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: The 3 projects which sought to modernize Downtown Knoxville

Downtown Knoxville has always been an important part of East Tennessee. But Downtown Knoxville wasn’t always on the cutting edge of modern design. So, in 1957, a group of local business owners created the Downtown Knoxville Alliance (DKA), an advocacy group whose goal was to “promote the downtown district as a major attraction for shoppers throughout East Tennessee and other parts of other states.” Headed up by Aubrey C. Couch (the longtime manager of the Tennessee Theater), the DKA executed three unique projects to revitalize downtown Knoxville, each one featuring local Knoxville architects. Let’s have a look at the three projects.

Structure: The Promenade
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Painter, Weeks & McCarty
Date: 1958
Story: Gay St (the main street running through Downtown Knoxville) shops had a problem. After you parked your car one block off of Gay St, you had to walk up to Gay St before you could even begin perusing the downtown shopping.

So the DKA tasked the minds at architectural firm Painter, Weeks & McCarty to come up with a solution for this inconvenient shopping experience.

Their solution was “The Promenade,” a platform on the backside of the Gay Street stores. This created what the architects called “back fronts,” and allowed shoppers an attractive look at all of the stores (despite the fact they were looking at the back of the stores). The platform was held up by concrete “spider leg” supports, and enabled downtown shoppers to park their cars, walk up onto the platform, and straight into the store of their choosing.

Shoppers could then move through the store and exit directly onto Gay St, no roundabout route required.

Although it would later be torn down to make way for more parking, The Promenade was a big success, a success which led the DKA to pursue their next project…

Structure: Market Square Mall
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Ben McMurry Jr (representing the AIA East Tennessee)
Date: 1962
Story: One block off Gay Street is Market Square.

In the olden days, Knoxville, Tennessee’s Market Square was a circular street that ran around the Market House . The Market House was where citizens of all types (fisherman, farmers, flower vendors, etc.) bought and sold their wares.

In 1960, the building was torn down, making space for an area that was a lot more flat (and a bit more like the Market Square that exists today).

The new Market Square Mall emulated traditional malls (think: the National Mall in Washington D.C.).

But McMurry didn’t just replicate other malls, he brought his modernist sensibilities to the table and gave the project a contemporary twist: concrete canopies to give shoppers and leisure-seekers respite from the sun.

The concrete canopies featured colorful screens that businesses could lower when the sun got too intense. Overall, the project was very well received, even getting a feature in Architectural Forum (April 1962).

There’s no doubt these concrete canopies took a lot of inspiration from the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Johnson Wax Building.

Image of the Johnson Wax Building by Frank Lloyd Wright

There was some talk of building out Market Square Mall to be more department store focused, but that idea never came to fruition (see the renderings below).

Alright, let’s check out the third project

Structure: Gay/Way
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Ben McMurry Jr (of Barber & McMurry) and Bruce McCarty (of Painter, Weeks & McCarty)
Date: 1964
Tidbit: In early 1962, DKA decided that since the Market Square Mall was such a success, they wanted to revitalize Gay St itself.

Calling the revitalization “Gay/Way,” DKA retained the services of the two architects who’d worked on on the previous two projects.

Although it would take a few years to fully manifest, Gay/Way essentially added a large, covered walkway above the Downtown Knoxville sidewalk.

The Gay/Way awnings are clearly visible in this Veterans Day picture from 1977
The Gay/Way awnings can be seen adjoining what is now the Embassy Suites

Gay/Way also gave the downtown shops a chance to remodel their storefronts, updating them with more mid-century look and feel.

Eventually, Knoxville decided that mid 1950s design wasn’t really it’s jam. The city then spent then next 50 years or so removing the modernist projects and turning the downtown back into a more traditional looking downtown (see below)

Tennessee Modernism: The Modernist Fraternities of University of Knoxville, Tennessee

In 1965, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) decided that it was time to upgrade their Greek life. The school proposed a Fraternity Park, complete with 13 new frat houses…all designed by local architects.

The frat houses were designed around a common property that included streets, sidewalks, parking, and recreation areas. Not all of them were mid-century modern, so I’m leaving off the traditional houses.

