Living in a true urban townhouse

By strict definition, there are only a handful of historic townhouses in and around downtown Knoxville.

103 W. 5th Ave.

2,100 square feet | 3 bedroom, 3 bath | $285,000 | conact: Jessica Rodocker, Horizon Realty, 865-386-3311

Row houses, townhouses, or terraced houses—whatever they're called—are the typical urban housing in much of Europe and America. And, whether they're the bleak east Baltimore tenements that provided the backdrop for HBO's The Wire or the stunning upper-crust buildings that line London's Belgrave Square or Paris's Place des Vosges, the idea is the same: maximize the number of homes on a given piece of ground. It's the same reason, really, that the townhouse is still a staple of suburban developers, even if townhouses look a little silly surrounded by parking lots.

But if developers ruined townhouses, they also invented them. Blocks of essentially identical, attached homes were a staple of speculative builders from the get-go, designed as mass-produced shelter in booming 17th-century cities. In fact, the British term for them—terraced houses—is a deliberate piece of marketing, adopted by builders to evoke the garden terraces associated with Georgian-era mansions.

Ironically for archetypal urban housing, most of the townhouses in Knoxville are well outside the center-city, or even the city limits. Like most Southern towns, Knoxville's "urban" neighborhoods are largely filled with single-family homes. In late-blooming Knoxville—booming only after the trolley allowed things to spread out somewhat—townhouses never really took hold.

By strict definition, there are only a handful of historic townhouses in and around downtown Knoxville. There's a rather late, lovely example in Maplehurst, but the three primary examples are Kendrick Place downtown, McMillan Flats at the corner of 5th and Central, and Minvilla, forever infamous as the Fifth Avenue Motel. (Ryan's Row is a recent addition, built for the 1982 World's Fair.)

Curiously, Kendrick Place, McMillan, and Minvilla all follow essentially the same plan (as does the closest Fourth and Gill comes to a townhouse, the pair of duplexes at the corner of Luttrell and Lovenia). A two-story bay window dominates the front façade, the better to allow daylight into the living room and bedroom above. That's certainly the case in this nicely restored unit in McMillan Flats. In the upstairs bedroom, the renovation removed the ceiling and opened up the attic, allowing more light in from the transom windows in the false parapet.

The rest of the renovation reveals the same mix of historic features and a modern, loft-inspired sensibility. Original hardwood floors, ladder-back doors, fireplaces updated with gas logs and a staircase with original newel all remain. But unlike the original townhouse, there are also exposed brick walls, three full baths, and an updated kitchen.