Tennessee Modernism: 1958 Better Homes & Garden ‘Idea Home’ by Omer Mithun

VERY SPECIAL EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s blog is TennMod’s second ever guest blog. It was written by my good friend (and partner in crime) Michelle Kroft. Although she’d rather be off photographing modernist houses in Middle Tennessee, she was kind enough to take the time to help make TennMod a well-rounded repository for the modernist architecture of Tennessee.

Structure: 1958 Idea Home (plan 2809-A)
Location: Nashville, Tennessee
Architect: Omer Mithun
Date: 1958+
Story: Throughout the early twentieth century, home plans were a standard feature in house magazines. Prospective homeowners could flip through the magazine, purchase the plans they saw with a phone call, and then hire a local company to build it. This would effectively get the homeowners an architect-designed home at a fraction of the cost. One of those house magazines was Better Homes and Gardens (BH&G, for short), which you’ve no doubt heard of. The magazine is a long-running juggernaut. It started in 1922 and is still going strong today!

If you’d picked up a 1940 issue of American Home, you would have discovered this house plan for a 700 sq ft cabin designed by legendary architect Richard Neutra

BH&G’s mid-century era home plans featured some stunning designs. As an example, in the September 1957 issue, the magazine teamed up with acclaimed San Francisco-based architectural firm Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons to design the first “Idea Home” (photos below). They designed the T-shaped floor plan with separate public and private spaces, meant to compliment inside and outside living zones. The house was billed as “… a blueprint for your future, a forecast of a way of living best suited to your family.”

Ok. Now, let’s talk about the house we came here to talk about, shall we? The September 1958 issue of BH&G included six Idea Homes, one of which was the Five Star 2809-A plan, an attractive post and beam design by a Bellevue, Washington area architect named Omer Mithun.

Can we just pause for a second an admire the living room of this house Omer Mithun designed in Seattle, Washington?

Plan 2809-A was the smallest (and the worst-named) of the floor plans, clocking in at 1,218 sq ft. Its smaller footprint meant, however, that it was a bit cheaper than the other five designs, despite retaining many features of the larger plans.

The BH&G article about the house read, “Room arrangement adapts to a small or growing family. There’s a choice of places for living and dining. Large closets are where they’re handiest. Central hall joins (yet separates) three bedroom ‘quiet’ wing and active, daytime areas. Living expands through view and use of fenced-in patio garden.”

This particular plan proved quite popular, and you can find examples of it in Keene, Texas (below, left) and in Walla Walla, Washington (below, right).

There are two known examples of this home plan in the greater Nashville area. First up, the one in Madison, Tennessee.

Next up, the one in South Nashville, Tennessee.

The son of the original owners of the South Nashville home reached out and sent over these wonderful original photos of the place.

During a little bit of driving, a home with a very similar look/feel was found in rural Rutherford County. It’s possible that it also was adapted from that same floorplan.

Tennessee Modernism: House that HOME built by Bruce McCarty

Structure: House that HOME built
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Bruce McCarty
Date: 1957
Story: It’s not often there’s a silver screen connection to Tennessee architecture, but today, there is! In the 1950s, NBC was airing a show called Home. The show was hosted by entertainer Arlene Francis and broadcaster Hugh Downs. The show was a hit. At a time when the largest shows brought in ~6M viewers, Home amassed an audience of over ~2M. Very impressive.

Hugh Downs (far left) and Arlene Francis (second from left)

The show was to feature a segment called ‘House that HOME built’, a segment co-sponsored by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). The segment’s goal was to convince the viewers that glass-filled, flat(ish)-roofed, modern homes would work anywhere in the country, not just in sunny California.

NBC spent $200k (~$1.9M today) to build the revolving set. It featured a kitchen, a workshop, and an area to demonstrate the effects of weather on various items

There are rumors that the ‘House that HOME built’ segment was the brainchild of none other than Joseph Eichler. Eichler, a marketing man at heart, hoped the segment would help him sell houses (which he was building out in California).

An Eichler blueprint and completed house (in Southern California)

Jumping over to California for a second, Eichler built tracts of houses that were very modern. Because Eichler himself was a builder (not an architect), he used a handful of modernist architectural firms to achieve a contemporary for his tract houses. Some of the firms he used were Jones & Emmons and Anshen & Allen.

The Eichler-built house on the left was designed by Jones & Emmons, the one on the right by Anshen & Allen

Back to our feature programming. So Eichler (along with the NBC execs) convinced Jones & Emmons to design a prototype house for the segment. The idea was to design a house that was modern but could sit well in any climate, one that could be built by builders from anywhere in the U.S.

