Last week, the charitable Aslan Foundation purchased one of Knoxville's most unusual historic houses. Kingston Pike's "Westwood" went for $570,000. The Victorian brick house, located behind a serpentine brick wall just east of Cherokee Boulevard, had been owned by the same family since its construction in 1890. One of its last residents was Cecil Matheny, granddaughter of the original residents, who died three years ago at the age of 97.
Aslan, a fairly new foundation instrumental in purchasing wilderness properties to be included in the Legacy Parks project on the south side of the river, is run by the family of the late local philanthropist Lindsay Young.
"The entire motive for purchasing it is to preserve the house," Aslan board president Bob Young says from his home in Los Angeles. "Too many homes which needed restoration have been bought and replaced. We just wanted to revive it. We're sort of the foster parents right now."
Young acknowledges that the restoration will be expensive. Its ultimate use was "up in the air," he says. "Whatever becomes of it, it'll be that house."
He would not comment on published rumors that Aslan's ultimate goal is to turn the house over to preservationist non-profit Knox Heritage, which would eventually occupy the house. Both Aslan and Knox Heritage are quick to say there's much to discuss before any such agreement is ready to be announced. For the last several years, Knox Heritage, which has a staff of five, has occupied the carriage house at Greystone, the Broadway mansion that's home of WATE-TV. Their current building has room only for a few offices and some storage.
Regardless of whatever deal Knox Heritage might work out with Aslan, any nonprofit would seem likely to benefit from long-term access to a house like Westwood, a house once famous for its receptions.
Westwood is extremely unusual among historic homes in that most of the house has hardly been altered, beyond a modern ell on the back, which Young suggests might not be permanent. It includes a couple of good-sized parlors, still adorned with Victorian-era frescoes in its plaster walls, and an elegant dining room.
Westwood was remarkable, and much-talked about, even when it was new. What makes it unique, then and now, is one extraordinary room. A newspaper reporter tried to describe it in 1895 as "at once a library, a picture gallery, and an art studio. There is no other such room in or about Knoxville, rich and elegant as many of them are. There is no room in which one who is blessed with a love for the beautiful, in nature or in art, can get so much genuine enjoyment, so much unalloyed pleasure..." That room, visible from the street, on the eastern end of the house's ground floor, was the studio of artist Adelia Armstrong Lutz.
According to family lore, the house's sizeable lot was a gift from Robert Houston Armstrong, builder and resident of the antebellum home known as Bleak House, to his daughter, Adelia, on the occasion of her marriage to ambitious businessman J.E. Lutz (1854-1920), who eventually founded a major local insurance company. Adelia Armstrong Lutz (1859-1931) studied art at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C., and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and later in Europe, during the heyday of impressionism. Her early work drew raves from Washington to New Orleans. They moved into the house, designed by pioneering Knoxville architecture firm Baumann Brothers, in 1890.
The long room on the house's eastern side looks almost like a very small cathedral, with skylights in a very high ceiling, and tall louvered windows all around. In such a room, an artist could make as much or as little natural light as she desired. The walls are painted red, as Lutz preferred. The hardwood floors, laid with alternating types of wood, have an unusual striped effect. The fireplace at the end of the room bears several tiny portraits painted in glazed tiles, said to be her favorite authors.
There, for 40 years, Lutz worked on her paintings, which tended toward still lifes, a few landscapes, and portraits, especially of her daughter, Louise. Her work hangs in the Knoxville Museum of Art's Higher Ground exhibit—and also, currently, at the East Tennessee History Museum's East Tennessee Art and Artists exhibit.
Though the studio room was used for other purposes—it had a pool table at one time—the family kept much of it just as Adelia left it at the time of her death in 1931. Until early this year, it was still cluttered with her paintings, many of them unframed and unfinished.
Lutz, who for a time taught painting in a studio in the Kern Building on Market Square, was one of the earliest members of the Nicholson Art League, a vigorous organization that included some of Knoxville's best-known artists, including Lloyd Branson, Charles Krutch, architect George Barber, and Catherine Wiley, who's remembered as Tennessee's finest impressionist. They spearheaded the unusual art exhibits at the three big national expositions at Chilhowee Park in 1910, 1911, and 1913. The League met at Westwood on several occasions in the early 20th century. The Lutzes hosted so many receptions at the house that a century ago it was almost as well known as some public buildings, and often described by visiting journalists.
Whether Knox Heritage is destined to move to Westwood or not, the Aslan purchase seems a neat save for preservationism. Perhaps few private owners would be willing to buy the house and keep it so faithfully intact.