Tennessee Modernism: The Horizon Homes of Tennessee

Enough of this ephemeral stuff, let’s be concrete! In the 1960s, house construction was booming. New housebuilding materials, many created for WWII, were making their way into the hands of house builders.

The Portland Cement Association (PCA) saw this as an opportunity to bolster their trade. They created the Horizon Home program, a program designed to “give support and greater effectiveness to better home design” while also encouraging “broader interest in the many new uses of concrete.” The program functioned like this: Each year, the PCA would give awards (prize money) to houses that were designed by architects and built out of concrete. Then, they’d showcase these Horizon Homes in their brochures. All over the country, hundreds of these houses were designed, built, and showcased.

Much like the ALCOA Care-Free home program, the Horizon Home program eventually shut down because, as it turns out, 1960s concrete was not a cost-efficient material with which to build houses.

Tennessee had at least three Horizon Homes built (that we know of), one in each section of the state (east, middle, west). Only two of them have been discovered, so let’s have a look at those those.

Structure: Tennessee Horizon Home (East)
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Painter, Weeks & McCarty
Date: 1961
Tidbit: East Tennessee representin’! Now although the firm Painter, Weeks & McCarty is credited with this design, it’s highly likely that architect Bruce McCarty was the designer as this house shares some concrete features with another concrete house he designed in Knoxville (the Concrete Bent House).

Howard Cockrum was the house’s builder
Google Street View of the house (flipped to match the perspective of the ad)
Knoxville Horizon Home floor plan

Structure: Tennessee Horizon Home (Middle)
Location: Hendersonville, Tennessee
Architect: Hardie C. Bass
Date: 1962
Tidbit: This Middle Tennessee house was built by notable Nashville-area home builder Braxton Dixon.

Hardie C. Bass’s rendering of the house
You can see some of the concrete flourishes on the second story wall

Now, according to the literature, the West Tennessee Horizon Home was built in Germantown, Tennessee and designed by a Memphis-area architectural firm called Ost, Folis & Wagner. At the time of writing, however, I haven’t been able to discover the house. If I find it, don’t worry, I’ll update the blog.

Tennessee Modernism: The Hunter House by E. Fay Jones

Structure: Dr. Sam Hunter House
Location: Memphis, Tennessee
Architect: E. Fay Jones
Date: 1964
Story: In Memphis, Tennessee there lived a couple, Dr. Sam Hunter and his wife Jody. “Hunter” seems an ironic name for a doctor, one would think he’d be a park ranger or something, but I digress. In the late 1950’s, Jody was flipping through an architectural magazine when she spotted a black-and-white photo of a house architect E. Fay Jones had designed.

E. Fay Jones in front of his architectural drawing

Now, let’s talk about architect E. Fay Jones for a minute. Jones was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He got an architecture degree at the University of Arkansas, obtained a master’s degree in architecture from Rice University, and then took a job teaching at the University of Oklahoma. He returned to Arkansas a few years later and ran his own architectural practice while also teaching at his alma mater (UofA). Jones was a close friend and protege of Frank Lloyd Wright, and their relationship would prove fertile ground for Jones, it would propel him towards a strong organic modernist streak, which would eventually cement his place as one of the most prolific modernist architects in Arkansas. But all of that fame n’ fortune hadn’t happened yet. So let’s get back to the Hunters.

In the early 1960s, the Hunters went to Fayetteville, Arkansas to meet with Jones and ask him to design them a house. Jones was reticent. He preferred to supervise his builds, but given that Memphis was roughly ~320 miles away, that would be impossible. After some discussion, the Hunters convinced Jones to design them a house in Memphis by promising him they’d “get a fine, conscientious builder so [Jones] could show [the builder] how he drew on a grid system.” Jones recalled, “It gave me a little confidence to do work farther from home.”

But before he would draw any plans, Jones asked the Hunters to keep journals about how they lived and what they did every day, so he could discover what was important to them. Dr. Hunter put it this way, “[Jones] said ‘I don’t want to know how many bathrooms you want.’ He wanted a philosophy of [our] life.” Chief among the Hunter’s desire were unrestricted vision to the outdoors, the ability to watch the weather change, and a house that brought the outside inside.

The house itself was constructed of heartwood tidewater cypress (a favorite of Frank Lloyd Wright’s due to its warm red tone and natural resistance to water). The woodwork (including 300 cabinets, lighting, seating, and tables) were built on site. The floor was made of flagstones, and Jones had a designated “stone hunter” whose job it was to artfully find-and-place the stones in such a way that they (1) looked aesthetically good and (2) used as little mortar as possible.

This detail is truly stunning

And thus it was that E. Fay Jones, notable Arkansas architect, designed a house in Memphis.

A little fuzzy, but check out that light and detail!