The frats were all located in Knoxville, Tennessee, and they were all built in 1965, so I’ll leave that out of the building details. And you know, speaking of brevity, I won’t waste too much more time with the background: it’s a block of frat houses, you get the idea. Let’s jump into the architecture!

Structure: Sigma Alpha Epsilon
Architect: Barber & McMurry
Tidbit: The tree in the center of the courtyard was called the “make-believe tree.” Design wise, looks like those windows never materialized and the tree ended up on the outside of the exterior wall. Also, did those arches not get built either?

Structure: Kappa Alpha
Architect: Painter, Weeks & McCarty
Tidbit: This eventually became Phi Kappa Psi

Structure: Sigmi Phi Epsilon
Architect: Painter, Weeks & McCarty
Tidbit: This mildly interesting frat got a huge remodel in 2011 and is now, uh, not so interesting

Structure: Pi Kappa Alpha
Architect: Painter, Weeks & McCarty

What’s interesting about Pi Kappa Alpha is nine years earlier, in 1956, Painter, Weeks & McCarty had done a rendering for a new building that I don’t think was ever built

Structure: Zeta Beta Tau
Architect: Good & Goodstein
Tidbit: This house is now Pi Kappa Phi

Structure: Sigma Nu
Architect: Abernethy & Robinson
Tidbit: the only non-Knoxville architects, Abernethy & Robinson were located in Johnson City, Tennessee. The original building might have implemented a curved front, possibly modified after the original structure was built. It could also be that my black and white rendering is just not showing that detail. The building, despite its uniqueness, was torn down and replaced with a super generic building sometime in the 2010s.

Structure: Lamda Chi Alpha
Architect: Lindsay & Maples
Tidbit: this house is now Alpha Epsilon Pi

Structure: Delta Tau Delta
Architect: W. Glenn Bullock
Tidbit: this house is still in fantastic condition, which is awesome because it draws some strong design inspiration from the famous architect Louis Kahn

First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York (1961) by Louis Kahn

Structure: Alpha Tau Omega
Architect: Morton & Sweetser
Tidbit: This structure was essentially remodeled into oblivion. Sometime around 2007, a pitched roof was added along with a new foyer which kind of ruined the whole effect.

Tennessee Modernism: The Modernist Houses of Timberlake

In 1947, a group called Maloney Heights Inc. purchased a large, forested lot right off of Alcoa Highway with a singular goal: turn the area (dubbed Timberlake) into a subdivision designed for the group members to live in.

Maloney Heights Lot Reservation Map (1948) (© Maloney Heights, Inc.)

Maloney Heights Inc. was made up of architects, engineers and construction professionals, which meant that their skills were exactly what was needed to design, plan, and build a neighborhood from the bottom up. Of note, architects Charles I. Barber (of Barber & McMurry) and D. West Barber (his cousin) were shareholders in Maloney Heights Inc.

The group created an architectural standard for how the homes should look. The provision said each building should conform and be in harmony both with the “external design with existing structures in the subdivision” and also “with respect to topography.” The result was beautifully designed homes, each one sited on a wooded lot that gave them a wonderful view.

View from the A.W. Cain House

By 1953, 27 homes had been built. In 1962, the remaining lots had been filled with unique and beautiful houses. Alright. Enough back story. Let’s dive into the architecture, shall we?

Structure: Dr. Hefley House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Raymond Guay
Date: 1962

Structure: Robert C. Brown House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Robert C. Brown (with assistance by an architect friend of his, one who worked at the TVA)
Date: 1952

Photo of the house circa 1953

Structure: A.W. Cain House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Barber & McMurry
Date: 1952
Tidbit: When it was finished, this house was described as being “built like a TVA dam using steel beams and concrete.”

Structure: Millard Warren Residence II
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Millard Warren
Date: 1950
Tidbit: Back in the day, houses were often built to showcase products. Case in point: Millard Warren designed and built his house to showcase “Southern Cast lightweight stone.” Warren was a VP at the Southern Cast Stone Company, so the house served as a sort of living advertisement.

