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: 2 all-gas homes

In the mid-century era, there were a lot of partnerships between homebuilders wanting to sell houses and companies wanting to sell products. Often, a homebuilder would come up with a gimmick (kitchen cabinets that opened with the wave of a hand, a car that “talked” to you in the driveway, etc.) as a method to sell the houses they’d built. This is the tale of two such houses.

Structure: “Mrs. America” All-Gas Home
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Robert (Bob) Carroll
Date: 1959
Story: The Worsham Brothers were local Knoxville homebuilders, and they had an epic collaboration in mind that they thought would really get sales of their houses going. Partnering with the Knoxville Gas Association and Whirlpool, they dreamed up a house that was billed as the “only truly modern all-gas home in Knoxville.” The house would feature all sorts of gas-powered amenities: a gas-powered A/C, a gas stove, and a fireplace with a gas starter.

To design the house, the Worsham Brothers commissioned Knoxville architect Bob Carroll (an architect at the Knoxville architectural firm Lindsay & Maples) to design the house. Carroll did not disappoint. He designed a house clad in Douglas fir, supported by stone pillars made of rocks from nearby Gatlinburg.

However the architectural design was not the standout feature of the house. At that time, Whirlpool was the national sponsor for the Mrs. America pageant. To make sure the house got press, the brothers brought the 1960 Mrs. America (Mrs. Margaret Priebe) to welcome the guests who visited the house. Mrs. Priebe was there to exemplify an ideal “hostess and housewife,” a symbol of what good homemaking in 1960 could be.

After her house-welcoming duties were over, Mrs. Priebe would be whisked away to star in fashion shows (at the Knoxville department store Miller’s) and record radio + TV promos (for the Mrs. America pageant, I assume).

Mrs. Margaret Priebe, Mrs. America 1960

Alright. Let’s talk about the next all-gas home!

Structure: All-Gas Home
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Good & Goodstein
Date: 1962
Story: The Mrs. America All-Gas house had been a great success, and local homebuilder Ted Daffer wanted in on the idea. Daffer was in the midst of concepting a new subdivision, and he needed a model home (the first house built in the subdivision) that would stand out and draw attention to his development.

Imitating the Mrs. America All-Gas house idea, Daffer commissioned the architectural firm Good & Goodstein to design a modernist all-gas house. Ted Daffer’s construction company (the aptly-named Ted Daffer Construction Company) built the house. The resulting creation is one of the most modernist houses in Knoxville. And, as luck would have it, it was (later on) bought by an architect who lives there to this day and has taken immaculate care of it.

The current owner/architect’s rendering

One other thing to note. Although the old papers that I looked through didn’t mention it, architectural historian Mason Toms (founder of Arkansas Modernism) has suggested that one (or both) of these houses may have been part of the Blue-Star Homes promotion, a promotion which paralleled the Gold Medallion All-Electric Home program created by electric companies.

A 1961 ad showcases the emblem and what the emblem signified

Essentially, gas companies would create houses with certain specifications (namely, they would have all of their key systems powered by gas) and then they’d give the house an easy-to-identify emblem so that potential customers would know about the under-the-hood features of the house.