East Tennessee Community Design Center Marks 40 years

Even the people who benefit from the ETCDC's work may not know exactly what it does

Last month’s birthday party at the Time Warp Tea Room on North Central drew a society-page guest list of the city’s movers and shakers. Madeline Rogero, former county commissioner, current city community development director, and candidate for mayor, was the featured speaker at the East Tennessee Community Design Center’s 40th anniversary bash; she’s a former ETCDC staffer, herself. The organization’s board includes prominent city administrators, several of Knoxville’s best-known architects (including, from the firm McCarty Holsaple McCarty, both McCartys), and a former University of Tennessee president.

But chances are, even the people who benefit from the work of the East Tennessee Community Design Center don’t know exactly what they’re up to.

Perry Childress, design coordinator, has worked for the ETCDC longer than anybody. He wears blue jeans and a plaid shirt to the modest design studio, in the middle of an old Gay Street retail floor, surrounded by a flock of preoccupied UT architecture students in this shared office. In an Imperial mustache-and-goatee combo, he looks vaguely Dutch, or perhaps Confederate. “We do design work for non-profits and community groups,” he says. “If you can afford to hire an architect, you don’t need us.”

What they do is work out front-end feasibility issues, emphasizing aesthetics and function, and draw professional renderings of a project; they throw in a cost estimate, and with all that, groups are often able to raise money to make it real. “We start with their needs, and develop solutions, rather than starting with a solution and cramming needs into it,” he says.

The ETCDC’s motto is “Better Communities by Design.” The non-profit provides design work, technical assistance, and advice to organizations that need it, from senior-citizens’ centers to, recently, a church that wanted to re-occupy a blighted historic building in East Knoxville.

Lately Childress is especially proud of the parks they’ve helped plan. He mentions Westview, on Keith, and Parkridge’s new park on Bertrand—as well as downtown’s new dog park, designed for an urban edge where nothing else seemed likely. “For a while, we were the playground experts,” Childress says. “There was a transition from the days of do-it-yourself playgrounds.” But as a result of a couple of decades of much-publicized safety concerns, he says, “playground design is highly engineered now. We were involved in taking them to a more sophisticated level.”

But they also work on lots of actual buildings, like the Lonsdale Day-Care Center—or the YWCA renovation plan, just completed—or the two George Barber houses that Knox Heritage recently sponsored on Washington Avenue.

Quite a few are farther afield. The Design Center’s jurisdiction is a 16-county region of East Tennessee, and they’ve worked on major redevelopments in the lively mixed community of Pittman Center, on the edge of the Smokies, and, much more recently, the Archie Campbell birthplace in Bulls Gap, a rare tourist attraction in Hawkins County. They’re helping with the huge Legacy Parks project, and are in the early stages of a study of the corridor between Knoxville and Maryville. And as the only design center on the roster of the Tennessee Arts Commission, they sometimes stray beyond East Tennessee; one recent project concerns the Trail of Tears Memorial Park in Pulaski, 250 miles from the Gay Street studio.

Childress says he once kept a tally of their projects, but stopped at 700. “I’m sure we’ve done over 1,000 projects in 40 years.” He says they’ve worked for about half of the United Way agencies (the ETCDC is a United Way agency, itself). The Design Center employs only two full time staff: David Watson, executive director, and Kathy Proctor, development director, a rare architect who’s also an able fund-raiser. Four work part time—including, allegedly, Childress, though he seems to be at work in the studio much of the time—and there are two to five student interns, and multiple volunteers, including many architects.

The ETCDC was born in 1970, at the behest of well-known architect Bruce McCarty, with substantial help from others, especially Gideon Fryer, a social-work professor at UT. Fryer was not a young man then, but 40 years later, he still serves actively on its board. “I spent my teaching career in community organization, as a specialty,” says the 89-year-old retiree. “The Design Center is the best organization I have encountered, in all of the private or non-profit organizations I have been associated with. The Design Center has been the top one in terms of effectiveness of converting professional volunteer labor into community service.”

“Programming, that’s the secret ingredient,” Fryer says. “That makes the Design Center such an effective agency.” By programming, he means the ETCDC’s strategy of examining all sides of a problem first, before deciding what to do: “exhaustively covering all facets and phases of a problem.... You can’t beat that approach to solving practical problems.”

Almost all ETCDC clients are non-profits, but one exception is more conspicuous than most of their work. The ETCDC facilitated much of the facade improvement around the Broadway-and-Central area becoming known as Downtown North. It was a city-funded project, but Childress and his colleagues enabled it with extensive groundwork.

No one goes into community design work for the money, but it has its compensations. “Everybody I work with is doing it because they want to,” Childress says, “for the sole purpose of improving the community.”

Watson echoes that note, declaring, “We have no goal except to represent good design.” He says, “I think the Community Design Center addresses issues of community concern that otherwise would not be addressed.” He mentions one in progress, the large, handsome old Oakwood school, vacant for 14 years; with the Design Center’s assistance, Knox County has put out a request for proposals. The ETCDC process highlighted the feasibility of redevelopment, and indicated there’s support in the community to convert it into a retirement home. It’s not there yet, but Watson sounds confident. “We make things happen,” he says.

Childress says it’s one of the oldest continually operating community design centers in the nation. Without its work, he says, “I think there would be fewer social-service organizations—and many that there are would not have the quality of facilities they have now.” Emphasizing the financial efficiency of good design, he says every dollar spent on the design center results in $5 in service to the community.

But most folks don’t know that. “We do work so early on,” Childress says, “that by the time it actually happens, other worthy people get credit, but nobody’s heard of us.”

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