Scans from the original House that HOME built brochure (via KC Modern)

The resulting design was the ‘House that HOME built’ model, take a look!

The design was then made available to other architects/builders around the country for $200 with the stipulation that, if you bought the plans, you’d build one model which would be open to the public.

NBC published a House That Home Built publication called ‘HOME in review’. Here, Arlene Francis displays the Jones & Emmons designed model

Back in Knoxville, home builder Martin Bartling (an active member of the NAHB), saw an opportunity. He attempted to build one of the Jones & Emmons designs in 1955. A March 1, 1955 notes that he planned to have the house built and “on exhibit for 30 days from June 4.” Like many other homebuilders in the U.S. who attempted this type of quick turnaround, Bartling doesn’t appear to have been successful.

Undaunted, Bartling come up with an alternative plan. Instead of having a local builder use Jones & Emmons plan, why not have a local architect create their own design and then have House that HOME built feature it? After receiving special permission from NBC, Bartling worked with Knoxville architect Bruce McCarty to design Knoxville’s very own House that HOME built.

Upon completion, NBC had the McCartys (Bruce & his wife Elizabeth) come to the HOME studio in New York and sit down with the show’s hosts. The interview, which was never aired, featured Bruce discussing his house’s design and how it accurately met the needs of young, American families.

Hugh Downs and Arlene Francis at left, Bruce and Elizabeth McCarty at right

The house was featured in Knoxville’s 1957 Parade of Homes, and, once the parade was finished, was sold to its first owners Loyd and Frances Wilson.

Bartling stands outside Knoxville’s House that HOME built to commence the opening of the 1957 Parade of Homes

Tennessee Modernism: House by (and for) Ben McMurry Jr

Structure: Ben McMury Jr Residence
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Ben McMurry Jr
Date: 1951? (the question mark is because I’m like 90% certain on that)
Story: At its heart, today’s blog is a father/son story. Let’s start with the father, shall we? Ben McMurry Sr (1885-1969) was an East Tennessee architect who, along with another architect named Charlie Barber, practiced his discipline at a firm called (appropriately) Barber & McMurry. The firm was founded in 1915 and continues to this day (under the stylized name BarberMcMurry Architects). Soon after starting his firm, in 1923 to be exact, Ben McMurry Sr designed a home for his family in the Sequoyah Hills neighborhood of Knoxville, Tennessee.

Designed in 1923 by Ben McMurry Sr as his own residence

It was in this house that Ben McMurry Sr raised his son Ben McMurry Jr (1926-1989). Surprising no one, McMurry Jr went on to become an architect as well. He joined the Navy right out of high school, and left when WWII ended in 1945. From there, he headed studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, and, upon returning home, joined his father’s firm.

Ben McMurry Sr (left) looks over architectural plans with Ben McMurry Jr (right)

Best as I can tell, McMurry Jr went to UPenn from about 1946-1950. At that time, UPenn’s architecture was Beaux-Arts style, and the architectural program was under the auspices of George S. Koyl. However, a shift towards modernist styles of architecture was already well under way. Architects in Philadelphia (like Louis Kahn, Oscar Stonorov, and George Howe) were all designing structures that featured international style and Bauhaus influences. McMurry Jr definitely came away influenced by the early modernism present either in Philadelphia or featured in architectural magazines of the time.

Carver Court housing (left) in Coatesville, PA, was designed by Louis Kahn, George Howe and Oscar Stonorov around 1941. The Roche House (right) was designed by Stonorov & Kahn in Whitemarsh Township, PA in 1945.

Quick aside about the Philadelphia architecture scene: About a decade after McMurry Jr studied at UPenn, a group of architects (known as the “Philadelphia School”) would push against the Miesian concept of architecture, pushing their designs to a more postmodern place. If you’re interested in that movement (which included architects like Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi, and Romaldo Giurgola), Curbed has a solid article on the topic.

Reflecting on McMurry Jr’s own house’s design (see below), I will say it speaks to an architectural trend of floating box houses which sit atop their raised concrete foundation.

At left, the George Matsumoto Residence (1953). At right, the Jim Sherrill residence (1957), both in North Carolina

Ok back to Knoxville. By about 1951, the 1923 house McMurry Sr had designed was becoming a bit crowded (and probably a bit too traditional) for McMurry Jr. Thus it was that McMurry Sr and McMurry Jr designed and built a little studio + office just behind the 1923 house.