Tennessee Modernism: Fiser House by Hubert Bebb

Structure: Fiser House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Hubert Bebb
Date: 1961
Tidbit: In the early 1960s, Knoxville, Tennessee had a prominent home builder named John Fiser. Joe had always wanted a lake house, so when the time came, he turned to notable Gatlinburg architect Hubert Bebb and had him design a gargantuan 4,600, tri-level, hexagonal-shaped house overlooking Fort Loudon Lake (later additions would bring the house’s square footage up to around 10,000 sq ft). Sparing no expense, John hired Jim Cleveland (an architect-designer) to design + decorate the interior with imported fixtures from Spain, wool carpets, and a Robert R. Bushong screenprint (for the focal point of the main room). The ink wasn’t even dry on Bebb + Cleveland’s plans before John began building the house (he was a builder, after all). The stonework alone took 6 months! Unfortunately, the house didn’t transition well into the modern era. The house itself was neat but, according to the Fisers, didn’t have all of the amenities one would want from a modern house. Although they put time and energy into seeing whether a rehab was feasible, they decided that it would have been too costly, and the house was demolished in 2012. The good news, though, is that much of the original house’s materials were used in a new build on the site. That said, we bid you RIP, hexagonal house.

Google Satellite view 2010
Google Satellite view 2013

Tennessee Modernism: the ALCOA Care-Free Home by Charles M. Goodman

Structure: ALCOA Care-Free Home
Location: Maryville, Tennessee
Architect: Charles M. Goodman
Date: 1957
Story: The year is 1957, and ALCOA (the Aluminum Company of America, now called Arconic) decided that more people should live in homes made out of aluminum. It was as much of a sales pitch as anything else…but it be quite the experiment.

ALCOA hired architect Charles M. Goodman to design what they called the “Care-Free” home. The houses were 3 bed, 3 bath, 1,900 sq. ft. and were filled with colorful aluminum (used both as the structure of the house and as decoration). These pictures from the brochure show just how ALCOA was planning to market the houses.

This Care-Free house (in Portland, Oregon) gives you a look at the house in real life, and showcases the prominent use of aluminum throughout.

To get folks interested in these unique houses, ALCOA decided to pay for + build the first batch. They planned to build 50, but only 24 were ever built. As it turns out, building a house out of aluminum is quite expensive. The houses were intended to cost around $25,000 ($230k today), but they ended up costing double that price — and thus weren’t affordable for the middle class market ALCOA was aiming for.

Luckily for us here in the Volunteer State, one of the the 24 constructed houses was built in Maryville, Tennessee. It’s been unsympathetically remodeled however the bones still look to be in pretty good shape (probably due to the sturdiness of all that aluminum).

Tennessee Modernism: Cabin by (and for) Gerhardt Nimmer

Structure: Gerhardt Nimmer Cabin
Location: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Architect: Gerhardt Nimmer
Date: 1960
Story: Are you ready for a story of travel, love, and architecture? In 1908, Gerhardt Nimmer was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin to August and Ida Nimmer. August, Gerhardt’s father, was a carpenter and a house builder.

In 1934, Gerhardt fell in love and married a woman named Hazel. Gerhardt became a CPA, and the couple spent their lives working + building a family in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In order to get away from the hustle n’ bustle, they began taking vacations to Gatlinburg, Tennessee in the 50s.

Now, although Gerhardt was a CPA by trade, he had acquired a love of woodworking and carpentry from his father. Thus it should come as little surprise that, in the late 1950s, he picked out an 8-acre plot of land on a high bluff overlooking the Great Smokey Mountains and determined to build him and his family a cabin.

Recruiting some skilled laborer friends from back home in Minneapolis, Gerhardt designed + built a glass-filled mountaintop cabin for him and Hazel. The simple, Miesian-style house still sits atop that hill: a simple 1,120 sq. ft. monument to what hard work, love, and resilience can achieve.

Tennessee Modernism: Residence by (and for) Joseph Goodstein

Structure: Joseph Goodstein Residence
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Joseph S. Goodstein
Date: 1964
Tidbit: The Sequoyah Hills neighborhood of Knoxville, Tennessee is known for large traditional style houses. But peppered in among them are a handful of interesting mid-century modern style residences. This, is one of those houses. The strikingly modern home was designed by architect Joseph S. Goodstein as his personal residence. Joseph’s father (Ben) was a local kosher grocer (say that five times fast) in Knoxville, so after Joseph finished his architectural studies at the University of Cincinnati he came back to town, got married, and started his own architectural firm with Sam Good. The firm was called Good & Goodstein, although if you ask me, they could have called it Good+Stein.

In any event, Joseph lived in this house for 42 years until the current owners purchased it. The exterior (which is in excellent shape) features a slight butterfly roof reminiscent of Mario Bianculli’s modernist home in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s wonderful to see this house still proudly sitting in stark contrast to the more traditional style homes surrounding it.

