Tennessee Modernism: Bramlett Motor Hotel by Frank Lloyd Wright

Structure: Bramlett Enterprises Motor Hotel (unbuilt)
Location: Memphis, Tennessee
Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright
Date: 1956
Story: Tennessee Motor Hotels (aka motels) in the 1950s were a fantastic thing. The recently bourgeoning middle class (fueled by the return of WWII troops) led to an increase in cars, car travel, and car recreation such as trekking to national parks. Motels provided simple, inexpensive lodging for these types of overnight trips.

McKay’s Motel & Restaurant in Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Motels tended to be much smaller and simpler than hotels. They were often long, single-story buildings that allowed travelers to just drive their car right up to the door of their room.

Ledwell Motel (left) and Alto Congress Motel (right), both in Gatlinburg, Tennessee

For example, when a Taliesin apprentice named JC Caraway was asked in 1952 to design a motel in Spring Green, Wisconsin, the resulting structure (first called the Rest Haven Motel, now called the Usonian Inn) came out exactly as you’d imagine. Long, flat, easily accessible by car.

Now, you wouldn’t expect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a motel. After all, his lodging designs tended to be a lot, uh, larger. One of his most famous lodgings, the Imperial Hotel (in Tokyo), was a massive structure, large 250-room complex that was one of Japan’s premier hotels during its heyday.

But during the 1950s, Frank Lloyd Wright did in fact design a few motels. Often, they looked very much like a Wrightian take on a motor hotel. Single story, accessible by car, with a bit of a twist: circular versus the more “modern” square look that was popular at the time.

Left: Marshall Erdman Motel & Restaurant, 1957. Right: Zeckendorf Motel, 1958 (© Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation)

A particular favorite of mine is the Daniel Wieland Motor Hotel (1955)

(© Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation)

It was during this motel designing mid 1950s period when a company called Bramlett Enterprises asked Wright to design a motor hotel for them in Memphis, Tennessee. Wright obliged in a very Wrightian way: by delivering them a “motel” that really shared none of the characteristics of motels.

The plans were more hotel than motel. Designed around three towers (each with three elevators in them), the structures were seven stories tall and one featured a different rooftop attraction. Tower one featured a restaurant, tower two a lounge, and tower three a swimming pool.

Unfortunately, this structure was never built, and until just recently, only lived on scraps of paper.

Recently, however, two insanely talented fellows (Steve Virzani and Razin Kahn) spent time creating a digital model and a 3-D visualization of what the project would have looked like, have a look.

Even if it had been built, though, you’e gotta wonder how it would have fared as time went on. You could easily see it taking on new life a lot like Price Tower (in Bartlesville, Oklahoma) potentially getting turned into affordable apartments.

Price Tower, left, and the architect’s original sketch, right (© Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation)

PS: if you’re into Frank Lloyd Wright drawings, I cannot recommend the blog Visions of Wright enough!

Tennessee Modernism: Shavin House by Frank Lloyd Wright

Structure: Seamour Shavin House
Location: Chattanooga, Tennesse
Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright
Date: 1951
Story: I can’t believe I’ve not yet profiled the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in Tennessee! Ok. First things first, this blog owes a lot to the work of the late Gavin Townsend along with the intrepid work of passionate Wright fans from all over the globe.

In the mid 1940s, Seamour and Gertrude (Gerte) Shavin bought a hillside lot high on a ridge above Chattanooga’s central downtown. There’s a bit of vaguery about how exactly the couple came to work with Wright. John Shearer claims that the couple had planned to use a local architect who ended up moving out of town. A Wall Street Journal interview with Gerte Shavin tells the story a bit differently. According to her account, the couple wrote a letter to Frank Lloyd Wright asking him to recommend them a good architect. He wrote back saying “The best one I know is myself” (a comment which would be very much in character for FLLW1).

The view from the Shavin House

In any event, the Shavin’s desired to live in a nontraditional house which is how, in 1949, they ended up visiting Taliesin (East) to discuss their desires with Frank Lloyd Wright in person. The couple received their final plans a year later when they visited Taliesin West — maybe FLLW didn’t trust sending his plans by mail?

Frank Lloyd Wright never did visit Tennessee, instead assigning Taliesin apprentice Marvin Bachman (who was killed in a car crash before the house was finished) to oversee the construction. In my own, very biased opinion, Mr. Wright not visiting Tennessee this was a missed opportunity for him, as I think he would have enjoyed it here very much. He may even have become a Volunteer fan.

The house is a Usonian style house, a term Frank Lloyd Wright coined to describe a house that embodied the ideas of a well-designed, simple, small house of moderate cost built for the American middle class. Usonian houses were designed with local materials, which is why the Shavin House’s exterior is build out of crab orchard stone and Louisiana cypress wood.

As with many of his other houses (and probably as another cost-saving measure), the Shavin House is full of Wright-designed furniture which was probably built on site.

Here’s just a few more photos because the place is so dang photogenic.

Marvelous photo taken from a blog on the same topic (by Jared Sebby)

1A note on Frank Lloyd Wright’s initials. All around the web, you’ll see Frank Lloyd Wright abbreviate as FLLW. This perplexed me, so I went in search of why that is the case. Here and there, someone will erroneously suggest that it’s because he was christened “Frank Lincoln Wright” so, when he changed his name to “Loyd”, he kept the two L’s to represent both names. In actuality, however, the double L is a Welsh way of spelling, it’s a letter in and of itself. Frank Lloyd Wright often wrote his initials this way in the red squares that he sometimes placed in homes he’d completed.