Tennessee Modernism: The Modernist Fraternities of University of Knoxville, Tennessee

In 1965, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) decided that it was time to upgrade their Greek life. The school proposed a Fraternity Park, complete with 13 new frat houses…all designed by local architects.

The frat houses were designed around a common property that included streets, sidewalks, parking, and recreation areas. Not all of them were mid-century modern, so I’m leaving off the traditional houses.

The frats were all located in Knoxville, Tennessee, and they were all built in 1965, so I’ll leave that out of the building details. And you know, speaking of brevity, I won’t waste too much more time with the background: it’s a block of frat houses, you get the idea. Let’s jump into the architecture!

Structure: Sigma Alpha Epsilon
Architect: Barber & McMurry
Tidbit: The tree in the center of the courtyard was called the “make-believe tree.” Design wise, looks like those windows never materialized and the tree ended up on the outside of the exterior wall. Also, did those arches not get built either?

Structure: Kappa Alpha
Architect: Painter, Weeks & McCarty
Tidbit: This eventually became Phi Kappa Psi

Structure: Sigmi Phi Epsilon
Architect: Painter, Weeks & McCarty
Tidbit: This mildly interesting frat got a huge remodel in 2011 and is now, uh, not so interesting

Structure: Pi Kappa Alpha
Architect: Painter, Weeks & McCarty

What’s interesting about Pi Kappa Alpha is nine years earlier, in 1956, Painter, Weeks & McCarty had done a rendering for a new building that I don’t think was ever built

Structure: Zeta Beta Tau
Architect: Good & Goodstein
Tidbit: This house is now Pi Kappa Phi

Structure: Sigma Nu
Architect: Abernethy & Robinson
Tidbit: the only non-Knoxville architects, Abernethy & Robinson were located in Johnson City, Tennessee. The original building might have implemented a curved front, possibly modified after the original structure was built. It could also be that my black and white rendering is just not showing that detail. The building, despite its uniqueness, was torn down and replaced with a super generic building sometime in the 2010s.

Structure: Lamda Chi Alpha
Architect: Lindsay & Maples
Tidbit: this house is now Alpha Epsilon Pi

Structure: Delta Tau Delta
Architect: W. Glenn Bullock
Tidbit: this house is still in fantastic condition, which is awesome because it draws some strong design inspiration from the famous architect Louis Kahn

First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York (1961) by Louis Kahn

Structure: Alpha Tau Omega
Architect: Morton & Sweetser
Tidbit: This structure was essentially remodeled into oblivion. Sometime around 2007, a pitched roof was added along with a new foyer which kind of ruined the whole effect.

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: The Modernism of Maryville College

Maryville College was founded in 1819 as a Presbyterian school geared towards training local ministers. But by the 1940s, the college was growing more diverse, and the old buildings were growing crowded. When a small fire burned down the chapel where music classes were being held, the school began an ambitious plan to update its campus architecture. With an eye towards the future, and hoping to reflect the contemporary nature of its new student body, the university understood that mid-century modern architecture would be a natural fit for the look of the new buildings.

Alright, let’s take a look at the various modernist structures built on campus.

Structure: Fine Arts Building at Maryville College
Location: Maryville, Tennessee
Architect: Schweikher & Elting
Date: 1950
Story: The building placed a heavy emphasis on musical performance space because, at that time, roughly 2/3 of Maryville College’s students took at least one or more music courses. The funding came from a Chicago couple, Mr. and Mrs. Glen Alfred Lloyd. Mr. Lloyd, who had attended Maryville College, was the brother of the current president. Mr. Lloyd had gone on to become a successful lawyer in Chicago. Paul Schweikher & Winston Elting’s firm (Schweikher & Elting) were also based out of Chicago, so this may have been how an East Tennessee school connected with that particular architectural firm.

The building itself received national acclaim, with Architectural Record running articles on both the building’s construction (in June of 1950) and the final product (Dec of 1951). Let’s have a look at a panoply of photos from when the building was created all the way up to the modern day.

Of note, the organ inside of the building’s auditorium was designed by the notable organ builder Walter Holtkamp (out of Ohio) in concert with architects Schweikher & Elting

Organ designed by the Holtkamp Organ Company of Ohio

Structure: Samuel Tyndale Wilson Chapel
Location: Maryville, Tennessee
Architect: Schweikher & Elting, Barber & McMurry (associates)
Date: 1954
Tidbit: To replace the old chapel (which had burned down), the college built a complex right next to the Fine Arts Building which contained a new small chapel, a 1,150-person auditorium, a 450-person theatre stage, along with classrooms and offices.

Structure: Margaret Bell Lloyd Residence for Women
Location: Maryville, Tennessee
Architect: Schweikher & Elting, Barber & McMurry (associates)
Date: 1959
Tidbit: Pictures of this modernist dorm are hard to come by, but the structure was made of light gray brick, gray concrete, aluminum and gray-tinted glass. The dorm rooms featured built-in furniture (a desk, a dresser, and shelving) — all trimmed in brown ash wood. The lobby had floor-to-ceiling glass, while the non-glass walls were clad in tangerine, teal blue, turquoise, gold, green, black, and white. The lobby opened onto a small garden as well.

Frances Massey, dean of women, stands in front of the new women’s dorm

In 1960, a Maryville College bulletin claimed the college was looking to fund-and-build a new science hall. Designed by Knoxville firm Barber & McMurry, it’s not clear whether this was ever built.

Rendering of Maryville College Science Hall by Barber & McMurry (circa 1960)

Eventually Maryville College decided it wanted its campus architecture to go back to everyone’s favorite university style: collegiate gothic. In 2007, the Fine Arts Building and Samuel Tyndale Wilson Chapel were demolished to make room for new buildings. I could not bring myself to post a photo of the demolition but if you’re interested, there’s a Flickr album that contains photos of the razing.