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Tennessee



Cordell Hull Birthplace
Photo: Cordell Hull Birthplace, ca. 1850-1874, near Byrdstown, Tennessee. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Photographed by Brian Stansberry, 2007, (own work) [cc-by-3.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed September, 2012.

  • Capitol: Nashville
  • Largest City: Memphis
  • Nickname: The Volunteer State
  • State Bird: Mockingbird
  • State Tree: Tulip Poplar
  • State Flower: Iris
  • Land Area: 42,100 square miles
  • Motto: Agriculture and Commerce
  • Name means: from a Cherokee village named "Tanasie"

The Architecture of Tennessee [1]

The pioneer settler came to Tennessee from Virginia and North Carolina, with ax, adz, wedge, frow, and drawknife as carefully included in his traveling kit as were his gunpowder, metal, and mold. His first buildings were by no means places of comfort and refinement, but they were staunchly built.

These early one-room log cabins were cell-like structures about twelve by sixteen feet in size. The logs varied from one to two feet in diameter, but were dressed down to a thickness of about six inches, giving the walls a flat surface both inside and out. Their corners interlocked and they were sawed off flush to make a sharp angle. Spaces between the logs were chinked with chips and mud. The cabin floor was hard-packed dirt. The first fireplaces were of dressed logs ; the fireback was of earth, pounded until it became nearly solid. Chimneys were of wattled saplings daubed with mud. The simple pitch roof was covered with hand-split shingles that were held in place by weight poles. In rare instances the cabin was two stories high, with a second floor overhang, following the medieval method of timber construction. The larger settlements had fortresses where everyone could gather in case of attack. These were usually stockade-enclosed groups of log houses. Fort Nashborough, originally built in 1780 by James Robertson and his party, has been reconstructed on its original site in Nashville under the supervision of Joseph W. Hart. It is an accurate reproduction of the pioneer log fort.

A gradual refinement of the one-room log cabin took place. Puncheon floors of split logs replaced dirt packing, rock fireplaces supplanted those of sapling and mud construction; and, as Indian attacks slackened, windows replaced loopholes. Still at a disadvantage for want of tools and devices, the pioneer found it difficult to enlarge his home. Since heavy logs were hard to frame, it was simpler to build another cabin than to make an addition. Thus came the "dog-trot" or "breezeway" houses: two separate identical cabins, six to twelve feet apart, with a roofed over passage between. The pioneer had chanced upon a happy expedient. The open passage or dog-trot, though somewhat breezy and cold during the winter, was comfortable and convenient during the summer months. The dog-trot house is the traditional building type of the isolated hill folk. It is also often used in more or less crude form by sharecroppers and tenant farmers, as well as by small farm owners throughout the State, chiefly because, in addition to other advantages, it is inexpensive and easy to build. Architects have classified the dog-trot house as Tennessee's principal indigenous architectural type and have found ways in which to modernize it, using the fundamental plan as the basis for their improved designs.

All log cabins did not evolve into dog-trot cabins. There were many in which there was no improvement, while in others the settlers added rooms by interlocking or by a double wall. Such forms, however, were exceptions rather than the rule. After sawmills were established many cabins were clapboarded, and some became the nuclei of larger and more pretentious dwellings.

Planed boards were first used in 1792, when William Blount built one of the first frame houses west of the Allegheny Mountains. This house, referred to as the Mansion, is described in Ramsey's Annals as "finished with some taste, and the grounds better improved than any in town."

Seth Smith, who came to the Watauga section from Pennsylvania in 1791, designed and constructed the first stone house in the State. He was a stone-mason, but in the execution of his work he was perforce also the architect and contractor. He built four stone houses in or near Limestone, Tennessee, which answered the dual purpose of settlement-fort and residence. The Gillespie house, built in 1792, is the only one of these structures still in a good state of preservation. In renovating this house there have been introduced some departures from the original design. Originally, the house was a plain two-story structure with simple pitch roof and little if any detail. The walls, which have not been altered, are of limestone, thirty inches thick at the foundation, twenty-four inches thick at first floor level, and eighteen inches thick at second floor level. Interior walls are of wood stud construction; the flooring is of random width and length pine, laid on hand-hewn joists. The roof, its lines since altered by the addition of dormers, was originally of hand-split shingles laid on round posts or trunks of small trees.

Rock Castle, near Hendersonville, might well have been the first stone house in the State had not its construction been delayed for seven years by an Indian massacre, in which the original artisans were killed. This seven-room stone structure, designed and constructed by Gen. Daniel Smith, a surveyor, was one of the first houses in the State to show architectural planning, being influenced by the Georgian Colonial homes of the Eastern Seaboard, from which General Smith had originally come.

