Talk about a guy long enough, and people will start to think you know something about him. That’s certainly been my experience regarding Knoxville’s Victorian-era mail order architect George F. Barber. Like most Knoxvillians, I’d never heard of him before moving into a house he had designed, one of the cluster along Washington and Jefferson in Parkridge that may contain the largest concentration of his homes in the country (or the world, since it’s known that Barber marketed his designs overseas).
The idea that small-town streets from Iowa still contained hundreds of homes designed by a Knoxville architect intrigued me. It was just another of those amazing factoids from a hundred years ago that Knoxville seemed determined to forget. And, like most of those factoids, it was proof that the Knoxville circa 1900 often felt like a bigger, more important place, relatively speaking (which may explain the determination to forget...).
Barber’s not so ignored, now. If anything, he may be a bit overexposed. Show me an old Victorian house in Knoxville, and I’ll show you someone claiming it’s a “Barber House.” I also field a fair number of emails from people asking whether, based on the attached picture, I can tell if their place is a Barber. Some are, some aren’t. And there’s often no definitive answer. With Barber neglected for so long, a lot of information has been lost. There’s not even, as far as I know, a complete database of his published designs.
There are, however, houses like this one in Fourth and Gill. It doesn’t take much sleuthing to determine that it’s the real deal. There’s a picture of it on page 330 of Barber’s 1904 catalog Modern Dwellings. Design #256, it’s identified as the residence of Mrs. J.W. Taylor of Knoxville, an identity that a quick cross-reference with the city directory confirms.
Today, Mrs. Taylor would still recognize “this neat cottage,” as Barber’s advertising copy described it. Lovingly restored, it includes tons of original trim and hardware, including multiple fireplaces with mantels, tile, and grates and a built-in china cabinet in the dining room. And then there are the things Mrs. Taylor wouldn’t recognize: the updated kitchen and baths, central heat and air, and the two-car detached garage. Most of all, even 105 years after Barber’s ad man wrote the words, it’s still “a beautiful building in every particular. One of especial convenience.”