In a subterranean room at the bottom of a controlled-access elevator in the East Tennessee History Center is a cluttered wonderland called the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound. There, in that chamber of barely discovered curios, among ancient film footage and reel-to-reel tapes and the dozen-odd machines required to play all the different formats we've come up with in the last century or so, Brad Reeves inspects local oddities of music and film. Some haven't been seen or heard in a lifetime or so. The last time he invited me down, he showed me a Universal Studios newsreel from 1940.
The clip, part of a series called "Stranger Than Fiction," was shown nationally in theaters, perhaps before a showing of, say, My Little Chickadee. Wedged between a story about a weeping tree in Florida and a pantyhose sculptor is the story of a man who had built an unconventional flat-roofed concrete house for his family in Knoxville, Tenn. The design looks modern by today's standards, and would have turned heads in 1940. But what made it a believe-it-or-not newsreel story was that the builder had employed an innovative technique to cool the place. His entire roof was a shallow pool, filled with three inches of water. In those days before the typical house had air conditioning, it kept the place cool in the summer. The builder's name was Millard Warren. In the film, he's a young, energetic, brainy-looking guy with a small child, showing off his unusual home on a sunny day.
The house didn't look like anything I'd ever seen in Knoxville before. I looked up Warren in old city directories. No professional architect, he's listed as plant superintendent of Southern Cast Stone on Sutherland Avenue. He lived on what was then known as "New Alcoa Highway."
I first figured the original house might be long gone. I didn't recognize it, and on Alcoa Highway, you figure, houses get lost to highway expansions and commercial development.
As it happens, the house is still there. Millard Warren's son Richard lives in it. The house is intact, even if its newsreel-worthy feature is not. It's not very far out, barely past Martha Washington Heights, on the right. From the highway you can see it through the trees, but at 50 mph it won't grab your attention. It now has a conventional pitched roof.
Dick Warren was born the same year the newsreel was made. He'd never seen the film until Brad gave him a DVD copy of it, and doesn't recall any discussion of their home's moment on the silver screen. He says the little kid visible in the film is his older sister, Phyllis, who died several years ago.
He did know the house was once well known in the industry, and points to a magazine ad for concrete home construction in an trade publication from 1940. It's titled "The Complete Concrete House."
Millard Warren built the place in 1937, one of the first modernist houses in Knoxville.
Richard Warren confirms that his father was not trained in architecture. "He was just a high school graduate, but probably a better engineer than most," he says of his dad, who was an admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Originally from Elizabethton, Millard Warren moved to Knoxville as a child. His own colorful father, a big-game hunter whose extravagant deer and bear banquets at the S&W were legendary, founded Southern Cast Stone in 1925. Millard attended Knoxville High. He was mainly a businessman, but made a few houses on the side. Richard thinks a couple are still standing, here and there.
Dick Warren himself is a formally trained civil engineer, and retired. He purchased the house in 1973, more than two decades after his father sold it.
"Anybody in his right mind wouldn't have bought it," he says. It had broken windows, and had been badly used. It wasn't nostalgia for his boyhood home that tempted him. "I knew how it was built," he says. He points to the eight-inch concrete joists. It requires little maintenance. "Concrete, if it's built right, will last forever."
He says of his dad, "He was extremely sharp, just a genius. I wish it'd rubbed off on me." They tried to work together at one time, but ran into a typical father-son dilemma. "We fought like cats and dogs. He was kind of a one-man show; he had to call every shot."
The once-famous flat-pool roof that got the attention of Universal Studios 71 years ago is still there, sort of, under insulation, but has been surmounted with a conventional pitched roof. Richard says that happened around 1960. The Warrens didn't own the house then, but he understands the improvement.
"The newsreel says, ‘What happens if it leaks?'" he says, with a rueful smile. "And it did leak."
Richard was just 10 when his father sold the house, but he thinks by the end of the 1940s, there was some evidence of spotting on the ceiling. As far as he knows, though, the cooling aspect may have worked. "Back then, I don't remember heat being much of a problem. Of course we had wall-to-wall trees."
Warren and his wife Carol, who raised children here, have added to the house and done some rather witty remodeling, but they preserved one especially distinctive original feature, a substantial art-deco mantel of polished sand-colored concrete. It has a sunburst design; Richard suspects his father designed it himself. It had been damaged by previous tenants, "hippies," Richard calls them, who had learned that if you threw a dart hard enough, you could stick it in. You can't tell it now. He says Carol spent many hours of work on it.
Millard Warren earned some respect in his day, chosen director of the Chamber of Commerce and president of Fort Sanders Hospital's board. He died in 1992.
The house survives, for now. The state highway department has contacted the Warrens. They want to demolish it for a six-laning project. The Warrens say they'd rather keep it. Over the last 71 years, Dick Warren has grown fond of it.