urban_renewal (2006-37)

You can’t mail-order houses like this anymore

Barber on a Budget

by Matt Edens

Seems like not all that long ago I was lamenting the fact that Victorian-era mail-order architect George F. Barber remained all but unknown in the city he called home. Well, not anymore. Sift through the real estate ads from Fourth and Gill, Old North Knoxville and elsewhere and you’ll regularly see houses advertised as “George Barber Designed” or “Barber House.”

Nice to see George getting his due, even if a lot of realtors and homeowners aren’t doing much in the way of due diligence before declaring their house came from Barber’s drafting board. The rule of thumb seems to be, if it’s in Knoxville, big and Victorian, it must be a Barber.

Truth is, while Knoxville may have more identified Barber houses than any other city in the country, they’re a little more rare than the real-estate ads let on. The current count, last I checked, ran at around 50. The best-known examples are relatively big Victorians dripping with decorative bric-a-brac (the house next door to Sassy Ann’s may be one of the nicest), but there are also small cottages, Colonial Revival and Neoclassical types and even, on Lovenia, a lovely little house that’s almost a craftsman bungalow (what Barber’s marketing people called his “Chalet Style”).

The term “Barber House” is even a bit deceptive. Barber’s firm went through a variety of names as partners came and employed as many as 30 draftsmen in its heyday; how much of their work went into Barber’s houses remains a bit of a mystery. At least one house on Washington Avenue is unquestionably the work of partner John Ryno—he lived in it, and it’s never been found in any of Barber’s known catalogs (although odd copies of previously unknown catalogs still turn up occasionally in attics and antique stores).

That Ryno lived on Washington Avenue in Parkridge was no accident. The area, then a part of what was Park City, was practically a Barber colony. George himself built at least two homes in the neighborhood (One still stands; a duplicate house built to the same design is a town museum in Indiana.), and relatives, business partners and employees lived in the neighborhood as well, often in Barber-designed houses. Of the 40-to-50-odd Barber houses in Knoxville, roughly half of them are in Parkridge.

There are actually three examples of this little Queen Anne Cottage on the corner of Woodbine and Winona. A mirror-image copy of Design #9 in the Cottage Souvenir No. 2, published in 1890, there’s another on Glenwood as well as one on Jefferson (oddly, all three are mirror-images of the published plan). This one, overlooking the newly revamped Caswell Park and a five-minute walk from the new Cansler YMCA, offers anyone interested in restoration the chance to get into a genuine George Barber house at a bargain price—even if it is a good bit more than the catalog’s original estimated cost of $1,250.

1501 Woodbine Avenue