Photo of the house circa 1959

Structure: Millard Warren Residence I
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Millard Warren
Date: 1938
Tidbit: I know I’m straying from the legacy of the Timberlake area for a minute but stick with me. The Timberlake house Warren designed + built for himself wasn’t the only house he’d created to showcase his sturdy stone wares. Back in the late 1930s, Warren designed an extremely modern house right off of the newly-created Alcoa Highway. The house was modern in its design, and it caused quite a stir. The insurance folks were extremely happy that it was made of stone and concrete, and it was dubbed un-burn-down-able. But its most unique invention? A pool on the roof that theoretically was supposed to keep the house cool in the summer and freeze in the winter (allowing the kids to ice skate on it, no joke).

The house still stands, although its white concrete has been painted brown and a huge addition was added. The updates, however, are solid. It looks like they added a wing onto either side, along with a pitched roof. I guess the water-as-a-roof wasn’t so great after all.

End note 1: this blog owes its existence (and extensive detail) to the hard work of the Timberlake Community. They took the time to interview, collect, write, and save their history down and if you want to browse through the immense amounts of work they’ve done, head here: https://www.timberlakeknox.com/

End note 2: there is a very notable house in the Timberlake area that I left out of this post. I’ll be detailing it at another time, don’t @ me.

Tennessee Modernism: The Modernism of Maryville College

Maryville College was founded in 1819 as a Presbyterian school geared towards training local ministers. But by the 1940s, the college was growing more diverse, and the old buildings were growing crowded. When a small fire burned down the chapel where music classes were being held, the school began an ambitious plan to update its campus architecture. With an eye towards the future, and hoping to reflect the contemporary nature of its new student body, the university understood that mid-century modern architecture would be a natural fit for the look of the new buildings.

Alright, let’s take a look at the various modernist structures built on campus.

Structure: Fine Arts Building at Maryville College
Location: Maryville, Tennessee
Architect: Schweikher & Elting
Date: 1950
Story: The building placed a heavy emphasis on musical performance space because, at that time, roughly 2/3 of Maryville College’s students took at least one or more music courses. The funding came from a Chicago couple, Mr. and Mrs. Glen Alfred Lloyd. Mr. Lloyd, who had attended Maryville College, was the brother of the current president. Mr. Lloyd had gone on to become a successful lawyer in Chicago. Paul Schweikher & Winston Elting’s firm (Schweikher & Elting) were also based out of Chicago, so this may have been how an East Tennessee school connected with that particular architectural firm.

The building itself received national acclaim, with Architectural Record running articles on both the building’s construction (in June of 1950) and the final product (Dec of 1951). Let’s have a look at a panoply of photos from when the building was created all the way up to the modern day.

Of note, the organ inside of the building’s auditorium was designed by the notable organ builder Walter Holtkamp (out of Ohio) in concert with architects Schweikher & Elting

Organ designed by the Holtkamp Organ Company of Ohio

Structure: Samuel Tyndale Wilson Chapel
Location: Maryville, Tennessee
Architect: Schweikher & Elting, Barber & McMurry (associates)
Date: 1954
Tidbit: To replace the old chapel (which had burned down), the college built a complex right next to the Fine Arts Building which contained a new small chapel, a 1,150-person auditorium, a 450-person theatre stage, along with classrooms and offices.

Structure: Margaret Bell Lloyd Residence for Women
Location: Maryville, Tennessee
Architect: Schweikher & Elting, Barber & McMurry (associates)
Date: 1959
Tidbit: Pictures of this modernist dorm are hard to come by, but the structure was made of light gray brick, gray concrete, aluminum and gray-tinted glass. The dorm rooms featured built-in furniture (a desk, a dresser, and shelving) — all trimmed in brown ash wood. The lobby had floor-to-ceiling glass, while the non-glass walls were clad in tangerine, teal blue, turquoise, gold, green, black, and white. The lobby opened onto a small garden as well.

Frances Massey, dean of women, stands in front of the new women’s dorm

In 1960, a Maryville College bulletin claimed the college was looking to fund-and-build a new science hall. Designed by Knoxville firm Barber & McMurry, it’s not clear whether this was ever built.

Rendering of Maryville College Science Hall by Barber & McMurry (circa 1960)

Eventually Maryville College decided it wanted its campus architecture to go back to everyone’s favorite university style: collegiate gothic. In 2007, the Fine Arts Building and Samuel Tyndale Wilson Chapel were demolished to make room for new buildings. I could not bring myself to post a photo of the demolition but if you’re interested, there’s a Flickr album that contains photos of the razing.