Tennessee Modernism: House by (and for) Ben McMurry Jr

Structure: Ben McMury Jr Residence
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Ben McMurry Jr
Date: 1951? (the question mark is because I’m like 90% certain on that)
Story: At its heart, today’s blog is a father/son story. Let’s start with the father, shall we? Ben McMurry Sr (1885-1969) was an East Tennessee architect who, along with another architect named Charlie Barber, practiced his discipline at a firm called (appropriately) Barber & McMurry. The firm was founded in 1915 and continues to this day (under the stylized name BarberMcMurry Architects). Soon after starting his firm, in 1923 to be exact, Ben McMurry Sr designed a home for his family in the Sequoyah Hills neighborhood of Knoxville, Tennessee.

Designed in 1923 by Ben McMurry Sr as his own residence

It was in this house that Ben McMurry Sr raised his son Ben McMurry Jr (1926-1989). Surprising no one, McMurry Jr went on to become an architect as well. He joined the Navy right out of high school, and left when WWII ended in 1945. From there, he headed studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, and, upon returning home, joined his father’s firm.

Ben McMurry Sr (left) looks over architectural plans with Ben McMurry Jr (right)

Best as I can tell, McMurry Jr went to UPenn from about 1946-1950. At that time, UPenn’s architecture was Beaux-Arts style, and the architectural program was under the auspices of George S. Koyl. However, a shift towards modernist styles of architecture was already well under way. Architects in Philadelphia (like Louis Kahn, Oscar Stonorov, and George Howe) were all designing structures that featured international style and Bauhaus influences. McMurry Jr definitely came away influenced by the early modernism present either in Philadelphia or featured in architectural magazines of the time.

Carver Court housing (left) in Coatesville, PA, was designed by Louis Kahn, George Howe and Oscar Stonorov around 1941. The Roche House (right) was designed by Stonorov & Kahn in Whitemarsh Township, PA in 1945.

Quick aside about the Philadelphia architecture scene: About a decade after McMurry Jr studied at UPenn, a group of architects (known as the “Philadelphia School”) would push against the Miesian concept of architecture, pushing their designs to a more postmodern place. If you’re interested in that movement (which included architects like Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi, and Romaldo Giurgola), Curbed has a solid article on the topic.

Reflecting on McMurry Jr’s own house’s design (see below), I will say it speaks to an architectural trend of floating box houses which sit atop their raised concrete foundation.

At left, the George Matsumoto Residence (1953). At right, the Jim Sherrill residence (1957), both in North Carolina

Ok back to Knoxville. By about 1951, the 1923 house McMurry Sr had designed was becoming a bit crowded (and probably a bit too traditional) for McMurry Jr. Thus it was that McMurry Sr and McMurry Jr designed and built a little studio + office just behind the 1923 house.

The studio was christened the “little house” and the 1923 house was termed the “big house.”

A covered walkway takes you from the house to a covered storage area

However, that little studio+office didn’t last for long. Just a couple of years later, McMurry Jr added on to the studio, turning it into 2 bed, 1 bath, ~1,400 sq. ft. house.

The “little house” got a little mention in a 1955 Knoxville News-Sentinel article about how glass was changing architecture

Why the remodel + addition? Well because in 1954, McMury Jr had met, fallen in love with, and married Betsy Parrott! The two of them were planning a family and needed the space (and probably some rooms versus just a studio).

McMurry Jr with his first wife Betsy Parrott

A local newspaper quoted Betsy as saying McMurry Jr (who was 6’4”) was “the only man she ha[d] ever been able to look up to”. The McMurrys would go on to have their first two children in the “little house.”

A final history of the “little house.” In the 1980s, it was purchased from the McMurry Sr Estate by Anne Lester (an architecture professort at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville) and her husband Bill Lester. The Lesters sold it to the Heller family, and they rented it to Dillon Luttrell (whose photographs of the house appear all throughout this article). The Hellers eventually sold it to the Trainer family, and the Trainers now currently own both the “big house” and the “little house” — how about that for some property deed recording! When I spoke to the Trainers, they said they’d remodeled the place last year, keeping as much of the mid-century look as they could.

PS (if a blog can have such a thing): I would like to heartily thank Martha McMurry, Ben McMurry III, and Dillon Luttrell for helping me parse together the story of this gem of a structure. I would also like to thank architectural historian Claass HAUS for helping me with the Pennsylvania-era history.

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 2 Glass Box Houses of Sequoyah Hills

Sequoyah Hills is a historic neighborhood in Knoxville, Tennessee. Its historicity is emphasized by all of the gorgeous (and traditional) turn-of-the-century houses that fill its lush streets.

However, set amongst the traditional structures are two houses that look a bit out of place. Echoing a Miesien style, these two mid-century modern houses are in conversation with each other. Both feature large, square living rooms made of glass and steel. Both of the houses are perched atop hilly lots with views of the Tennessee River. Both of the structures have their hefty steel living rooms tempered by natural stone.

Ok enough with the poetry, let’s have a look at the two spaces.

Structure: James Ferguson House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Carl F. Maples Sr
Date: 1950
Tidbit: James Ferguson was the business administrator at the East Tennessee Tuberculosis Hospital. His father was a homebuilder, so he and his wife had been dreamin’ and schemin’ about how to build their own house. This structure probably existed long before they brought their ideas to an architect to realize.

Structure: Dr. Harry Jenkins House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Ben F. McMurry Jr
Date: 1955
Tidbit: Dr. Harry Jenkins was a progressive doctor. An obstetrician, Dr. Jenkins was giving speeches in support of birth control as early as 1941. What he lacked, though, was a house that showcased his progressive ideals.

Now, Dr. Jenkins lived in Sequoyah Hills, just down the road from the Ferguson house. The Ferguson house must have had an impact on Dr. Jenkins because in 1955, he selected a hillside lot overlooking the river and commissioned 28-year-old architect Ben McMurry to design a house for him that shared an awful lot of similarities with the other house. The house won an AIA award at the 1958 Gulf States Regional conference. Interestingly, Dr. Jenkins sold the house seven years later.