Tennessee Modernism: House that HOME built by Bruce McCarty

Structure: House that HOME built
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Bruce McCarty
Date: 1957
Story: It’s not often there’s a silver screen connection to Tennessee architecture, but today, there is! In the 1950s, NBC was airing a show called Home. The show was hosted by entertainer Arlene Francis and broadcaster Hugh Downs. The show was a hit. At a time when the largest shows brought in ~6M viewers, Home amassed an audience of over ~2M. Very impressive.

Hugh Downs (far left) and Arlene Francis (second from left)

The show was to feature a segment called ‘House that HOME built’, a segment co-sponsored by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). The segment’s goal was to convince the viewers that glass-filled, flat(ish)-roofed, modern homes would work anywhere in the country, not just in sunny California.

NBC spent $200k (~$1.9M today) to build the revolving set. It featured a kitchen, a workshop, and an area to demonstrate the effects of weather on various items

There are rumors that the ‘House that HOME built’ segment was the brainchild of none other than Joseph Eichler. Eichler, a marketing man at heart, hoped the segment would help him sell houses (which he was building out in California).

An Eichler blueprint and completed house (in Southern California)

Jumping over to California for a second, Eichler built tracts of houses that were very modern. Because Eichler himself was a builder (not an architect), he used a handful of modernist architectural firms to achieve a contemporary for his tract houses. Some of the firms he used were Jones & Emmons and Anshen & Allen.

The Eichler-built house on the left was designed by Jones & Emmons, the one on the right by Anshen & Allen

Back to our feature programming. So Eichler (along with the NBC execs) convinced Jones & Emmons to design a prototype house for the segment. The idea was to design a house that was modern but could sit well in any climate, one that could be built by builders from anywhere in the U.S.

Scans from the original House that HOME built brochure (via KC Modern)

The resulting design was the ‘House that HOME built’ model, take a look!

The design was then made available to other architects/builders around the country for $200 with the stipulation that, if you bought the plans, you’d build one model which would be open to the public.

NBC published a House That Home Built publication called ‘HOME in review’. Here, Arlene Francis displays the Jones & Emmons designed model

Back in Knoxville, home builder Martin Bartling (an active member of the NAHB), saw an opportunity. He attempted to build one of the Jones & Emmons designs in 1955. A March 1, 1955 notes that he planned to have the house built and “on exhibit for 30 days from June 4.” Like many other homebuilders in the U.S. who attempted this type of quick turnaround, Bartling doesn’t appear to have been successful.

Undaunted, Bartling come up with an alternative plan. Instead of having a local builder use Jones & Emmons plan, why not have a local architect create their own design and then have House that HOME built feature it? After receiving special permission from NBC, Bartling worked with Knoxville architect Bruce McCarty to design Knoxville’s very own House that HOME built.

Upon completion, NBC had the McCartys (Bruce & his wife Elizabeth) come to the HOME studio in New York and sit down with the show’s hosts. The interview, which was never aired, featured Bruce discussing his house’s design and how it accurately met the needs of young, American families.

Hugh Downs and Arlene Francis at left, Bruce and Elizabeth McCarty at right

The house was featured in Knoxville’s 1957 Parade of Homes, and, once the parade was finished, was sold to its first owners Loyd and Frances Wilson.

Bartling stands outside Knoxville’s House that HOME built to commence the opening of the 1957 Parade of Homes

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: 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: McCarty Cabin by Bruce McCarty

Structure: McCarty Cabin / E.H. McCarty Summer Home
Location: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Architect: Bruce McCarty
Date: 1952
Story: If you’ve ever searched Google for Knoxville mid-century modern architecture, chances are pretty high you’ve seen work designed by legendary Knoxville architect Bruce McCarty. Not even this blog is immune to Bruce’s charm…as evidenced by our recent feature on the two residences he designed for himself.

But more than just a talented architect, Bruce was a family man. Now, Bruce’s mother “E” lived in Orlando, Florida. Every so often, she’d come up to Knoxville to visit Bruce and his family (especially her grandkids). Sometime around 1950, E asked Bruce to design her a summer cabin, something near to Knoxville that had enough room for the family to come stay with her when she visited.

Original house rendering (© McCarty Holsaple McCarty)

First, the site. They selected a wooded, five-acre parcel of land in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. In the winter, when the trees thinned out, the hilltop lot looked straight out at the Smoky Mountains.

1950s photo of the cabin’s south-facing exterior (© McCarty Holsaple McCarty)

Next, the functionality. Bruce wanted to ensure the house would be able to serve two functions: it would be a summer home for E, yes, but it also needed to be a place where he and his three brothers (along with their families) could vacation — separately or all at once!

Let’s talk layout. The cabin is a split level house with a mirrored layout. The sleeping area is the upper level and the living area is the lower level.

