Knoxville Modernism and Architect Bruce McCarty

As one of Bruce McCarty's homes enters the National Register of Historic Places, it highlights a long career of bringing modernist design to Knoxville

Knoxville architect Bruce McCarty's home, which he designed himself.

photo by David Luttrell

Knoxville architect Bruce McCarty's home, which he designed himself.

Bruce McCarty. Going on 90, he still works in his downtown office and has no plans to retire. When not at work, he's an avid butterfly collector.

photo by David Luttrell

Bruce McCarty. Going on 90, he still works in his downtown office and has no plans to retire. When not at work, he's an avid butterfly collector.

We’re not used to seeing modern houses in suburban West Knoxville on the National Register of Historic Places, but there it is. Annette Anderson has succeeded in getting preliminary approval for her West Hills home to be permanently listed there. The lively director emeritus/godmother of the Community Design Center and her mate, retired city planner and University of Tennessee professor Bob Wilson, have lived there for more than 30 years. They’re important people, sure enough, but they didn’t make the house historic by sleeping there. What makes the house historic is its design.

It was a famous place back in Eisenhower America, a project spurred forward by appliance manufacturer Hotpoint and a national magazine called Living for Young Homemakers. The star of a Homebuilder’s Tour in May 1955, the house was a model whose design was used for dozens of other houses in at least 43 states. It was hailed for its interplay of movement and light, and for the fact that structurally it works like a willow tree, with a rigid central core of concrete blocks from which the roof and exterior walls are cantilevered. The rooms, even the bedrooms, have big doors to outside patios. A strip of window at the top of the walls, most of the way around, proves that the walls aren’t supporting the roof, which has stopped thoughtful strollers for 55 years. It appears almost to hover.

“It’s a very simple house,” says Anderson. “But in many cases the simplest is also the best.” She moved in in 1973; she’d had friends who lived there before. “I liked it, I loved it. Still do.” She says one of her motives to buy the house was the fact that she knew and admired the architect.

Previous generations were used to “historic houses” being Victorians, or antebellum mansions, or colonial houses George Washington slept in. Today, a few select modernist houses are earning historic designation, with the esteem and tax credits that go along with that. After all, 50 years has long been the minimum age for a structure to pass for “historic,” and modernism—arguably the last coherent architectural style—was in vogue more than half a century ago. Today modernist buildings are being torn down faster than Victorians. “Mid-century modern” has become a buzz phrase in preservationist circles, with some urgency.

What is pretty unusual is for the architect of a Historic Place to be around to learn about the designation, or to laugh about it. “That’s what you get for growing old,” says Bruce McCarty, who is in his 90th year. He has run his own architectural firm for fully half that period. Now and then, when the mood strikes him, he still puts on a jacket and tie to come into the offices of McCarty Holsaple McCarty on Main Street downtown.

Easily Knoxville’s most influential living architect, McCarty—he’s still the first McCarty in McCarty Holsaple McCarty—has left his mark all over Knoxville, especially downtown and UT, since he began working here in 1949. His 61-year career would be astonishing only for its tenure, but his buildings, some of them controversial at the time they were built, have become iconic, part of Knoxville’s skyline. Not everyone loves his work, some of which is heavy on the concrete, but even foes of modernism agree that longevity couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. He put a friendly face on modernism’s once-shocking styles.

***

Perhaps the only thing regrettable about the rare historic designation of the house on West Hills Road is the house’s name. As far as the U.S. Department of Interior is concerned, it’s the “Hotpoint Living-Conditioned Home.” General Electric’s subsidiary Hotpoint looking for ways the modernity of its appliances in a booming housing market, co-sponsored the experiment. Playing off “air-conditioned,” then a modern luxury, “living-conditioned” suggested architecture designed for the convenience of the modern family. “It never quite caught on as a catch phrase, did it,” Anderson laughs.

The magazine Living for Young Homemakers is obscure to young homemakers today, but in the ’50s it was a trendy guide to postwar life, with emphasis on architectural innovation. It co-sponsored the Hotpoint experiment. Its editor, Edith Evans, who came to Knoxville for the home show, was pretty well connected. Richard Kelly, a national innovator in architectural lighting design, and Robert Zion, a landscape architect especially well known in New York, contributed to the plan.

