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.

Tennessee Modernism: Smith House I & II by Carl Maples

R.C. Smith Jr was a young city councilman. So young, in fact, that when he ran (at the age of 26) the local paper ran a piece discussing just how young he actually was. After being elected as a councilman, he was appointed as Knoxville’s law director. His particular area of focus was cracking down on homebuliders who built homes without the proper permits.

Being heavily involved with building codes is probably how he came to know architect Carl F. Maples, principal at a Knoxville architectural firm named Lindsay & Maples. One article I read said that R.C. succeeded Maples as president of their local Sertoma Club chapter in 1952. I’ve gotta assume that at some point, Smith just said “how about it, Carl, wanna design me a house?”

Structure: R.C. Smith House I
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Carl Maples
Date: 1953
Tidbit: I could find very little in the way of photos of this house, which is a bummer because it’s so beautiful. The exterior sports a redwood / crab orchard stone combination that sits quite nicely on the site. All of those windows serve a great purpose: overlooking the Tennessee River.

In mid 1955, R.C.’s wife asked him for (and received) a divorce. However, shortly after that (in 1956), he remarried and used his new marital status as an opportunity to move his new family into a new neighborhood.

R.C. (right) with his second wife, the former Ms. Vivian Delores

Structure: R.C. Smith House II
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Lindsay & Maples
Date: 1960
Tidbit: I stumbled across this house because its listing told me it was designed by architect Hubert Bebb. That, however, turned out to be fake news. Instead, an ad in the local paper (by the home’s builder) revealed that it was designed by Knoxville architectural firm Lindsay & Maples. My gut says R.C. went and asked Carl Maples to design him a second house. The house sports quite a unique interior and is located in a neighborhood that features a lot of architect-designed homes.

Not to end today’s blog on a dour note but in 1962, shortly after his second house was finished. R.C.’s wife asked for (and received) a divorce. 😞 Think he had a third house built for himself?

Tennessee Modernism: 2 houses by Alfred Clauss & Jane West Clauss

Alright. Where to even start. Alfred Clauss was a German architect. Born in 1906 (in Munich), he started his architectural career working for Karl Schneider. Alfred then did a short stint in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s studio (helping to design the German Pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona Exposition). He immigrated to the US later that same year.

Clauss helped Mies design this pavilion in 1929 as the German National Pavilion for the Barcelona International Exhibition

Alfred then immigrated to New York, working in the New York office of the Philadelphia-based firm Howe & Lescaze (a firm known for being a hotbed of modernist architects). While at Howe & Lescaze, Alfred helped work on the PSFS Building, now the Loews Philadelphia Hotel). He also met fellow architect George Daub, and the two of them formed a partnership called, aptly, Clauss & Daub.

The PSFS Building (now the Loews Philadelphia Hotel)

Now for some controversy. In 1931, the Architectural League of New York was gearing up to hold their annual exhibition on architecture. Clauss & Daub submitted some of their designs to the show, however they were rejected. The league claimed they were “dangerously radical.” Seizing upon this moment, Alfred (with a little help from Philip Johnson, Alfred Barr and Henry-Russell Hitchcock) planned a counter exhibition, the cheekily-named Rejected Architects. This exhibition was bold, brash, and unapologetically modern. It sought to introduce modernist architecture to a more traditionally minded nation. The pamphlet (pictured below) featured Clauss & Daub’s design for a house in Pinehurst, North Carolina on the cover. In total, five of Clauss & Daub’s designs were exhibited during the show.

Brochure for the Rejected Architects show

In 1933, after helping plan the Chicago World’s Fair, Alfred was hired by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a move which brought him to East Tennessee. In 1934, Alfred married Jane West and the two of them relocated to Knoxville, Tennessee.

