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.

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: 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.

Tennessee Modernism: The 3 projects which sought to modernize Downtown Knoxville

Downtown Knoxville has always been an important part of East Tennessee. But Downtown Knoxville wasn’t always on the cutting edge of modern design. So, in 1957, a group of local business owners created the Downtown Knoxville Alliance (DKA), an advocacy group whose goal was to “promote the downtown district as a major attraction for shoppers throughout East Tennessee and other parts of other states.” Headed up by Aubrey C. Couch (the longtime manager of the Tennessee Theater), the DKA executed three unique projects to revitalize downtown Knoxville, each one featuring local Knoxville architects. Let’s have a look at the three projects.

Structure: The Promenade
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Painter, Weeks & McCarty
Date: 1958
Story: Gay St (the main street running through Downtown Knoxville) shops had a problem. After you parked your car one block off of Gay St, you had to walk up to Gay St before you could even begin perusing the downtown shopping.

So the DKA tasked the minds at architectural firm Painter, Weeks & McCarty to come up with a solution for this inconvenient shopping experience.

Their solution was “The Promenade,” a platform on the backside of the Gay Street stores. This created what the architects called “back fronts,” and allowed shoppers an attractive look at all of the stores (despite the fact they were looking at the back of the stores). The platform was held up by concrete “spider leg” supports, and enabled downtown shoppers to park their cars, walk up onto the platform, and straight into the store of their choosing.

Shoppers could then move through the store and exit directly onto Gay St, no roundabout route required.

Although it would later be torn down to make way for more parking, The Promenade was a big success, a success which led the DKA to pursue their next project…

Structure: Market Square Mall
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Ben McMurry Jr (representing the AIA East Tennessee)
Date: 1962
Story: One block off Gay Street is Market Square.

In the olden days, Knoxville, Tennessee’s Market Square was a circular street that ran around the Market House . The Market House was where citizens of all types (fisherman, farmers, flower vendors, etc.) bought and sold their wares.

In 1960, the building was torn down, making space for an area that was a lot more flat (and a bit more like the Market Square that exists today).

The new Market Square Mall emulated traditional malls (think: the National Mall in Washington D.C.).

But McMurry didn’t just replicate other malls, he brought his modernist sensibilities to the table and gave the project a contemporary twist: concrete canopies to give shoppers and leisure-seekers respite from the sun.

The concrete canopies featured colorful screens that businesses could lower when the sun got too intense. Overall, the project was very well received, even getting a feature in Architectural Forum (April 1962).

There’s no doubt these concrete canopies took a lot of inspiration from the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Johnson Wax Building.

Image of the Johnson Wax Building by Frank Lloyd Wright

There was some talk of building out Market Square Mall to be more department store focused, but that idea never came to fruition (see the renderings below).

Alright, let’s check out the third project

Structure: Gay/Way
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Ben McMurry Jr (of Barber & McMurry) and Bruce McCarty (of Painter, Weeks & McCarty)
Date: 1964
Tidbit: In early 1962, DKA decided that since the Market Square Mall was such a success, they wanted to revitalize Gay St itself.

Calling the revitalization “Gay/Way,” DKA retained the services of the two architects who’d worked on on the previous two projects.

Although it would take a few years to fully manifest, Gay/Way essentially added a large, covered walkway above the Downtown Knoxville sidewalk.

The Gay/Way awnings are clearly visible in this Veterans Day picture from 1977
The Gay/Way awnings can be seen adjoining what is now the Embassy Suites

Gay/Way also gave the downtown shops a chance to remodel their storefronts, updating them with more mid-century look and feel.

Eventually, Knoxville decided that mid 1950s design wasn’t really it’s jam. The city then spent then next 50 years or so removing the modernist projects and turning the downtown back into a more traditional looking downtown (see below)

Tennessee Modernism: Hamilton National Bank by Robert B. Church III

Structure: Hamilton National Bank, Bearden Branch
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Robert B. Church III
Date: 1974
Story: Banking, as we know it, has been around for centuries. In the early days of what we might call “modern banking” (think the 1800s), banks wanted to project stability and safety. Their architecture reflected that goal (see, for example, the East Tennessee National Bank building below).

As the 20th century rolled around (and as money movement got safer and more streamlined), banks began modernizing their business practices and, along with it, their architecture. Hamilton National Bank was an East Tennessee bank that went full in on architectural modernity.

Created around 1930 as the Hamilton National Bank of Knoxville, the bank began an ambitious project in the 1950s to build new branches throughout East Tennessee. The branches were designed by architects from the community in which the branch was built.

Since it was their main hub of operation, Knoxville was special to Hamilton National Bank. Throughout the 1950s, they constructed a handful of tasteful mid-century banks, each one unique.

But it wasn’t until the early 1970s that Hamilton National Bank designed what this humble architecture blogger considers their best work. They hired Knoxville firm McCarty Bullock Church Holsaple (now McCartyHolsapleMcCarty) to design them a bank. The firm tapped their principal Robert B. (Bob) Church III to helm the project.