Each upstairs bedroom features its own outdoor balcony which cantilevers over the ground. In the early days, these floating balconies were used as sleeping porches!

The space connecting the two bedrooms forms an indoor sleeping balcony. From the balcony, you can look out over the downstairs living room or look out to the south (to get the view of the Smokies).

1950s photo of the cabin’s heavy stone living room (© McCarty Holsaple McCarty)

Material-wise, the house features an impressive amount of mountain stone. It forms the fireplace and a lot of the living room wall, making the house feel very, very solid. Originally, the house did not have air-conditioning, so the heavy stone worked to keep the house cool in the summer. Speaking of solid, the floors in the downstairs are built of Tennessee Marble, waxed until it shines.

There is an abundance of wood throughout the cabin which offsets the harshness of the stone. The glass (especially in the huge living room) was all salvaged by Bruce from old store fronts!

1950s photo of the cabin looking into the kitchen. Living room is on your left, the patio is on your right (© McCarty Holsaple McCarty)

Lastly, let’s talk about the living room + the view. Frank Lloyd Wright is known for using a technique architects call “compression and release,” where a smaller room with a low (compressed) ceiling opens (releases) directly into a larger room with a view of the outdoors. In the cabin, Bruce employee this technique in an excellent way. When you enter the house, you go down a few stairs and enter into the living room which has very, very low ceilings. It doesn’t feel claustrophobic per se, but the structure pushes you to look ahead. And what lies ahead (at the south end of the room) is stunning: a two-story glass window looking out at the most incredible view of the Great Smoky Mountains. When you’re seated in the living room, this glass almost disappears. The structure of the windows is designed in such a way as to never restrict your view. Looking left or looking right reveals only more nature.

Here you can see the low ceiling of the living room
Looking down from the balcony, you can see the ‘release’ of the space as it opens up to the view

Now, you may have noticed that this blog is a bit more experiential than some of my previous blogs. That is because I have visited this place in person, I’ve seen it with my own two eyes! The McCarty cabin recently hit the market, and was purchased by a modernism-loving couple. The new owners have spent the past six months renovating the house, updating its internal systems and giving it a little more modern functionality.

Mid renovation, don’t mind the mess!

The owners were kind enough to let me document the renovation and see the finished product. However, not content to keep the McCarty cabin to themselves, the house can be rented on AirBNB! I couldn’t be more grateful to the new owners and would like to express my heartfelt thanks to them for letting me help bring the history of this architectural gem to light.

Oh and here’s a bunch more photos!

Tennessee Modernism: McCarty House I and II by Bruce McCarty

Much ink has been spilled about Knoxville architect Bruce McCarty. Bruce was born in Indiana, studied architecture at Princeton, and left school to serve as a P-38 pilot in World War II. After finishing up his undergrad at Princeton, he did a stint as a draftsman in the Knoxville office of Barber & McMurry. He eventually left to attend the University of Michigan and received his MArch there.

Bruce McCarty at Princeton

In 1949, once he decided to put roots down Bruce took a job as a draftsman at a Knoxville firm called Rutherford & Painter. In 1955, after Rutherford had retired, Bruce became a partner in the firm of Painter, Weeks & McCarty which eventually morphed into McCarty Holsaple McCarty (a firm which continues to this day).

The early parts of Bruce’s career were characterized by imaginative modernist homes scattered all around the city (although there’s a large concentration of them in West Knoxville). However, we’ll save these various interesting structures for another blog. Today’s focus is on the two houses Bruce designed as his own personal residences.

Structure: Bruce McCarty Residence I
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Bruce McCarty
Date: 1950
Tidbit: I wish I had a ton of photos, information, really anything about Bruce’s first house, but I’ve got nothing. It used to reside in the posh Sequoyah Hills neighborhood but was torn down recently. Maybe, at some point, we’ll uncover some archival photos of it. 😞

Structure: Bruce McCarty Residence II
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Bruce McCarty
Date: 1959
Story: If you were disappointed at how few photos there were for Bruce’s first house, don’t worry. Bruce’s second house hit the market in 2017 and thankfully the sellers (Bruce’s children) took the time to take lots of beautiful photos of it.

The house is arguably Bruce’s masterpiece. It’s perched on a wooded lot and overlooks the Tennessee River. The structure is a tri-level house with a T-shaped floor plan. It’s built on a 10-foot structural grid and all of the columns and beams are set on a 10-foot module. Bruce and his wife Elizabeth (whom he met on a blind date) lived there for over 40 years and raised their children there.

When Elizabeth passed away in 2016, the children decided to sell the place. The house itself is a time-capsule. Just about every aspect of the space is original, including the parquet, brick, and cork flooring, the jalousie windows, and the wood + brick exterior. I’ve included some of my favorite photos of the house below but if you want even more photos Curbed and the Knoxville News-Sentinel have got you covered.

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: 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