Tennessee Modernism: 3 houses designed by Herbert Millkey Sr.

Last week we explored the Timberlake area, a secluded enclave of modernism tucked just below the Tennessee River. However, there is one mid-century house from that area that I left off out of the blog. The oversight was intentional, don’t worry. I wanted to talk about the three modernist houses designed in East Tennessee by Herbert Millkey Sr, and I wanted to do it all at once.

Millkey was an Atlanta-based architect who studied architecture at the University of Cincinnati (BA), and at Yale University (M.Arch). There he had his was a principal in two firms (Moscowitz, Willner & Millkey and Millkey & Associates) and was a regional director at the AIA. Interestingly, his son, Herbert Millkey Jr was also an architect, one who co-founded the first interracial architecture firm in Georgia (called Millkey & Brown).

Tarlee Brown (L) and Herbert Millkey Jr (R) in 1978

Now, Herbert Millkey Sr’s practice was mostly focused on commercial architecture, with the two notable exceptions. The first was a house he designed for cartoonist Ed Dodd in Atlanta, Georgia.

The other notable exception to Herbert Millkey Sr’s commercial heavy practice was his own residence in Nancy Creek, Georgia (now demolished).

But enough about Georgia. Let’s dive into the Tennessee connection, shall we?

Structure: Frederick Fisher House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Herbert Millkey Sr.
Date: 1957

Structure: Robert Fiddler House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Herbert Millkey Sr.
Date: 1956
Tidbit: Mr. Fiddler worked at Rich’s, which was headquartered in Atlanta. He and hsi wife fell in love with mid-century modern style architecture after seeing Mr. Millkey’s personal residence featured in a magazine. Unfortunately, the Fiiddler house was eventually remodeled into oblivion (turned into a McMansion).

Structure: William Way House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Herbert Millkey Sr.
Date: 1955
Story: Now we come to the part of the story left out of the Timberlake blog. The house was designed for William Way, the head of the Transportation Department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Unfortunately for the Way’s, William died of a heart attack a year after the house was built.

Over time, new owners added on + remodeled the house, while still retaining a lot of its original character.

Tennessee Modernism: Daniel House by A.L. Aydelott & Associates

Structure: Harry Daniel House
Location: Bristol, Tennessee
Architect: A.L. Aydelott & Associates
Associate architect: Chia-Yi (Charles) Jen
Date: 1953
Tidbit: As best as I can tell, Harry Daniel’s parents were East Tennessee royalty. They owned a massive historical residence called “Almathea” which they used to hold their vast collection of art and regularly host dinners and events. At some point, Harry became the owner of the property, sold it, and commissioned the firm A.L. Aydelott & Associates (out of Memphis) to design him a new, contemporary residence.

The principle architect for the house was an architect named Chia-Yi (Charles) Jen. Jen was born in Tianjin, China in 1925. He graduated with a BA there and then immigrated to the US in 1948 to study at Yale. He received his MArch in 1951 and promptly began working in AL Aydelott’s Memphis office. You can see Jen’s keen eye for modernism all throughout this house.

The house’s central living area was specially divided up into 10 areas, each designed for a particular purpose. The house is ~10,900 sq ft, and features 5 bedrooms, 7.5 baths, and sits on 7 acres. The house was arranged on a long, in-line plane in order to give everybody in the house maximum views with maximum privacy.

The house made a huge splash, getting a feature in House & Home (July 1954). Its exterior still seems to be in pretty decent condition (judging by the 2015 listing photos), but there aren’t any interior pictures of the place and interiors are often a casualty of modernity.

Tennessee Modernism: Smoky Mountain Cabin by Allen Lape Davison

Structure: Bill Davison Cabin
Location: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Architect: Allen Lape “Davy” Davison
Date: 1968
Story: Before Frank Lloyd Wright passed away (in 1959), he founded Taliesin Associated Architects, an architectural firm comprised of his apprentices. Led by architect William Wesley Peters, the firm’s goal was to advance Wright’s vision and complete any in-process projects that FLLW left when he passed.

