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.

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