The studio was christened the “little house” and the 1923 house was termed the “big house.”

A covered walkway takes you from the house to a covered storage area

However, that little studio+office didn’t last for long. Just a couple of years later, McMurry Jr added on to the studio, turning it into 2 bed, 1 bath, ~1,400 sq. ft. house.

The “little house” got a little mention in a 1955 Knoxville News-Sentinel article about how glass was changing architecture

Why the remodel + addition? Well because in 1954, McMury Jr had met, fallen in love with, and married Betsy Parrott! The two of them were planning a family and needed the space (and probably some rooms versus just a studio).

McMurry Jr with his first wife Betsy Parrott

A local newspaper quoted Betsy as saying McMurry Jr (who was 6’4”) was “the only man she ha[d] ever been able to look up to”. The McMurrys would go on to have their first two children in the “little house.”

A final history of the “little house.” In the 1980s, it was purchased from the McMurry Sr Estate by Anne Lester (an architecture professort at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville) and her husband Bill Lester. The Lesters sold it to the Heller family, and they rented it to Dillon Luttrell (whose photographs of the house appear all throughout this article). The Hellers eventually sold it to the Trainer family, and the Trainers now currently own both the “big house” and the “little house” — how about that for some property deed recording! When I spoke to the Trainers, they said they’d remodeled the place last year, keeping as much of the mid-century look as they could.

PS (if a blog can have such a thing): I would like to heartily thank Martha McMurry, Ben McMurry III, and Dillon Luttrell for helping me parse together the story of this gem of a structure. I would also like to thank architectural historian Claass HAUS for helping me with the Pennsylvania-era history.

Tennessee Modernism: Christus Gardens by Tom A. Windrom

VERY SPECIAL EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s blog is TennMod’s first ever guest blog. It was written by my good friend (and pamphlet archivist) Brian McKnight. Although his passion is collecting history on film (as documented on his YouTube page), I appreciate him taking time to help make TennMod a well-rounded repository for the modernist architecture of Tennessee.

Structure: Christus Gardens
Location: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Architect: Tom A. Windrom
Date: 1960
Story: Ronald S. Ligon opened Christus Gardens’ doors to an enthusiastic crowd on August 13, 1960. Getting to opening day, however, wasn’t an easy task.

In the left photo, Ronald Ligon (in the suit, on the right) shakes hands with the first group to visit Christus Gardens

Let’s explore the full story. This one starts, as most stories do, with a dream. Ronald S. Ligon had a dream. His dream was to open a museum dedicated to telling the story of Christ. Ronald S. Ligon also had a plan, and his plan was to buy an existing motel in the Smoky Mountains and turn it into a museum.

Ronald just standing there with a smile on his face — his dream had come to life!

However, when a real estate guy (Prichard Barnes) showed Ronald a parcel of land on River Road, Ronald knew he had to build his museum from the ground up.

With the perfect spot obtained, he was off to find the perfect design, but finding an architect to design a structure to house 71 biblical characters in 10 large dioramas proved more difficult than one might think.

Ronald visited several architectural firms, but no one would take up his project. Thinking back, Ronald recalled firms saying “Well, you see we are quite too busy at this time to consider your ideas, but maybe we might get around to it at some future date.” This put a damper on Ronald’s search. “Such enthusiastic responses were becoming commonplace” he said at one point.

A rendering Tom A. Windrom did for the Gatlinburg Ski Club Lodge

Eventually, a close friend of Ronald’s convinced him to talk with Tom A. Windrom of the Memphis-area firm Windrom, Haglund and Venable. This meeting went well, and Windrom took on the project with great enthusiasm. You might say Ronald and Windrom were a match made in heaven (😉).

Windrom’s design contained over 22,000 square feet of space, appropriate for displaying the large dioramas recreating significant chapters in the life of Christ.

The exterior was built using unpolished marble blocks combined with split-face ashlar (masonry made of large cut stones) streaked with pink and black markings.

The eye-catching marble patterns were used to great effect in the rotunda, a circular enclosure independent of the museum which connected to the enclosed lobby.

Also noteworthy were the solar screen paneled arches constructed of tiles lining the marble walls.

Christus Gardens closed its doors in 2007, but was reopened under the name “Christ in the Smokies” a year later.

As of January, 2021, the museum’s lease has been purchased by Gatlinburg Skylift Park leaving Christ in the Smokies without a home, and leaving the future of Windrom’s building uncertain. Here’s to hoping the new owners (Skylift Park) know a good thing when they see it. Fingers crossed. Or say a prayer.