Tennessee Modernism: Bianculli House I and II by Mario Bianculli

Structure: Mario Bianculli Residence I
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Mario Bianculli
Date: 1941
Story: Italian-American architect Mario Bianculli came to work for the TVA at the beginning of 1936. Shortly thereafter, in 1938, he met and married Katherine (Kay) Potts, a Knoxville schoolteacher.

Artist’s profile of Mario Biancull

Kay’s family lived in Chattanooga, so not too long after they were married, the Bianculli’s travelled there and an interesting thing occurred: as they walked down a Chattanooga street full of shops, they spied a wallpaper so beautiful that they both proclaimed it beautiful in unison. They marched into the place selling it and bought out the entire store.

The Bianculli’s were living in an apartment in Knoxville, and really didn’t have any plans to design their own house. But after becoming bewitched by the hydrangia-patterned wallpaper, they determined that they must design a house suitable to be covered in its glory. They found themselves drawing house plans constantly, so they knew the time had come.

As a (somewhat) side note, Mario was quite the artist. Check out this design he drew while working at the TVA.

Ok. Back to the house build. With the wallpaper secured, the Bianculli’s needed land. The young couple wanted land and a view of the Smokies, but they didn’t want to be too far outside of Knoxville. And just a mile outside of the city, they found exactly what they were after: a steep lot full of pine trees with a valley below it, rolling hills past the valley, and, beyond that, the hazy Smoky Mountains.

Mario took charge of the house’s exterior + structure, Kay handled the interior design. The house itself was simple, built to take advantage of the view. The living room, as expected, was built to maximize the aforementioned wallpaper. The front door was located in such a way as to discourage salesmen.

Kay’s resourcefulness was on full display in the creation of custom furniture. She turned a copper coil from a refrigerator into a floor lamp. She used wooden rolling pins (handles removed) as bases for lamps. The ceiling was oyster white, the walls were neutral colors, and the chartreuse curtains were custom made by a New York friend of Mario’s.

The house was featured in both an issue of The American Home and Architectural Forum (December 1943).

The house could use a bit of sprucing up, but still is in decent condition

Structure: Mario Bianculli Residence II
Location: Chattanooga, Tennessee
Architect: Mario Bianculli
Date: 1945
Tidbit: Mario Bianculli left the TVA in October of 1945 and moved to Chattanooga. The first thing he did was to design him and Kay a house overlooking the Tennessee River. The house is considered the first modernist house in Chattanooga, a town which would eventually hold houses designed by both Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright. According to the late Gavin Townsend, the house’s most striking feature, its asymmetrical butterfly roof, was inspired by Le Corbusier’s unbuilt design for Maison Erràzuriz (in Chile).

Bianculli House II borders a prep school which eventually bought the house and turned it into classrooms

Tennessee Modernism: Burlington Branch Library by Mario Bianculli

Structure: Burlington Branch Library
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Prototype architect: Mario Bianculli
Library architect: Bealer & Wilhoit
Date: 1947
Story: In 1945, the librarians of Tennessee came up with a brilliant idea to have TVA Chief Architect Mario Bianculli design modern library prototypes which could be easily recreated whenever the state needed a new library.

The prototypes were, as you might imagine, differentiated by how many books they could hold. Let’s have a look at the different variations

Type 1A (pictured) could hold 2,600 books. A larger version, type 1B (not pictured) could hold 3,300 books.

Type 4 was a full blown county library and could hold 10,000 books.

In 1947, two years after Bianculli finished his prototypes, Tennessee’s librarians were ready to give his Type 2 prototype a test run. West Knoxville, Tennessee was in need of a new library brach and so, with support from local businessmen, a garden club, the PTA, and several churches, the city worked worked with local architectural firm Bealer & Wilhoit to turn Bianculli’s prototype into an actual building.

The design was very well received, so much so that Architectural Forum did a write-up of the building (in May of 1947). The building still stands and although its been less-than-sensitively modified, the original core is still in decent shape. The extension isn’t half bad, but the removal of the full glass windows is a bummer.

Google Street View of the former library building