Beaver Meadows Visitor Center by Taliesin Associated Architects

William Wesley Peters’ right hand man was a gentleman named Allen Lape Davison (Davy to his friends). Although Davy was never actually licensed as an architect, he was a skilled architect nonetheless.

Oh and he was also a helluva a painter.

Pastel (by Davy) of the Arizona desert (courtesy of Celeste Davison)

Davy had a brother named Bill who lived in Knoxville, Tennessee. When Davy and Bill were kids, they built many a happy memory at their family’s mountain house in Lake Mohonk, New York. Now that he was grown, Bill wanted to create mountain memories for him and his family. And for that, he would need a mountain home. So around 1969, Bill asked Davy to design him that mountain house, and Davy readily agreed.

Davy’s rendering via Celeste Davison (© Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation)

The brothers selected a spot high on a mountain in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, one with views of Cove Mountain on one side and Mt. Leconte on the other. Using the 4’4″ square unit system that Taliesin was known for, Davy designed a 1,338 sq. ft. mountain cabin complete with a winged roof (painted Taliesin red), orange shag carpet (offset by blue leather chair coverings), and built-in furniture throughout.

The soul of the house, as the local newspaper put it, was the “mammoth fireplace wall that [rose] from the conversation area to the rooftop.” It was both “prominent” and “hospitable.” Looking out towards the view, the glass came to a peak, almost seeming to float (due to the lack of structural support near the glass). Bill and his family dubbed the house “Piney Woods”, which was what their childhood cabin in New York had been called.

Southwestern pattern in the conversation pit? But why??

The house is currently a vacation rental, and the property management company has taken great care of it (despite a few changes in the fabrics).

PS (do blogs have PS’s?): A special thanks to the magnificent mid-century detective Tim Hills (of Trystcraft) for re-discovering this place. This house sat under the radar for ~50 years before I unearthed the old newspaper article about it which then prompted Tim to go hunting for (and find) it. Also, another thanks to Bill Scott for putting me in touch with Davy’s daughter Celeste Davison. Oh, and a very humble thank you to Celeste Davison for sharing her father’s work.

Tennessee Modernism: Burlington Branch Library by Mario Bianculli

Structure: Burlington Branch Library
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Prototype architect: Mario Bianculli
Library architect: Bealer & Wilhoit
Date: 1947
Story: In 1945, the librarians of Tennessee came up with a brilliant idea to have TVA Chief Architect Mario Bianculli design a modern library prototype design that could be easily recreated whenever the state needed a new library.

In 1947, two years after Bianculli finished his prototype, Tennessee’s librarians were ready to test this prototype out. Knoxville, Tennessee was in need of a new library brach, so, with support from local businessmen, a garden club, the PTA, and several churches, they worked worked with local architectural firm Bealer & Wilhout to actualize the first iteration of the library.

The design was very well received, so much so that Architectural Forum did a write-up of the building (in May of 1947). The building still stands and although its been less-than-sensitively modified, the original core is still in decent shape. The extension isn’t half bad, but the removal of the full glass windows is a bummer.

Google Street View of the former library building

Tennessee Modernism: R.F. Graf House by Herbert Graf

Structure: R.F. Graf House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Herbert Graf
Date: 1923
Tidbit: In the early 1900s, Knoxville had an architectural firm called R.F. Graf & Sons, a firm comprised of architect R.F. Graf working alongside his architect sons (a family business, you know?). At some point, one of the sons (Herbert) left the firm to strike out on his own. The local Knoxville newspaper claims that Herbert studied architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright, although I have not been able to corroborate this statement. Regardless, Herbert was clearly influenced by the prairie modern style of architectural design.

Herbert didn’t make it out on his own, however, so he returned to Knoxville and rejoined his dad’s firm. In the mid 1920s, Herbert served helped design a house for his father, the R.F. Graf House (Herbert was chief designer).

R.F. Graf & Sons used the house in their marketing brochure

The Graf family lived in this house until 1961, when they sold it to Dr. J.P. Cullum. I’ve never seen an interior shot, but the house is still extant and in perfect condition so maybe the owners will open the place up for a tour at some point.

Knoxville News Sentinel article from March of 1961

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: 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.