Photo courtesy of Doug McCarty (of MHM)

Church designed a stunning building which featured a precast concrete fascia (with the bank’s name etched into it) and four brick pillars at each corner which, due to the fact they weren’t structural, gave the roof a bit of a floating appearance.

According to architectural historian George Dodds, the bank was “remarkably civic-minded”: Hamilton National Bank asked the architect to design a “basement meeting room… that could also be used by local community groups and operate separately from the bank, even when the bank was not open.” Imagine that!

The bank received much praise, including a feature in Architectural Record (August 1974).

Church’s talent was on full display inside the bank, where cool slate floors contrasted sharply with a warm wood ceiling.

Photo courtesy of Doug McCarty (of MHM)

Today’s tale, however, ends with architectural tragedy. As time went on, the structure would change hands many times. In its last iteration, the building held First Tennessee Bank’s financial advisors. And while those advisors probably offered good advice on money matters, they had no good advice to give when First Tennessee Bank (the entity) decided to tear the building down and replace it with a building as generic as the strip mall within which it is located. Let us watch the progression happen.

!!

2016

😦

2019

I’m not crying, you’re crying.

Tennessee Modernism: Bramlett Motor Hotel by Frank Lloyd Wright

Structure: Bramlett Enterprises Motor Hotel (unbuilt)
Location: Memphis, Tennessee
Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright
Date: 1956
Story: Tennessee Motor Hotels (aka motels) in the 1950s were a fantastic thing. The recently bourgeoning middle class (fueled by the return of WWII troops) led to an increase in cars, car travel, and car recreation such as trekking to national parks. Motels provided simple, inexpensive lodging for these types of overnight trips.

McKay’s Motel & Restaurant in Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Motels tended to be much smaller and simpler than hotels. They were often long, single-story buildings that allowed travelers to just drive their car right up to the door of their room.

Ledwell Motel (left) and Alto Congress Motel (right), both in Gatlinburg, Tennessee

For example, when a Taliesin apprentice named JC Caraway was asked in 1952 to design a motel in Spring Green, Wisconsin, the resulting structure (first called the Rest Haven Motel, now called the Usonian Inn) came out exactly as you’d imagine. Long, flat, easily accessible by car.

Now, you wouldn’t expect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a motel. After all, his lodging designs tended to be a lot, uh, larger. One of his most famous lodgings, the Imperial Hotel (in Tokyo), was a massive structure, large 250-room complex that was one of Japan’s premier hotels during its heyday.

But during the 1950s, Frank Lloyd Wright did in fact design a few motels. Often, they looked very much like a Wrightian take on a motor hotel. Single story, accessible by car, with a bit of a twist: circular versus the more “modern” square look that was popular at the time.

Left: Marshall Erdman Motel & Restaurant, 1957. Right: Zeckendorf Motel, 1958 (© Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation)

A particular favorite of mine is the Daniel Wieland Motor Hotel (1955)

(© Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation)

It was during this motel designing mid 1950s period when a company called Bramlett Enterprises asked Wright to design a motor hotel for them in Memphis, Tennessee. Wright obliged in a very Wrightian way: by delivering them a “motel” that really shared none of the characteristics of motels.

The plans were more hotel than motel. Designed around three towers (each with three elevators in them), the structures were seven stories tall and one featured a different rooftop attraction. Tower one featured a restaurant, tower two a lounge, and tower three a swimming pool.

Unfortunately, this structure was never built, and until just recently, only lived on scraps of paper.

Recently, however, two insanely talented fellows (Steve Virzani and Razin Kahn) spent time creating a digital model and a 3-D visualization of what the project would have looked like, have a look.

Even if it had been built, though, you’e gotta wonder how it would have fared as time went on. You could easily see it taking on new life a lot like Price Tower (in Bartlesville, Oklahoma) potentially getting turned into affordable apartments.

Price Tower, left, and the architect’s original sketch, right (© Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation)

PS: if you’re into Frank Lloyd Wright drawings, I cannot recommend the blog Visions of Wright enough!

Tennessee Modernism: Levi’s Manufacturing Facility by Howard Friedman

Structure: Levi Strauss & Company, Manufacturing and Administration Facility
Location: Powell, Tennessee
Architect: Howard A. Friedman
Date: 1977
Story: Levi’s was looking for architectural modernity. The famous clothier had made a name for itself designing jeans, now it wanted to take its design and build facilities which reflected the impact they were making in the world.

A woman making jeans in a Levi Strauss factory circa 1950

Since Levi’s was headquartered in San Francisco, they began their search for modernity by commissioning a San Francisco based architect named Howard A. Friedman. A graduate of the UC Berkley’s architecture school, Friedman’s initial task was to design + revamp Levi’s San Francisco factory on Valencia (below).

