning as an accent.

This photo (via Inside of Knoxville) shows the green and red brick simultaneously
When I say this brick was a big deal, it was a big deal. The Knoxville newspaper made sure to mention it many times

Although the interior photos (from the Library of Congress) are low-resolution, may I draw your attention to the furs section!

Next, Dick got ahold of notable mid-century landscape architectural firm Eckbo, Royston & Williams to design the landscaping. This firm was known throughout the U.S. for helping to blend architecture into its surroundings, even if the surroundings were man-made.

The Tucson Community Center landscape (in Tucson, AZ) designed by Eckbo, Royston & Williams

Eckbo, Royston & Williams were up for the task, surrounding the department store with terrain that was walkable, accessible, and scenic (despite the building being on a major street).

In the mid-century era, the landscape was equally as important as the building, as department stores like Rich’s were hubs of community activity.

A farmer’s market takes place in the shade of the concrete wave awning

With the building designed and the landscape planned, Dick commissioned a lighting specialist named Abe Feder to light the building. When he passed away in 1997, the New York Times called Mr. Feder a “master of lighting in all its forms.”

You can see the lighting Feder (right) used in this nighttime photo of Rich’s

I couldn’t find a color photo of the Knoxville store all lit up but here’s an image of the Georgia store at Christmastime (below, left). You can see how lighting played a big part of the store’s look and feel. The photo below on the right is the Knoxville store at Christmastime.

One interesting anecdote about Christmas. Every year, in the Atlanta Rich’s, a great big Christmas tree would perch atop the multi-level bridge. Mark Millkey, son of architect Herbert Millkey Sr (whom we’ve written about on the blog previously) told me that he thinks his dad may have designed the bridge. Regardless of the bridge’s pedigree, Mark shared this amazing anecdote about the bridge at Christmastime, “Once a year around the holidays, possibly on Thanksgiving, the bridge was the site of a choral performance. There was a different choir on each level, with the youngest performers at the bottom, and a professional choir (with a formidable soprano) at the top. As I recall, the performance always culminated in a performance of O Holy Night, at the end of which the tree atop the bridge was lit.

As it happens, I was in one of the choirs one year when I was in high school in the mid-1970s.”

As Rich’s sales waned in the mid 1970s, the store was sold to another department chain called Miller’s (which was headquartered in Chattanooga). The Miller’s store had a restaurant, a snack bar, and a bakery counter…which makes me wonder if the store had all those things when Rich’s created it.

Rendering via the Department Store Museum

At some point, Miller’s shut down and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville took over the building to use it as a conference center building.

As is to be expected with things UTK takes over, the building is rather run down and the marvelous landscaping has all been torn out and replaced with concrete.

Both photos via the marvelous Inside of Knoxville blog

Tennessee Modernism: Space House by Curtis W. King

Structure: Space House
Location: Chattanooga, Tennessee
Architect: Curtis W. King
Date: 1972
Story: When you visit this blog, you’ve got one type of mid-century modern architecture on your mind. It’s got straight lines, lots of glass, a flat roof, that sort of thing.

California architect Richard Neutra sits atop his rather modern VDL Research House in Silver Lake, California

Today, however, we’re gonna take a little psychedelic detour from all of that. So put on your tinfoil hat, we’re about to talk aliens (sort of).

These stickers, designed by Native Made Co, are fantastic and you can buy them. Buy the left one here, buy the right one here

Around 1965, Finnish architect Matti Suuronen was designing an easy-to-build vacation home for a friend, one that could be erected in mountainous skiing areas that were hard to access.

For all things Futuro House, visit TheFuturoHouse.com — those guys know everything

The Futuro House, as it was dubbed, possessed the ability to be built on uneven terrains. The structure’s egg shape was composed of 16 fiberglass segments bolted together, supposed by four concrete piers and a concave steel frame. The egg-shaped part was pre-assembled, delivered to the remote site by helicopter.

What I’m about to show you next is not a Futuro House. What I’m about to show you next, however, is located in Tennessee.

The Space House

The aptly named ‘Space House’ was created by a Chattanooga building contractor named Curtis King, and it served two primary purposes: The first purpose was as a swanky bachelor pad for his son. Originally, the bedroom doors on were padded with black leather to give the place a 70s lounge vibe.

But more importantly, the house served as a prototype for what Curtis King hoped would become a whole development of spaceship houses. I have no doubt that he was inspired by models of the Futuro House colony (below).

Unlike the 500 square foot Futuro House, however, the Space House clocks in at just under 2,000 square feet. All that square footage makes it easy to fit 3 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms inside of it. The master bedroom is in the center of the spaceship, and although it has no windows, it does have a large skylight to illuminate it.

