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 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: 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