Tennessee Modernism: Fairhill by Cliff May

Structure: Stewart Henslee House (called “Fairhill”)
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Cliff May
Date: 1949
Story: In the early 1940s, a Knoxville, Tennessee furniture salesman (Stewart Henslee) joined up with the Navy. He was stationed at Naval Base Coronado (NBC), a base that sits on the island of Coronado, California (an island just off the coast of San Diego, California). While stationed there, he met + fell in love with one of the Coronado residents, Miss Marjorie Walbridge. In 1942, the two of them were married on the West Coast.

Two years later (1944), Stewart and Marjorie purchased 384 acres of property that formerly belonged to R.L. Sterchi. The land, out in West Knoxville, was extremely rural and came with a 40-acre lake.

Stewart Henslee (left) holds young Marjorie, Marjorie Henslee (right) holds Stewart Jr

Now, since Marjorie was from Southern California, she was quite taken with the styles of architecture that were native to her home state. Styles that evoked the old ranches that used to dot the arid California land. Stewart was amenable towards the style as well, having been stationed in California for some time. So the couple commissioned up-and-coming California architect Cliff May to customize one of his designs for them. If you’re not familiar with Cliff May, here’s a great primer on him. Cliff May was known for designing California ranch-style houses, so it only seemed right that the Henslee’s had him alter one of his California ranch-style plans for their new Knoxville residence.

The photo below is a plan Cliff May called the “Postwar Demonstration House,” and it bears a striking resemblance to the house May ended up customizing for the Henslee Family. It’s quite possible they visited this house (or a house much like it) in San Diego as Cliff May was heavily promoting his houses in the Southern California area.

© University of California, Santa Barbara
These are the actual blueprints of the Henslee’s house

The Henslee’s called their new home “Fairhill.”

Marjorie Henslee photographed from the porch of her Cliff May-designed home, “Fairhill”

Unfortunately, things did not stay fair on that hill for very long. Given both of their wealth and status (Stewart was the head of the Fowler Brothers Furniture Co, Marjorie came from a wealthy family due to her great uncle helping create the Libby-Owens-Ford glass company) the couple went through a very public divorce in early 1963. Later that year, Stewart died of a heart attack. The house itself stood up on it’s hill as the land around it slowly got carved up and sold. The house was eventually demolished around 2012, and to this day the house’s former site is just an empty dirt lot.

Another one bites the dust

Tennessee Modernism: 2 mid-century houses by Bill Kleinsasser

Editor’s note: This post only features very tiny photos, and for that I apologize. Just imagine they were taken with a little flip phone, that’ll give them a nostalgic quality.

Long ago, weather was forecasted out of weather stations. These weather stations were run by the federal government. The U.S. had a weather station located at McGhee Tyson Airport, which was run from 1941-1960 by a man named William “Ted” Kleinsasser Sr. Ted was well-liked, partially because he was a good weatherman, but also because he introduced and taught Western-style square dancing to East Tennessee.

In 1960, Ted’s car slammed headfirst into the railing of a bridge. Shortly thereafter, he was let go from his weatherman job. In an effort to improve his condition, Ted checked himself into a psychiatric treatment center up in Asheville, North Carolina. Upon finishing his treatment, the doctors told him to get interested in something that would keep him physically fit and also keep him interested.

Ted & Mabel outside their house (1972)

Ted went back home to Alcoa, Tennessee, and became an enthusiastic gardener. Now Ted owned four lots, two had regular houses on them, and on the other two, he gardened. Let’s pause Ted’s story and talk about his son Bill.

William “Bill” Kleinsasser Jr was raised in Alcoa by Ted and his wife Mabel. Bill was an athletic fellow, and ended up going to Princeton (and getting an All-American mention despite being there on an academic scholarship). He took a break from Princeton to serve in the Korean War, but returned to get his MFA in architecture.

It is during this point (around 1956) that Bill did two awesome things. First, he met-and-married Ann Biester. Secondly, he designed a house for Knoxville businessman Oliver Wright Sr., the owner of a local hardware + appliance store. The house is a marvelous post and beam house that sits high atop a hill. Its views are spectacular.

Structure: Oliver Wright Sr House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Bill Kleinsasser
Date: 1956

Man, what a house. Ok let’s finish up Bill’s bio. During his time at Princeton, Bill crossed paths with many notable architects including Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, Hugh Hardy, and William Turnbull. After he graduated Princeton, he was a busy man. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in France, had a private practice (in Doylestown, Pennsylvania), worked with Marc-Joseph Saugey (in Geneva, Switzerland), and did a stint in the office of Louis Kahn (in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). In 1965 he became professor of architecture at the University of Oregon where he would teach for 34 years.