Evans was sold on McCarty partly based on his work for a slightly earlier house still in the neighborhood, “the Concrete House,” on Stockton Drive—also in West Hills, it’s a short walk from the Hotpoint House. That long, graceful ranch-style house built of flat concrete blocks had also earned some attention for both McCarty and builder Martin Bartling, an energetic and very tall fellow who was prominent in the National Homebuilders Association, of which he was eventually president; he was profiled in a 1956 issue of Life Magazine. Bartling became the Hotpoint Home’s first owner-resident.

“The only drawback is that in 1954, they weren’t very concerned about energy conservation,” Anderson says. She considered double-paning all the windows in the house, but determined that it wouldn’t be cost-effective in her lifetime. The original garage had already been enclosed; Anderson and Wilson modified the modification with a wall of glass brick.

“I like the access to outdoors from almost every room,” she says. Though it’s a small house—a very small house by West Knoxville standards—“It makes the home seem large to be able to look out.” She’ll celebrate the house’s historic approval this May with an open house on the 55th anniversary of the home tour.

A single mother of a daughter when she moved in, Anderson wasn’t necessarily a modernist revivalist. “I wasn’t looking for a particular style of architecture,” she says. “It was interesting to me because I knew that Bruce had designed it.”

***

Bruce McCarty wasn’t the first modernist architect in town (see sidebar, The Knoxville Homes of German Architect Alfred Clauss), but no local architect has been more dedicated to the style, and the ethic, of modernism.

Born in Indiana, he was the son of a motor-industry executive: Earl McCarty became president of Wisconsin-based Nash Motors, known for its technological innovations including, in the 1930s, some of the first automobile air-conditioners. One of four sons, Bruce wanted to be a sculptor, and spent long hours in the studio of Princeton’s young boxing coach Joe Brown, who’s legendary as a fine sculptor, especially of athletic subjects.

War came, and McCarty left Princeton without a degree and joined the Army Air Corps. He trained to fly P-38s as a fighter pilot. He was waiting for the call up when the A-bomb ended the war—so he never made it to the Pacific Theater, but personnel shuffling brought him to Knoxville, where he bunked in UT dorms, and on a blind date he met a young woman named Elizabeth Hayes.

McCarty and his wife are about to celebrate their 65th anniversary.

“I wasn’t much impressed with Knoxville,” he says, honestly. Few if any visitors of that era were impressed with Knoxville, with the exception of author John Gunther, who after a 1945 visit, called the city the ugliest in America. It was a “dark” city, McCarty recalls: “I remember everything covered in coal dust.” He does remember the interior of the church his girlfriend attended. “The Second Presbyterian Church impressed me,” he says. (It was later torn down, to be replaced with what would turn out to be a McCarty project, Lawson McGhee Library.)

After the war, he took a job as a draftsman with Barber and McMurry, probably the best known of Knoxville’s dozen or so architectural firms, when Messrs. Barber and McMurry were still active. “I was trying to decide whether to go to architecture school,” he says. He soon did, at the University of Michigan.

He became smitten with architecture, and modernism. “After the war, that was the only thing people talked about,” he says, especially in school. “Anything traditional was frowned on. Everybody wanted something fresh and new.” After the costliest war in history, America was reinventing itself on a modernist tablet.

McCarty may have had an extra boost in that direction from his youth in Wisconsin, where Frank Lloyd Wright was a local hero. McCarty spent much of 1948 driving around Michigan and Wisconsin, knocking on the doors of Wright houses, hoping to get a look. “Even in the smaller houses, you walk into the house, you feel as if you’re being lifted up in the air,” he says. “Very few people can equal that. I really got excited.”

McCarty attended some of Wright’s lectures. Wright was then about 80, but the author of modernism was still very active, and often still controversial. Once, with the assistance of one of Wright’s apprentices, McCarty and his wife got a chance to visit the fabled enclave Taliesin on a Sunday, and enjoyed a tour conducted by Wright’s assistant. “We walked through the house, looked at his drawings. We were told Wright was up in his bed taking a nap.” McCarty never got to meet his idol.

He also admired Le Corbusier, the idealistic Swiss architect known for his sweeping visions of cities of the future. (Corbusier had visited Knoxville in 1946 to view TVA’s dam projects, especially Norris, which reportedly awed him.)

