Tennessee Modernism: Residence by (and for) Harold Hahn

Structure: Harold Hahn Residence
Location: Farragut, Tennessee
Architect: Harold K. Hahn
Date: 1970
Tidbit: Modernist architecture arrives in different areas at different times. In East Tennessee, it trickles in during the 1950s, and then goes full force in the mid 1960s due in large part to the creation of the University of Tennessee’s school of architecture (in 1965).

This late arrival of modernism means that 1970s architecture (at least in East Tennessee) can have look an awful lot like earlier stages of modernism. Case in point, this gorgeous house out in Farragut, Tennessee. Designed by architect Harold K. Hahn as his personal residence, this beautiful home features all of the traditional markings of a post-and-beam modernist house, despite being designed towards the end of the mid-century period.

Tennessee Modernism: Livingston House by Richard Neutra

Structure: Philip Livingston House
Location: Chattanooga, Tennessee
Architect: Richard Neutra
Date: 1955
Story: Sometimes, when you see a marvelous mid-century house, your heart starts to flutter. If it flutters too much, you’ll need to go see a cardiologist. Now, as luck would have it, the owner of the house we’re featuring in this blog was indeed a cardiologist, his name was Dr. Philip Livingston.

Now Dr. Livingston (I presume) was one of Chattanooga’s best doctors. His wife, Jean, was a big player in state politics. So, being the power couple they were, they decided to build a custom house. They turned to the man, the myth, the legend Frank Lloyd Wright. Eventually, however, things with Wright didn’t work out. One wonders if, like the owners of the Shaw House, the Livingston’s found their conversation with Wright to be “considerably one-sided”?

In any event, they ended up deciding to work with architect Richard Neutra. Many, many words have been written about architect Richard Neutra. He was a Viennese architect who worked for master architects in Europe before coming to the U.S., doing a stint with Frank Lloyd Wright, and then making his way to Los Angeles. He would go on to design some of the most iconic mid-century houses of the era, many of which you’ve probably seen. If you want a good introduction to Neutra, read the Los Angeles Conservancy’s write-up on him.

Neutra’s works were focused in-and-around Southern California. Outside of California, Neutra only designed a handful of houses. Very few are in the south, and this is his only Tennessee design. The original budget for the house was $30,000 (~$288k today), but the final cost ended up being closer to $100,000 (~$961k today). That exorbitant amount of investment got the Livingston house some very special attention from Neutra.

The house itself was chock full of unique features such as a darkroom (Dr. Livingston was an amateur photographer) and an ahead-of-its-time floating TV stand.

Neutra was a talented watercolor artist, and he often sketched + painted the houses he designed. At some point, he painted two watercolors of the Livingston House.

Unfortunately, as often happens, the house decomposed for many years until a developer bought + razed it in 2015.

If you want to read more about this fantastic space, the late Gavin Townsend spent copious amounts of time researching + writing about it, read about it over on the SAH Archipedia. This post (and this blog, probably) owes its existence to Gavin and the amazing work he did during his lifetime.

Tennessee Modernism: The 3 mystery houses of Vista Road

I try to fill this blog full of details, architects, and backstories…but sometimes you’ve just gotta share a mystery. Perched up on a high hill are three mid-century houses that sit right next to each other. The houses give off a strong Prairie Style vibe (a-la Frank Lloyd Wright) but in terms of actual details, this trio of houses remain a mystery.

Structure: Mystery Hill House #1
Location: Louisville, Tennessee
Architect: Unknown
Date: 1945
Tidbit: A fellow architectural enthusiast toured this house when it was for sale in 2012, and he took a bunch of photos. View them here.

Structure: Mystery Hill House #2
Location: Louisville, Tennessee
Architect: Unknown
Date: 1953

Structure: Mystery Hill House #3
Location: Louisville, Tennessee
Architect: Unknown
Date: 1960

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: Knoph House by Felder Weeks

Structure: Nic Knoph House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Felder Weeks
Date: 1967
Tidbit: Nic Knoph was ready to build his dream home and he wanted it to have a stunning view (as dream homes are wont to do). So he selected a site on a sheer cliff overlooking Fort Loudon Lake. He enlisted local architect Felder Weeks, of the firm Painter & Weeks, to design the magnificent structure. Once it was finished, the house featured a funicular that took you from the dock to the house. But the true highlight of the house was the “River Room” (photo at top), a room which cantilevered 14 feet over the lake, giving the inhabitants the “feeling of being on a ship’s prow.” The house still stands and looks to be in great shape.

Layout of the Knoph House
Historical aerial photo from 1969
Historical aerial photo from 2020

Tennessee Modernism: Shaw House by George Fred Keck

Architects (and brothers) William & George Fred Keck were thrilled. They had been asked to design a “House of Tomorrow” for the 1933 Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago. During construction of the house, however, a funny thing happened. As the workers built the house, the greenhouse effect from the glass facade being installed trapped so much heat in the house that the workers were able to work in short-sleeved shirts despite it being freezing outside.

William Keck & George Fred Keck’s House of Tomorrow (1933)

William & George Fred noticed this phenomenon, and began incorporating it into their designs. They found that this type of passive heating was not only good for the environment, it could often save the homeowner 15-20% on their energy bill.

Fast forward to 1951. Down in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Dr. Clarence Shaw was attempting to have a world-renowned architect design a house for him, and it wasn’t going well. You see, Dr. Shaw had been corresponding with Frank Lloyd Wright. The problem, though, was that Wright didn’t really care about the housing needs Dr. Shaw was expressing. Shaw described his back-and-forth with FLLW as “considerabl[y] one-sided.”

Dr. Shaw decided it was time for a change. He began corresponding with Chicago architect George Fred Keck. The result of their collaboration became one of the only passive-solar houses in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The house, sited on a wooded lot that (somehow) also looks out over the river, features soaring 19’ ceilings and a concrete + Douglas fir walls.

Mrs. Shaw on the terrace of her house

Structure: Dr. Clarence Shaw House
Location: Chattanooga, Tennessee
Architect: George Fred Keck
Date: 1952

Tennessee Modernism: Still House by Hayes Fleming

Structure: Stanley Still House
Location: Kingsport, Tennessee
Architect: Hayes B. Fleming
Date: 1973
Tidbit: In Kingsport, Tennessee, there lived a man who loved the water. His name was Stanley W. Still. Now Still loved the water so much, he opened a bait & tackle shop, so he could sell the tools of the sea. But alas, that proved not enough…Still wanted to get closer to the water! So, he hired a local architect to design him a house perched high on a cliff, overlooking the water.

That architect was Hayes B. Fleming. Fleming was born in Belzoni, MS (in 1924), and studied architecture first at the Institute of Design at IIT and then at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. From 1960-1964, Fleming was a principal along with Hubert Bebb in the Gatlinburg firm Bebb & Fleming. After a few years at the firm, Fleming left and moved out to Johnson City, Tennessee where he would have a solid career designing late modern residences, including Stanley Still’s house.

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: 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

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.

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