Ok, back to Ted! In the late 1960s, Bill was on sabbatical from UO, and he was in Alcoa, Tennessee, visiting home. Bill took a look at the large limestone ledge that ran through his dad’s property and said “Pop, why don’t you build a house here?”

The limestone ledge that ran through Ted’s property

Ted thought it over, then said “If you design it, I’ll build it.”

The house was made out of Western red cedar, stained and weathered until it was gray. The interior was mostly made out of pecan paneling. The ceiling was made of Douglas fir, topped with insulation, over which a tar roof was poured, capped by a layer of limestone chips.

Interestingly, none of the stones on the rocky property were moved to make way for the house, the house was engineered around the stones. This was in keeping with one of Bill’s architectural tenants: that architecture should respond to place.

Structure: Ted Kleinsasser House
Location: Alcoa, Tennessee
Architect: Bill Kleinsasser
Date: 1969

As I finish writing, it occurs to me that I should have called this blog entry Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (in modernism)

Tennessee Modernism: Glass House by (and for) Bill Shell

Structure: Glass House // Bill Shell Residence
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: William “Bill” Starke Shell
Date: 2002
Story: Although we rarely venture this far outside of the mid-century era, this house deserves an honorable mention. Inspired by his time spent working with Mies van der Rohe in Chicago, University of Tennessee Professor Bill Shell bought a wooded parcel of land in 1978. Then, over the next 22 years, he designed and built this house, paying cash as he went. It’s ability to sit in both an old paradigm while being built recently is a testament to its timeless (if sterile) shape.

Tennessee Modernism: Gentry House I and II by Dr. Robert Gentry & James C. Freer

The only current photo of Gentry House I

Structure: Robert Gentry Residence I
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: James C. Freer, Dr. Robert Gentry (designer)
Date: 1965

The Story:

There are very few Renaissance men in this world. Dr. Robert H. Gentry Jr, however, was one of them. Born in Denton, Texas, Dr. Gentry spent his undergrad studying physics at the University of Texas. While there, he taught basic architectural classes focused around the mathematical side of architecture.

It was here that his deep passion for architecture began to develop.

After a brief stint working as a physicist for Monsanto, Dr. Gentry changed his career path and went to University of Texas at Galveston Medical School, earning his M.D. in psychiatry. After graduation, in the late 1950s, he did 2 years of residency in Galveston, TX, 1 year of residency in Washington D.C., finally landing at the Fort Sanders Presbyterian Hospital (now the Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center) in Knoxville, Tennessee. Dr. Gentry quickly took to the marvelous climate of East Tennessee, becoming a prolific hiker. Of interest, Dr. Gentry’s father (Robert Gentry Sr) was a very skilled woodworker, a skill he passed along to Dr. Gentry. A wood worker working and walking in the woods? How about that.

The pull of the mountains proved too much to resist. Dr. Gentry and his wife decided to settle + build a house in Knoxville.. 

It took them all of 1964 to design their home’s floorpan. Why so long? Dr. Gentry was quite taken with an idea Frank Lloyd Wright had pioneered: designing a house with no right angles (no Wright angles? Ok I’ll stop). Following in the FLLW footsteps, Dr. Gentry created a hexagonal floor plan for his house that primarily used 60º or 120º angles.

Dr. Gentry’s handcrafted wooden model (right), a satellite of the house (left

The next six months were spent working with Knoxville architect James C. Freer, a Cornell-educated architect who’d just opened his own shop (in 1963). Although the ideas for the house all came from Dr. Gentry, Freer helped turn them into reality. 

The 4,800 sq ft house was a marvel. It featured a two-story entryway (replete with floor-to-ceiling glass windows) which was separated from the living room by a stream. The stream had goldfish living in it, and the stream was fed by a small waterfall bubbling out of a 10-foot rock formation. A little bridge allowed you to cross from one room to the other. 

Dr. Gentry’s woodworking skills were on full display: the Wurlitzer piano in the living room had custom (contemporary) legs he’d made, the dining room table was a 9-foot hexagonal creation, and the hallways featured handmade walnut fixtures. No molding was used in the house, all of the wood was mitered by hand. 

The name of the Gentry House I? “Appalachia”.

Wait, did I say Gentry House I? As in there’s another? You bet there is. And there are pictures, too. 

Structure: Robert Gentry Residence II
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Dr. Robert Gentry (designer)
Date: 1978

The Story: The Gentry’s built their first house in 1965. But roughly 10 years later, the couple got divorced. So in 1975, Dr. Gentry bought a forested parcel of land in the Sequoyah Hills area of Knoxville, Tennessee. Architect James C. Freer had already passed away (in 1971), so although he wasn’t actively involved in the design of Gentry House II, it’s clear that his earlier collaboration on Gentry House I was the basis for Gentry House II: the unique wall angels, the two-story entryway, the stream running through the living room. Ok, we’ve spent enough time talking about Gentry House II, let’s get to the pictures!