After graduation in 1949, McCarty returned to Knoxville mainly because his wife was stuck on the place—and because, unlike the towns in Wisconsin he knew, it was big enough to sustain architectural firms. He found work with Rutherford and Painter, a firm based in what was maybe a proto-modernist office building, the multiple-windowed Daylight Building on Union Avenue. He met the senior partner only once, on the sidewalk: W.A. Rutherford, best known for his work on the classically designed First Baptist Church on Main Street, was already ill with cancer, and died soon afterward. In the short-staffed office of only three, McCarty found plenty of work. Among his first projects for that firm, which became known as Painter and Weeks, was a high school in Dandridge and Fort Sanders Elementary School. A little later, he won an award for designing a Gatlinburg motel called the Bon Air. “I don’t think you’d recognize it now,” he says with a note of tolerable regret.

With the sponsorship of a local concrete company, builder Martin Bartling made McCarty a pecular proposal: build a concrete house in the new suburban development known as West Hills. He built it out of flat concrete blocks.

McCarty got some of his first renown for the Concrete House, but he didn’t make a lot more of them. “It doesn’t make an awful lot of sense when you get right down to it,” he admits. “It’s not that it’s impractical, but it’s expensive.”

His work with Bartling, and his exposure to Edith Evans, led to the Hotpoint project the following year. “There are a lot of interesting things to do with it,” he says. “The idea still interests me, of building a core and cantilevering everything off of it. And create this sense of light and movement all around the house.”

He doesn’t know how many were built on the $10 plans that the magazine promoted. “I’ve seen pictures of some of them, and some didn’t follow the designs very closely. I think there’s one in Memphis, but I’ve never seen it.”

About the National Register designation, he seems happily chagrined. “I never would have thought of it,” he says. “That was Annette’s idea. I would have told her that wasn’t gonna work.”

***

In all, McCarty guesses he designed 20 to 25 individual houses in Knoxville. Several were experimental or research houses that became homes. One off Western Avenue, a modern rancher designed for convenience, earned a bit of national attention, this time on TV. NBC’s morning show, Home, which ran for several years introducing young homemakers to the latest in design, featured a series called “The House that Home Built,” which sponsored innovative house projects. A McCarty plan got the producers’ attention, and in 1957 the network brought the architect up to its New York studio to discuss his plans with the program’s young host, Hugh Downs, and his then-more-famous co-host, Arlene Frances, on the air.

The idea of this early reality show was that the cameras would later offer America a tour of the house. “It was a lot of fun,” McCarty says. “Unfortunately the program went off the air just as the house was being finished.”

In 1961 he completed a large and relatively luxurious modernist home known today as the Davis House in Holston Hills, with huge windows aimed at the Smoky Mountains; the fact that it became the residence of an appreciative UT architecture professor speaks well for its design.

At the height of his fame as a home designer, McCarty switched specialties to focus on big public buildings. One of the first has been around so long many have forgotten it’s a McCarty project. As a showcase for four Knoxville professional hockey teams, hundreds of giant music acts including James Brown (who once got arrested there) and the original Rolling Stones, almost 50 different editions of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, the Knoxville Civic Coliseum is legendary to thousands of middle-aged East Tennesseans who grew up with it. It’s certainly a functional building, though the perfectionist in McCarty has some regrets. “It first started as the Coliseum, a round building,” he says, with the smaller auditorium to be a separate building. “Economic considerations made us put it all into one big rectangle. I don’t know if I can justify it, really.” He says he was at the time under the influence of Edward Durrell Stone, famous for his proposed design of what would become known as the Kennedy Center, which combines several venues in one big rectangular building, and employs lots of patternwork in precast concrete.

The Coliseum’s roof bows out in waves, in a way that some have assumed it meant to mimic circus-tent canvas. “I don’t know why we did it that way,” McCarty says. “I can’t answer that. It’s a little dated looking, I think.”

A contract for the relatively modest Speech and Hearing Center at UT led to bigger contracts with the university, at about the time he split with Painter and Weeks to form a new firm with former colleague Robert Holsaple. He designed the Humanities and Social Sciences Complex, including McClung Tower and its landmark plaza; his exacting client wasn’t necessarily the university administration, but the eccentric heiress Ellen McClung Berry, who funded it. “She was a little bit bizarre,” he says. “She kept wanting to go over everything,” insisting on changes even after the complex was completed.

The nearby Clarence Brown Theatre, endowed by alumnus and former MGM director Clarence Brown, who was then pushing 80, could have presented similar dilemmas. Brown, who nurtured a reputation as a grumpy eccentric, and had a couple of degrees in engineering, could have tyrannized the designers, but he and McCarty got along. “He was a very interesting guy. We never had any arguments. He seemed real happy about what we were doing.” At 40, the theater seems to be a success.

