Knoxville is not famous for first-wave modernist architecture. Knoxvillians, like most Americans, became accustomed to the clean, simple lines of modernism only after World War II. In spite of the city’s aesthetic conservatism, a few noted modernist architects were living here back when modernism was new. One left his mark on Knoxville in a way that got national attention in his day, and his structures still startle visitors today.
At the time of Bauhaus and the birth of the International Style, Knoxville-native home buyers and home builders and, hence, architects, were mostly conservative in their tastes, so it’s not surprising that the first real modernists who worked here came here to accept government jobs with the Tennessee Valley Authority. The agency’s first chief architect, Hungarian-born Roland Wank (1898-1970), was an esteemed modernist who seems to have spent the entirety of his dozen years here designing dams and dam-related projects, like Fontana Village. He spent a couple of years in Knoxville before settling in Norris, but probably didn’t seek local commissions. His day job kept him busy. One of his two main assistants, though, did find the time and inspiration to do some remarkable things.
German-born architect Alfred Clauss (1906-1998) had a modernist celebrity pedigree: Back in Germany, he had worked with some of the stars of the Bauhaus era, Karl Schneider and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Clauss immigrated to the United States in 1930, and helped design the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933. His American wife Jane, who helped him with his designs, had worked with Swiss architect Le Corbusier. These two who were on familiar terms with some of modernism’s most revolutionary minds lived, for several years, in a peculiar neighborhood on the top of a wooded hill in South Knox County. Here they designed several houses, seven of which are still standing. They don’t all look as he intended them to look, but they can still prompt a double take.
When the Clausses arrived in Knoxville, they first lived in Log Haven, South Knoxville’s eccentric log-cabin community, but around 1938 they moved to a more remote spot, Little Switzerland, as it was already known, on a steep hill beside Chapman Highway, the new route to the new Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The almost Alpine setting appealed to Clauss, who bought a sizeable tract of it, at the very end of a gravel road, with a surprising purpose in mind. He wanted to build a community of “ultramodern” International Style dwellings, flat-roofed, big-windowed house open to natural light, functional living spaces without ornamentation.
By 1940, Clauss had several occupied dwellings up here, and was planning at least seven ultramodern houses right together. It soon drew national attention. A 1944 issue of The Architectural Review claimed the pocket community was “one of the first subdivisions in the country restricted to dwellings of modern design.”
When his employment at TVA came to an end in 1945, he’d completed five houses, all of which still exist. Some are heavily compromised by new additions, and others aren’t in ideal shape, but one designed in 1939, for the family of TVA executive Walter Seymour, is in near-perfect condition.
Nancy Tanner, a retired teacher, is obviously fond of that house; she has lived in it since 1947. She and her husband raised three children here. She’s getting on in years, but navigates the 14 steps between levels in her house handily. Her contemporaries are encouraging her to join them in a retirement home. “Why would I want to?” she asks.
She says she and her husband, who previously lived in an apartment on Kingston Pike, weren’t pioneer consumers of modernism. “I didn’t particularly like modern architecture, you know, flat roof and all,” she says. Nature was the selling point. “It had a gorgeous view,” she says. On a clear day, she has an intimate view of Mount LeConte and Clingman’s Dome. Out back, in the same room, she can see the Cumberlands. Are there other rooms in Knox County where you can see two mountain ranges without leaving your seat? If so, there aren’t many.
She liked the dogwoods, and the fact that every room in the house had windows on two sides. She says she’s sometimes disconcerted, visiting friends’ closed-up houses. “I’ve gotten used to all the light coming in,” she says.
She loves nature more than modernism, but much of modernism is about opening living spaces to nature.
“There’s a tremendous amount of birds, fox, squirrels, deer, all of which I like a great deal,” she says. Ask her if she’s a birdwatcher, as a naive reporter recently did, and she’ll say yes. And then add, in fact, she was the last human being known to have seen an ivory-billed woodpecker. She was stalking the endangered bird in Louisiana with her ornithologist husband, James T. Tanner, in 1941 and saw some of them, one last time. Look it up.
She never met the Clausses. From neighbors she heard more about his wife than Clauss himself, mainly that she didn’t care much for cooking. Little Switzerland’s kitchens are rather small, as are the bathrooms. It’s her only complaint.
She takes walks along the road, and points out the other Clauss houses up here. All of them are unusual, but Tanner’s house is the only one that is intact enough to make the National Register of Historic Places. It seems a little unjust that today, 63 years after the Tanners began taking such good care of it, it’s still known to architects as the Seymour House.
Another well-preserved Clauss house survives a few miles away, in Holston Hills. A striking sight on a suburban hilltop—Clauss seemed to like building on steep hills—it’s now the home of Scott Schimmel and Lisa Sorensen and their two kids. They’re interested in historical architecture and modernism, and the house’s unusual provenance was part of the appeal of moving into it. They seem to be living architectural history chronologically; their previous home was a Victorian in Old North. But Lisa likes modern furniture, and was weary of friends grousing that she should get some Victorian furniture to go with their Victorian house.
“In this place, we can be more eclectic,” says Lisa, who after all makes a living buying and selling contemporary furniture at the local Bliss stores she and Scott run together. One thing their house does have in common with Tanner’s house is a broad vista to the south, and the mountains. “We love the view,” says Schimmel. A common element of Knoxville’s best-known modernist homes, from the ’30s to today, is the large windows to the south—southern exposure is useful everywhere for affording natural heat and light, but serves a particular purpose here when it offers views of the Smokies.
Schimmel and Sorensen’s house, larger than Tanner’s, was built in 1943 for Henry Hart, a friend of Clauss. Hart was drafted into the Army soon after it was completed, and may never have lived there. Previous owners, less taken with modernist designs, have modified it here and there. As is the case in many mid-century moderns, the garage has been bricked in, now useful for storage. Other storage opportunities pop up in surprising places throughout the house, which compensates for the lack of an attic. Schimmel regrets that a previous owner amputated the distinctive rafter butts, a hallmark of Wright-influenced modernism (and a feature rare by the standards of modernism: one with no practical necessity). But the house retains several distinctive features, like lighting so recessed you need a ladder to see the fluorescent bulbs.
Flat roofs were, for better or worse, a totem of mid-century modernism, and are a notorious leaking hazard. Schimmel points out that they’re having an issue with this one right now, noting an interior wall with water damage.
Much warmer feeling than many modernist homes, the Hart House keeps most of its startlements on the outside. The living room is lined with broad planks of “American wormy chestnut,” seldom seen today. Devastated by blight in the 20th century, chestnuts are now rare, especially in this part of the country. The dark, woody bedrooms, atypical of the stark modernist lifestyle, have almost a log-cabin feel to them.
After the war, TVA was less ambitious about dam building, and the Clausses moved back to Philadelphia, where Alfred Clauss had been based briefly before his 11-year Tennessee adventure. In Philadelphia, he enjoyed a long career with a firm known as Bellante and Clauss, and died at an advanced age in 1998.