Tennessee Modernism: Rich’s Dept. Store by Stevens & Wilkinson

Structure: Rich’s Department Store
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Stevens & Wilkinson (Barber & McMurry, associates)
Date: 1955
Story: We do an awful lot of house stories here on the blog, this is true. But today, we’re doing a Knoxville city landmark: the department store called Rich’s.

Rich’s was a chain of department stores that was founded in Atlanta in the late 1800s. Under the chain’s founder, Morris Rich, the chain grew and grew, achieving immense commercial success in the south.

Rich’s first flagship store in downtown Atlanta. Built in 1924.

The company’s second owner (Morris’s son Daniel) continued to oversee great success for the chain. When Daniel’s son Richard (who went by Dick) took over in 1949, he had a mind to (1) expand outside of George and (2) modernize.

How about that vintage Rich’s credit card!

So, in the early 1950s, Dick commissioned three legendary artisans to create a massive, modern new Rich’s in Knoxville.

The office of Stevens & Wilkinson

First, Dick commissioned the Atlanta based architectural firm Stevens & Wilkinson to design the modernist, three-story full-line store. The building’s design received an AIA award when it was built…and you can see why!

The resulting building featured lots of glass, green glazed brick on the front, red glazed brick on the side, and a wavy concrete awning as an accent.

This photo (via Inside of Knoxville) shows the green and red brick simultaneously
When I say this brick was a big deal, it was a big deal. The Knoxville newspaper made sure to mention it many times

Although the interior photos (from the Library of Congress) are low-resolution, may I draw your attention to the furs section!

Next, Dick got ahold of notable mid-century landscape architectural firm Eckbo, Royston & Williams to design the landscaping. This firm was known throughout the U.S. for helping to blend architecture into its surroundings, even if the surroundings were man-made.

The Tucson Community Center landscape (in Tucson, AZ) designed by Eckbo, Royston & Williams

Eckbo, Royston & Williams were up for the task, surrounding the department store with terrain that was walkable, accessible, and scenic (despite the building being on a major street).

In the mid-century era, the landscape was equally as important as the building, as department stores like Rich’s were hubs of community activity.

A farmer’s market takes place in the shade of the concrete wave awning

With the building designed and the landscape planned, Dick commissioned a lighting specialist named Abe Feder to light the building. When he passed away in 1997, the New York Times called Mr. Feder a “master of lighting in all its forms.”

You can see the lighting Feder (right) used in this nighttime photo of Rich’s

I couldn’t find a color photo of the Knoxville store all lit up but here’s an image of the Georgia store at Christmastime (below, left). You can see how lighting played a big part of the store’s look and feel. The photo below on the right is the Knoxville store at Christmastime.

One interesting anecdote about Christmas. Every year, in the Atlanta Rich’s, a great big Christmas tree would perch atop the multi-level bridge. Mark Millkey, son of architect Herbert Millkey Sr (whom we’ve written about on the blog previously) told me that he thinks his dad may have designed the bridge. Regardless of the bridge’s pedigree, Mark shared this amazing anecdote about the bridge at Christmastime, “Once a year around the holidays, possibly on Thanksgiving, the bridge was the site of a choral performance. There was a different choir on each level, with the youngest performers at the bottom, and a professional choir (with a formidable soprano) at the top. As I recall, the performance always culminated in a performance of O Holy Night, at the end of which the tree atop the bridge was lit.

As it happens, I was in one of the choirs one year when I was in high school in the mid-1970s.”

As Rich’s sales waned in the mid 1970s, the store was sold to another department chain called Miller’s (which was headquartered in Chattanooga). The Miller’s store had a restaurant, a snack bar, and a bakery counter…which makes me wonder if the store had all those things when Rich’s created it.

Rendering via the Department Store Museum

At some point, Miller’s shut down and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville took over the building to use it as a conference center building.

As is to be expected with things UTK takes over, the building is rather run down and the marvelous landscaping has all been torn out and replaced with concrete.

Both photos via the marvelous Inside of Knoxville blog

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: Rodgers Building by Shelton & Stachel

Structure: Howard Rodgers Building
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Shelton & Stachel
Date: 1947
Tidbit: In 1947, a Knoxville, Tennessee contractor named Howard Rodgers commissioned the local architectural firm Shelton & Stachel to design a headquarters for his operations.

A sale flyer featuring the architects’ stamp in the bottom left

The result was this building, designed in a style that’s sometimes called “Mid-Century Moderne”, “Streamline Moderne,” or “Art Moderne.” It’s safe to say there aren’t too many buildings like this in Tennessee.

The interior featured oak floors, cherry wood panelling, and those neat, custom triangular lights

Over time, the building was whatever the current owner needed it to be. Sometimes, that meant it needed to be teal.