McCarty seems especially proud of his next project, for two reasons. When UT proposed to build an Art and Architecture Building in the 1970s, the university wanted something notable, and threw it open to a nationwide invitation; 53 architects entered the fray, to be juried by deans of other schools known for their architectural programs, including Harvard. Locals had no inside track. McCarty won, anyway. He’s also proud that it was the beginning of an agreeable partnership. “It was the first major project that Doug and I worked on together,” McCarty says. His son Doug McCarty is the other McCarty in the firm’s name.

Probably McCarty’s most controversial local project, condemned by some for its stark, “brutalist” concrete exterior, the Art and Architecture Building is also a personal favorite. “If I were doing it again, I would consider a different material on the exterior,” he admits. “And a different contractor. The one that got the job didn’t have any business building that kind of building.” He admits concrete, one of the reasons people say they dislike modern architecture, is problematic. When it works, as it does in some of I.M. Pei’s buildings, it’s because the client and contractor take measures to make it work.

The building’s many admirers, who tend to be other architects, speak mostly of the interior, which dances with sunlight and exposes classrooms, cafes, offices, and galleries from the main lobby. It may be the liveliest building interior on campus.

Meanwhile, McCarty had designed the Lawson McGhee Library, which also exposes multiple floors to both view and daylight. “It’s all the business of light and space and how you use it,” he says. It sounds like a definition of architecture. He’s rankled about the fact that his plan called for preserving adjacent land to build a library expansion, now obviously much-needed. “The county government let the federal government take it,” he says. The library-expansion space McCarty assured 40 years ago now serves as surface parking for 24 federal cars, and there doesn’t seem to be any way around that.

The City County Building was another father-son team job, much of which they worked on at home, late at night. They also designed a World’s Fair together. “It was enjoyable, though I got pretty stressed out.” The McCartys, with Doug taking the lead this time, designed the Tennessee Amphitheatre, enlisting an innovative German engineer/designer named Horst Berger who pioneered tensile-fabric techniques he used later in some major international airports. It’ll be years before it’s eligible for historic designation, but Bruce McCarty has become a champion of preserving the structure.

The McCartys also worked out the site plan for the Fair, incorporating existing historic buildings with temporary structures to create a logical flow. “Some of it didn’t look good to me. The corporate pavilions didn’t do anything much. I wasn’t very happy with the Sunsphere, but there wasn’t much we could do.

“It was easy then,” the elder McCarty says of collaborating with his son. “He’s a little more independent now, I must say.” Now 60 years old, Doug is the lead architect at McCarty Holsaple McCarty, and doesn’t always yield to his dad’s purer modernism.

Bruce McCarty likes Knoxville better than he did when he first got off the train at the L&N station in 1945. “It’s certainly improved,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any question. I think the overall architecture could be improved, but there’s something nice about the scale of it. A lot of little things bother me. Something bothers me about the Regal Theatre. It doesn’t seem to fit in very well. They never got control of it.” (The Regal Riviera was planned by a corporate out-of-state firm.)

America in general lacks continuity, he says. “Go to the cities and smaller towns in Europe. There’s something that holds them together a lot better than we’re able to do. In Austria, it’s hard to find anything that’s not attractive-looking. Of course, they may not have as many options as we do, and maybe that’s good.

“There was a statement Wright made, that we should grace the landscape instead of disgrace it,” he says. “Mostly it seems like we disgrace it.

“It’s disappointing to see a lot of things. How do you get things different from the strip malls and all. You have to work around the automobile. And that was my dad’s business! But as the automobile gets its way, it’s going to be more difficult. We’ve just spread ourselves out to the point that we can’t sustain it. Kingston Pike, any of these commercial areas, it’s really pretty gruesome.”

That ethic to improve his adoptive region’s image was behind his push to launch the East Tennessee Community Design Center. Since McCarty proposed it in 1970, the center has worked to improve the appearance and functionality of urban and rural communities all over the region. McCarty is still on the center’s board.

McCarty became eligible to join AARP almost 40 years ago, but he isn’t altogether retired. His more recent projects include Ijams Nature Center. The architect who began his career before the Korean War has adapted his craft to post-9/11 America. In collaboration, he worked on a project to make McGhee Tyson Airport bomb-resistant. He points to a photo of the airport, and its steel construction. “Now, somebody sets a bomb off, the whole roof won’t fall in.”