Like many future-looking designers, Curtis King was working in the vein of visionaries such as Buckminster Fuller, trying to reimagine the dwellings within which humans (or aliens?) lived.

Buckminster Fuller’s prefabricated ‘Dymaxion house’

But unlike prefabricated houses (which were often made using lightweight and inexpensive, pre-produced materials), the Space House was built using a steel frame covered with a concrete shell. The concrete shell is then wrapped in fiberglass.

Whereas a Futuro House might weigh about 9,000 pounds, the Space house weighs somewhere between 55-60 tons.

The late architectural historian Gavin Townsend wrote that originally, the house had windows which “ringed the entire structure at one-foot intervals.” These windows were “Custom manufactured in Huntsville, Alabama” and are “composed of amber-colored acrylic panels.” Unfortunately, over time, many of the windows look to have been removed.

When it was built, the house was a hit. Curtis King estimated that somewhere between 20,000 – 30,000 people visited the house’s site during its construction. Despite the popularity of the house, however, its exorbitant cost (somewhere in the neighborhood of $250,000) and weighty construction meant that it was not suited for mass production.

The house still stands, and you can visit it if you’re looking for an architectural experience that is (argggghh, don’t say it), out of this world.

Tennessee Modernism: Irwinton by James T. Mitchell

Structure: Richard Irwin House (called “Irwinton”)
Location: Ten Mile, Tennessee
Architect: James T. Mitchell
Date: 1953
Story: The year is 1945, the place is Houston, Texas. Alya Dean Smith (a native of Ten Mile, Tennessee) was visiting her brother, a lawyer named Cyril J. Smith. While they visited, Alya was introduced to a successful oilman named Rich Irwin. One year later, Alya and Rich were married.

Rich & Alya

The newlyweds travelled all over the world, but despite their adventures, no place made Alya as happy as East Tennessee. The Irwins often visited Alya’s mother Bessie, spending time in her modest white cottage on Watts Bar Lake.

Now, Bessie Smith owned 700 acres all around Watts Bar Lake. And one day in 1953, when Rich had climbed up to the tallest peak on the 700 acres, he decided to build him and his wife a house there.

Irwinton under construction

The first thing Rich did was get a bulldozer and start building the roads to himself. Then, he hired Knoxville architect James T. Mitchell to designing the house. They dubbed the house “Irwinton.”

View from the living room

For this house, money was no expense. When the structure was finished, it was estimated to cost over $400k (about $3.8M today).

James T. Mitchell’s sketch of Irwinton

At the time it was built, the 10-bedroom, 9,000 sq. ft. house featured the largest living room of any private residence in the United States: 50 x 30 (1,500 sq ft) along with 18 ft ceilings. An orchestra balcony overlooked the great room, and it was estimated that you could fit some 200 guests in there.

The house itself still stands, although it’s impossible to see due to its secluded nature. Some old archival photos will have to do.

Google satellite view of the house (on the left)

Tennessee Modernism: Rodgers Building by Shelton & Stachel

Structure: Howard Rodgers Building
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Shelton & Stachel
Date: 1947
Tidbit: In 1947, a Knoxville, Tennessee contractor named Howard Rodgers commissioned the local architectural firm Shelton & Stachel to design a headquarters for his operations.

A sale flyer featuring the architects’ stamp in the bottom left

The result was this building, designed in a style that’s sometimes called “Mid-Century Moderne”, “Streamline Moderne,” or “Art Moderne.” It’s safe to say there aren’t too many buildings like this in Tennessee.

The interior featured oak floors, cherry wood panelling, and those neat, custom triangular lights

Over time, the building was whatever the current owner needed it to be. Sometimes, that meant it needed to be teal.

In my opinion, the most epic part of this building’s saga is this majestic tree out front which that slowly broke down until, one day, it was bulldozed.

So long, mighty tree 😞🌳

Let’s not end on a sad note. There’s not a ton of literature on Shelton & Stachel but as best as I can find, they were a firm comprised of LC Shelton and Louis T. Stachel that formed around 1947 with a big hospital commission. Shelton came to Knoxville and was a partner with architect Frank O. Barber in the early 1940s. A drug overdose took Barber in 1941, so Shelton continued to run their firm (Barber & Stachel). Shelton had the kind of early 1940s design sensibility which allowed him to design buildings like the factory (pictured below) which he designed in 1944. This building may have been what caught Rodgers’ eye and prompted him to have Shelton design him an office/HQ.

Stachel was a native of Greeneville, Tennessee and started practicing architecture in Knoxville around 1941. Early on, Stachel worked for the TVA. However in 1957 he got a job in Mobile, Alabama with a firm called Palmer & Baker Inc. He transferred all of him (and, I assume, his firm’s) files and contracts to architect David B. Liberman.