The old Levi Strauss factory in San Francisco still stands, albeit with an ugly parking lot in front

Once they were finished with their HQ revamp, Levi’s was ready for modernity. Working with Friedman again, the jean maker constructed modern facilities throughout the southern portion of the United States. His design for a HQ + computer building in Little Rock, Arkansas (below) is a sight to behold.

Although the Little Rock Levi’s plant closed in 2006, the structure itself seems to still be hanging around.

And now for the pièce de résistance. In Powell, Tennessee, Friedman designed a manufacturing and administration facility for Levi’s that sported a very Miesian look and feel.

Judging by this second photo, the main building seems to have sported a large LED screen across the front.

In 1991, the facility was purchased by The Crown College and most of it was remodeled. Today it sports everyone’s favorite architectural style: collegiate gothic 😐

However, the small building (which you can see on the right hand side of the first black and white photo above) still stands. It somehow miraculously survived the collegiate gothic-pocalypse of Crown College’s takeover and it’s actually in pretty great shape.

Tennessee Modernism: Medical Building by Mann & Harrover

Structure: Medical building
Location: Union City, Tennessee
Architect: Mann & Harrover
Date: 1953
Tidbit: Built for a group of eight doctors, this medical building was designed to give each of the doctors’ offices light and views. The waiting room (above) featured an exposed steel-frame cage with its “three roof bays framed with diamond-shaped steel trusses diagonally crossing each other and interlocking at the crossing point.” (PA July 1960)

Eventually the building was demolished to make way for a more modern medical building (pictured below).

Tennessee Modernism: Bon-Air Motel by Painter, Weeks & McCarty

Structure: Bon-Air Motel
Location: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Architect: Painter, Weeks & McCarty, Bruce McCarty (associate)
Date: 1953
Story: Gatlinburg, Tennessee has always been known for its motels. Long ago, in the 1950s, motel owners were local families, working to profit off of the ever-increasing amount of travelers headed to the Smokey Mountains. 1950s motels were uniquely designed, with the building trying to set itself apart from the panoply of other motels. Some motels used good architectural design, some motels used kitsch.

Gatlinburg businessman Bon Hicks and his wife decided to go the good design route. Now, the Hicks were no strangers to good design. The year prior to building the motel, they’d had Knoxville architect James T. Mitchell design them a custom house.

But we’re not here to talk houses, we’re talking motels! The Hicks commissioned Knoxville firm Painter, Weeks & McCarty to design what would become the Bon-Air Motel. The motel sat up on a 60’ hill overlooking the highway into Gatlinburg. Architect Bruce McCarty brought his considerable talents to bear on the design, creating an exterior of grey mountain stone offset by warm, natural cypress wood. The original design had a very organic look (invoking Frank Lloyd Wright’s design ideas). The motel won awards, and received a write-up in Architectural Forum (February of 1954).

Unfortunately, as Gatlinburg’s architectural vocabulary shifted towards Kitschy Mountain Chic, the motel was renamed the Bon Air Mountain Inn and was remodeled. A-Frame-esque additions were placed on top of the flat roof of the original design (ostensibly to give it a more mountainous feel).

1980s Brochure showing the remodel
1980s Brochure showing the remodel
1980s Brochure showing the remodel

Eventually, the motel was demolished and replaced with a large condo complex.

*sigh*

Tennessee Modernism: Tennessee Valley Bank by Painter, Weeks & McCarty

Structure: Tennessee Valley Bank, Chapman Highway Branch
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Painter, Weeks & McCarty
Date: 1955
Tidbit: In 1956, Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture held an exhibit called A Half Century of Architectural Education. The exhibit featured 72 buildings (selected from over 500 entries) designed by school alumni. Three Tennessee buildings were featured in the exhibit, one of them was this building: the Chapman Highway branch of the Tennessee Valley Bank. The bank was designed by the Knoxville, Tennessee firm Painter, Weeks & McCarty. Two of the firm’s principals, Francis Painter Jr and Felder Weeks, graduated from Georgia Tech, hence the submission.

Tennessee Valley Bank circa 2019, 2nd remodel

Over time, the all-glass look fell out of favor with banks (probably due to break-ins), and the bank was remodeled (see below). The bank is currently undergoing a third renovation which probably won’t do it any aesthetic favors. This third remodel gave us a glimpse of the original teller counter and a bit of the original floors as well.

Bonus building!

Tidbit: I mentioned that three Tennessee buildings were selected for the exhibit, right? Well I’ve only been able to find photos of two of them, one is the bank (above) and the other is this gorgeous structure. Like many buildings, you’ll see, it eventually got, uh, reused and its new use doesn’t retain much of its former beauty.
Structure: American Legion Post #1
Location: Memphis, Tennessee
Architect: Thomas F. Faires
Date: 1955

Photo from the Georgia Tech exhibit
In 2018, the building was converted into a parking garage