***

Almost all of McCarty’s work is still standing, though a few have been modified or unmodernized, including McCarty’s own original 1950s home on Cherokee Boulevard. In the ’50s, he says, being a modernist architect didn’t necessarily call for personal bravery; clients seemed to accept modernism as the way to go. “You get more resistance to it now than back then, actually,” he says. “Most people today wouldn’t have a contemporary house. Maybe it’s a failure of the modernist movement. I don’t know what it is. People say it’s so hard and not inviting.”

But he’s still a modernist. “It doesn’t seem right to be building the same building we did 100 years ago. We should do something fresh.” That doesn’t necessarily extend to the so-called “post-structuralism” or “deconstructivism” of Frank Gehry, who in recent years has designed buildings in such bizarre shapes they often don’t look like buildings. “Unless it’s a site isolated from everything else, it seems wrong to put one of those things in the middle of a city, with no relation to anything else.”

Middle-class clients may currently loathe modernism. But experience suggests the affluent classes tend to follow architectural trends, but usually a decade or two later. Accompanying the recent interest in “mid-century modernism” among National Register preservationists, there’s a resurgence of interest in the form, especially among people too young to remember when it was startling. The cutting-edge San Francisco-based design magazine Dwell, McCarty has noticed, exhibits a newfound interest in new-construction modernism. “Some of it’s too extreme for me!” he says, and laughs again.

Corrected: Spelling of "Holsaple"

© 2010 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 5

DumbOldLocal writes:

If there is a "failing" to modernism, it's that the form tends to ignore the psychology of architecture, the need to generate an emotional response in those who look upon it. This is not unversally the case by any means, but far too often modernism gets so lost in its austere functionality that it fails to consider the statement - especially of the whole. Usually, there's nothing within the exterior to arrest the eye, to capture one's attention, at least not in an aesthetically pleasing way. Oddly, that is by design and definition. It is, by its very form, the architectural equivalant of plain white rice.

As an engineer, there are elements of our Civic Coliseum I adore. I think the covered breezeways and skyways from the parking garages and Marriot are brilliant, for example. On the other hand, the structure itself is a squat, hard, uninviting lump of concrete as seen from the outside. It's not an "ugly" building (See Thompson-Boling Arena for an example of a truly UGLY arena), but it is plain, unexceptional, utterly functional... a great example of Modernism.

Modernism, I think, is trapped in an era. Unless one is attempting to create a "period" feel, it's not something likely to enjoy a revival. Like enormous tail fins on cars, it's never coming back. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. The turreted and gabled Victorian mansion and the streamlined opulence of Art Deco are also trapped in their respective eras. There are beautiful examples of all these styles to be preserved and treasured, but we're unlikely to see a renaissance with new construction in those styles.

JohnGalt writes:

Mr. McCarty, his son and their firm are responsible for the least attractive parts of Knoxville. The UT campus abandoned any sense of architectural consistency or campus integrity at the hand of these "post modernist," or whatever mumbo-jumbo term attaches to their design.

The Lawson McGhee Library? Arrgh! City COunty Building? Speech and hearing building? Coliseum?

These are buildings designed to impress other architects, and the article admits as such.

MrsDoyle writes:

I don't think modernist buildings are the ugliest parts of our city. I think Mr. McCarty is spot on when he calls the strip malls pretty gruesome! Have you driven down Chapman Hwy, Clinton Hwy, or parts of Kingston Pike lately? EEK!

You have to view modern buildings with an open mind. They really can be pretty cool and have their own character. I always like to think of them as being early James Bond-ish:-).

Swanky writes:

DumbOldLocal: Go out to Alcoa Hwy and see the Clayton I-House. That is a Modern design made right now. Maybe it is in the eye of the beholder, but I think it is beautiful and elegant. If you are the brick and shutters type, it may seem ugly to you. That's just a value judgement.

So, Modern is not dead. The "open floor plan" that is so in style now is the essence of the Modern designed home.

I know the A&A building was designed for students and professors. I don't think Modern is function over form. I'd say it is just less "grotesque" and just simply elegant and minimal.

sprintsnail writes:

Bruce is, in my view, Knoxville's most creative architect of all time. My favorite is the Christian Science church...spectacular, seminal.

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