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: 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: Wert House by Robert Anderson

Structure: James Wert House
Location: Nashville, Tennessee
Architect: Robert Anderson
Date: 1969
Story: James and Jane Wert had just moved from the forested lands of of Northern Wisconsin to Nashville, Tennessee. James, a metallurgist by trade, had just accepted a teaching job at Vanderbilt University.

The family longed for the feel of the forest, so they commissioned Nashville architect Robert Anderson to design them a house that was, according to Jane Wert, “lodge and woodsy.” The resulting house had a lodge-y feel to it, with an exterior made out of western cedar and a roof made of cedar shingles. The house is sited on a forested lot filled with maple, locust, and hackberry trees.

Anderson’s goal, he said in an interview, was to make the house “be humble to its surroundings.”

The original steps up to the house were concrete framed by redwood. Photos from 2017 show they’ve since been replaced.

PS: this blog owes its existence to the intrepid soul that found, scanned, and uploaded these vintage images… Collyn Wainright!

Tennessee Modernism: Davis House by Bruce McCarty

Structure: Charles Davis House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Bruce McCarty
Date: 1960
Tidbit: Charles B. Davis was a co-founder of a Knoxville advertising firm called Lavidge & Davis. There’s also a potential that he worked at the ad agency Davis Newman Payne.

Newspaper portrait of Charles B. Davis

At some point, he contracted architect Bruce McCarty to design a modernist house for him high atop a hill, overlooking the Tennessee River and the Smoky Mountains. That’s about all I know on this house which is good news for you, dear reader, because it gets you into the photos faster!

First, some historical photos!

And now for some pictures of how it looks today.

Tennessee Modernism: House by (and for) Thomas Faires

Structure: Thomas F. Faires Residence
Location: Memphis, Tennessee
Architect: Thomas F. Faires
Date: 1960
Tidbit: The houses architects design for themselves are always interesting to observe. Today, we’re looking at the house of a prominent Memphis architect named Thomas F. Faires.

The literature is pretty sparse on Faires. What we do know, is this: Faires was born in Mount Pleasant, Tennessee and got his architecture degree from Georgia Tech in 1928. Shortly thereafter, he founded his own firm (Thomas F. Faires & Associates) and did architecture and engineering as a contractor for the military. I’d imagine he helped design armories and the like. During World War II, he served in the military and, upon retiring (and being given the Purple Heart), he went right back to doing architecture around Memphis and for the military.

Hopefully we’ll find out more about this talented architect as time passes, but in the meantime, let’s take a look at the residence he designed for him and his family. It just recently sold and they did a nice job staging + photographing it.

Tennessee Modernism: Garlinghouse Plan #8160

Structure: Garlinghouse Plan #8160
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Date: 1957
Tidbit: In the mid-century era, a house didn’t have to be custom to be architect designed. You see, architects would often design and submit their house plans to house plan books / catalogues. Sometimes, the plan book companies would send employees out across the country to find, measure, and draw house plans they thought would have sell well (and have popular appeal).

This “second house for leisure living” was a vacation house designed by architect Henrik Bull

All a potential homeowner would have to do would be to acquire a catalog, find a house plan they liked, call up the house plan company, pay for the house plan… and voilà! They’d be well on their way to having a (semi) custom house built. If you want to look through lots of old house plan books, Internet Archive has a great collection of digitized catalogs.

In Knoxville, Tennessee, is a great illustration of this house plan phenomenon. Built in 1947, this is a cute, rather unique looking house.

The house’s plan comes from a very popular house plan publication called Garlinghouse. The house’s plan, #8160, cost $22.50, and was described as a “contemporary flat roof type home” with a “practical and roomy floor plan.”

Tennessee Modernism: Newton House by Robert Judd

Structure: Donald Newton house
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Robert Judd
Date: 1968
Story: Today’s story starts (as many of them do) with a real estate listing.

As I was perusing old Zillow listings, I came across a beautiful house made of glass, wood, and natural stone. Down below the photos, the listing contained this funny little line: “This Frank Lloyd Wright style property was designed by the same architect that did the Kentucky Lake Lodge.” First, I had a laugh. As the photos below will illustrate, there was nothing Wrightian about this house.

The other part of the sentence did not make me laugh, but it piqued my curiosity. It was the first clue to figuring out who this mysterious architect might be… so into the historical records I went.

First, the lodge. In the early 1960s, the TVA worked with the state of Kentucky to take a bunch of lakeside land and turn it into a place that tourists would want to vacation. The resulting park (Kentucky Dam Village) featured a restaurant, lots of lodging, a marina, and endless walking trails.

The highlight of the park was the Kentucky Dam Village Lodge, a marvelous structure overlooking the Kentucky Lake, a place replete with motel rooms, a pool, and this incredible floating copper fireplace.

Now, back in Knoxville, there was a civil engineer who worked at the TVA. His name was Donald Newton. Newton was not just a civil engineer, he was also a leaders at the Knoxville Society of Friends (Quakers). When the society was in need of a new meeting house (in 1961), Newton helped them find a nice wooded spot of land to build on. What a helpful fellow!

Some years later, Newton would build himself a home just down the road from the meeting house. Newton reached out to the architect who had designed the Kentucky Dam Village Lodge, an architect named Robert Judd (based out of Louisville, Kentucky). My hunch is that Newton knew Judd from his days helping the TVA design the Kentucky Dam Village project.

How solid is my theory? Let us examine the evidence by comparing pictures from the Kentucky Dam Village Lodge against the Newton house, see if we can’t spot the similarities.

First, here’s a historical and modern-day picture of what was called the “Executive Cottage”:

And here is the living wing of the Netwon house:

Next, here’s a modern day photo of the Kentucky Dam Village Lodge:

And here’s the main room of the Newton house:

I’m sold, and we’re gonna mark this case solved so I can add the rest of the house photos for your viewing pleasure.