In my opinion, the most epic part of this building’s saga is this majestic tree out front which that slowly broke down until, one day, it was bulldozed.

So long, mighty tree 😞🌳

Let’s not end on a sad note. There’s not a ton of literature on Shelton & Stachel but as best as I can find, they were a firm comprised of LC Shelton and Louis T. Stachel that formed around 1947 with a big hospital commission. Shelton came to Knoxville and was a partner with architect Frank O. Barber in the early 1940s. A drug overdose took Barber in 1941, so Shelton continued to run their firm (Barber & Stachel). Shelton had the kind of early 1940s design sensibility which allowed him to design buildings like the factory (pictured below) which he designed in 1944. This building may have been what caught Rodgers’ eye and prompted him to have Shelton design him an office/HQ.

Stachel was a native of Greeneville, Tennessee and started practicing architecture in Knoxville around 1941. Early on, Stachel worked for the TVA. However in 1957 he got a job in Mobile, Alabama with a firm called Palmer & Baker Inc. He transferred all of him (and, I assume, his firm’s) files and contracts to architect David B. Liberman.

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: Levi’s Manufacturing Facility by Howard Friedman

Structure: Levi Strauss & Company, Manufacturing and Administration Facility
Location: Powell, Tennessee
Architect: Howard A. Friedman
Date: 1977
Story: Levi’s was looking for architectural modernity. The famous clothier had made a name for itself designing jeans, now it wanted to take its design and build facilities which reflected the impact they were making in the world.

A woman making jeans in a Levi Strauss factory circa 1950

Since Levi’s was headquartered in San Francisco, they began their search for modernity by commissioning a San Francisco based architect named Howard A. Friedman. A graduate of the UC Berkley’s architecture school, Friedman’s initial task was to design + revamp Levi’s San Francisco factory on Valencia (below).

The old Levi Strauss factory in San Francisco still stands, albeit with an ugly parking lot in front

Once they were finished with their HQ revamp, Levi’s was ready for modernity. Working with Friedman again, the jean maker constructed modern facilities throughout the southern portion of the United States. His design for a HQ + computer building in Little Rock, Arkansas (below) is a sight to behold.

Although the Little Rock Levi’s plant closed in 2006, the structure itself seems to still be hanging around.

And now for the pièce de résistance. In Powell, Tennessee, Friedman designed a manufacturing and administration facility for Levi’s that sported a very Miesian look and feel.

Judging by this second photo, the main building seems to have sported a large LED screen across the front.

In 1991, the facility was purchased by The Crown College and most of it was remodeled. Today it sports everyone’s favorite architectural style: collegiate gothic 😐

However, the small building (which you can see on the right hand side of the first black and white photo above) still stands. It somehow miraculously survived the collegiate gothic-pocalypse of Crown College’s takeover and it’s actually in pretty great shape.

Tennessee Modernism: House by (and for) Walk C. Jones III

Structure: Walk C. Jones III Residence
Location: Memphis, Tennessee
Architect: Walk C. Jones III
Date: 1969
Tidbit: Can architectural ability be passed down from father to son? In the case of the Jones family, it appears that it can. Walk Claridge Jones Sr (born 1875) was a noted architect in Memphis who started his own firm in 1904.

His son, Walk C. Jones Jr joined the firm in 1934. Junior studied at Yale, had travelled in Europe, and embraced modernism in architecture. Senior retired in 1940, and at some point, Senior’s grandson Walk C. Jones III joined the firm.

In 1968, shortly before he became a principal in the firm, Jones III designed his own house in a very traditional Memphis neighborhood. Inspired heavily by the architecture of Louis Kahn (think of his design for the Indian Institute Of Management In Ahmedabad), Jones III designed himself a brutalist two-story house out of Memphis red brick. The house was featured in the mid-May issue of Architectural Record (1971).

The house still stands, and although it supposedly sold in 2019, I cannot find any pictures of it anywhere. Maybe one day!

Tennessee Modernism: Knickerbocker House by Edgar Shelton

Structure: Dr. Kenneth Knickerbocker House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Edgar Shelton
Date: 1955
Tidbit: In 1946, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville hired an English professor named Dr. Kenneth Knickerbocker. Whilst Dr. Knickerbocker was traipsing about the campus (dressed in a tweed jacket and horn-rimmed spectacles, I’d imagine), Dr. Knickerbocker met an associate professor of mechanics named Edgar Shelton. Shelton would eventually start his own architectural firm (Edgar G. Shelton & Associates) and so, in 1955, when Dr. Knickerbocker was ready to have a custom house designed, he looked up his old pal. Bringing his mechanical engineering chops to bear, Shelton designed him a solid house that featured a cinder block structure and tons of windows.

In fact, the house’s indoor/outdoor vibe was so notable that it was used in an ad for a local window dealer, the ad proudly proclaiming, “Plan now for window beauty like this!”