Jane West Clauss (circa 1932)

A word must be said about Jane West Clauss. From this point on, It is almost impossible to disentangle Alfred’s designs from Jane West’s design. Jane West was a talented architect in her own right, having spent time working the office of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret. The Clausses were a team who designed and created together, true partners. If you’ve got a moment or two, I highly recommend reading Pioneering Women of Architecture’s write-up on Jane West Clauss.

Le Corbusier (left) and Pierre Jeanneret (right). The two were cousins.

Ok. Back to Alfred. According to historian Lawrence Wodehouse (in his 1985 essay on Alfred Clauss in Knoxville), Alfred spent his time working at the TVA as an “associate architect in the public relations department, designing visitor’s centers at dam sites and TVA exhibits for local and state fairs”. He also designed some fantastic wartime propaganda posters for the TVA as well.

I need to emphasize this: Alfred and Jane West Clauss’s impact on the modernism of East Tennessee cannot be overstated. I will be the first to admit that this humble blog is just the broad strokes of their life. Hopefully, at some point, I’ll either write or link to a more in-depth look at his life and work.

You can see the modernism reflected all through TVA structures, like in this TVA dam’s visitor center

Alright, it’s about time for some architectural photos, wouldn’t you say? While working for the TVA (from 1934-1945), Alfred and Jane West designed seven houses in the Knoxville area. Five of them are in a their own little community, and I’ll do a write-up on that later. The other two structures were one-off house commissions, so let’s take a look at those.

Structure: Joseph Mengel House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Alfred Clauss & Jane West Clauss
Date: 1938
Tidbit: Joseph Mengel’s father owned a lumber manufacturing company based out of Louisville, Kentucky called Foreign & Domestic Veneers Inc. The company turned mahogany, walnut, and other lumber into wood that could be used furniture (such as phonograph cabinets). Joseph was one of the vice presidents of the company and, at some point, he and his wife Susan moved to Knoxville to run the Knoxville branch of Foreign & Domestic Veneers.

Interestingly, Foreign & Domestic Veneers Inc was a bit of a local hub, often holding twice-a-week religious services during the workers’ lunch breaks. The company would engage pastors, laymen, and out-of-town visitors to speak to the plant workers.

In 1934, Joseph Mengel’s father (C.C. Mengel) died of a heart attack. When he passed, he left a small fortune to the family, valued somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million. It was shortly thereafter that the Joseph Mengel decided he was ready to build a custom house. And he didn’t just want any old custom house, he wanted a modernist house. Friends from the TVA introduced him to the Clausses, so he had the couple design him and his family an exceedingly attractive house. Surprising no one, Joseph supplied all of the woods for the house (using a bevy of expensive woods such as pecan for the floors and redwood for the exterior).

Unfortunately, the Mengel house has been, well, mangled through years of renovations.

*sigh*

Structure: Henry Hart House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Alfred Clauss & Jane West Clauss
Date: 1943
Tidbit: One of the most spectacular examples of modernism in East Tennessee, this house was designed for Henry C. Hart and his wife Virginia. In 1936, Henry graduated from Vanderbilt, and came to work for the TVA (in the personnel department).

Portrait of Henry C. Hart

At some point, Henry and his wife became friends with Alfred and Jane West, so it makes a lot of sense that they would design them a house. One local paper noted that the Hart’s “live[d] of eccentric design.” How eccentric was it? Let’s have a look.

Shortly after the house was finished, the Dies Committee discovered that Henry had, at one time, been a member of the Communist Party. Having been exposed, Henry sold his house, was drafted into the army, and only ever came back to Knoxville to visit Alfred and Jane West.

After his army service, Henry moved to Madison, Wisconsin and taught at University of Wisconsin–Madison. Henry’s dad was a professor at Columbia University so that transition was probably a pretty natural one. Virginia Hart went on to become Wisconsin’s first female cabinet member.

2015 listing photos (above) and 2019 listing photos (below). As you can see, the original screened-in porch was converted into a room, and the house is slowly being HGTV’d (especially in the kitchen area). Here’s hoping the new owners will restore it back to its original beauty…word on the street is they will!