The early years of the nineteenth century were marked by the gradual use of hand-made brick. Buildings throughout the new State began to take advantage of the unusually abundant natural resources, principally limestone, quartz, and the plentiful brick and enamel clays. Styles followed in somewhat crude fashion the late Georgian Colonial mode of the Eastern Seaboard. They were plain structures and, though lacking in many of the classical embellishments of their prototypes in Virginia, the Carolinas, and certain regions of the Middle Atlantic, they were large and substantial. On his flatboat journeys to New Orleans, the Tennessean saw a type of construction that appealed to him. He liked the long verandas of the Spanish builders and decided to incorporate them in his own home. Cragfont, near Gallarin, built by Gen. James Winchester in 1802, is one of the first examples of this type. The house was built in the form of a "T" with the stem forming the back wing. The main section was Georgian Colonial in treatment, but the wing included first and second floor Spanish galleries extending the full length on each side.

By 1825, construction in Tennessee showed signs of improved planning. Wealthy planters, aided by details and plans appearing in early architectural books, began to build pretentious homes. They superintended their own operations and employed slave labor almost exclusively. Among the early carpenters and contractors to enter the State were Samuel Cleage and his son-in-law Thomas Crutchfield. They came from Virginia, bringing their families and many skilled slaves. All along their route they secured contracts and erected houses, their slaves making brick and hewing lumber. A similar firm was formed by Joseph Rieff and William C. Hume, who settled in Nashville. The most noted example of their work was the rebuilding of the Hermitage in 1835. This lovely estate, built for Andrew Jackson, retains all the flavor of the antebellum architecture and is typical of the Tennessee planter's home.

The thirty-five years from the beginning of steamboat transportation to the War between the States marked a period of great prosperity in the South. The land was fertile, cotton and tobacco were in great demand, rivers were becoming crowded with traffic, and the large plantation owners engaged in elaborate home-making projects which gave the State its famous antebellum architecture.

The Tennessee plantation home, like those of other southern States, was dressed up in borrowed finery. It followed no single style; instead, such details were incorporated as best suited the planter's taste. The result was a fusion of styles, representing in most instances a combination of Williamsburg, Natchez, and New Orleans Garden District influences. The house was usually large with a classic facade designed in the manner of Jefferson's Classical Revival, as well as in the more strictly classic manner of the Greek Revival of the 30's and 50's. Oversized rooms, high ceilings, winding stairs, large rear galleries, and temple-like porticoes, beautifully colonnaded, were the dominant features. Gardens were landscaped, and the slave quarters, set apart like a small seignorial village, sometimes housed more than a hundred Negroes. Ante bellum architecture featured both square shafts and round columns, but fluted shafts with Ionic capitals predominated. There were first and second floor porches as well as the single veranda, large Spanish galleries as well as delicate Italian balconies.

In 1825 Thomas Baker built Foxland Hall, five miles south of Gallatin, possibly the best-preserved building of its period in this section. The sturdy two-story brick structure is designed in the Greek Revival style with massive columns across the entire facade reaching up to the roof. Fairview, one mile closer to Gallatin, was erected seven years later by Isaac Franklin and was known in its day as "the finest country home in Tennessee." The original section of the house was Georgian Colonial, but a few years later an addition was made that was definitely Spanish. This fusion of design is easily explained, for besides his 5,000-acre plantation in Tennessee, Franklin owned several large plantations in the Felkien Parish of Louisiana, where Spanish architecture was widely used.

Some of the best examples of the ante bellum Greek Revival architecture are in Maury County, just south of Columbia. Among these are the three Pillow homes, built by the sons of Gideon Pillow. Clifton Place, Pillow- Bethel Place, Pillow-Haliday Place, all still in use, follow the same architectural plan, large brick structures featuring a central entrance facade in the general classic mode. The three Polk homes, built by the sons of William Polk, are also in the Greek Revival style but vary in plan. Each son, it seems, tried to outdo the other in building his home. Rattle and Snap, the last of the Polk mansions, was completed in 1845. This is an unusual structure, with ten magnificent Corinthian columns extending the full height of the spacious two-story front. The interior is columned, and features two spiral stairways and also two dining rooms that, on special occasions, were opened into one great banquet hall.

Public buildings as well as homes underwent a change at this time. Many new buildings were erected to replace those already outmoded. Churches and schools, heretofore housed in cabins, were given more ambitious settings. Business houses were built in rows of three- or four-story buildings with little or no variation except perhaps in the treatment of window or doorway detail. A number of these buildings still exist in the business sections of the cities, changed only by remodeling of the lower story.

Maj. A. Heiman was one of the first skilled architects to make Tennessee his permanent home. He designed the huge suspension bridge that spanned the Cumberland River at Nashville until 1862, when it was destroyed by the retreating Confederate forces. His works, for the most part, were in the castellated Gothic Revival style, and he designed a number of homes as well as public and semi-public buildings in this style. This style was contemporary with the Greek Revival and played a significant part in the romantic movement of the early nineteenth century. The best example of his work, still in existence, is the Castle Building, now a part of Austin Peay Normal School at Clarksville. He was employed to design the State capitol, but the plans of William Strickland, one of America's greatest early architects, were accepted instead.

Strickland, an outstanding exponent of the Greek Revival in America, acquired his architectural training under the renowned Benjamin Latrobe. In 1836 Strickland had been one of the organizers and the first president of the American Institution of Architects, the organization which anticipated the later founding (1857) of the American Institute of Architects. His classic designs in Philadelphia, which included the Merchants Exchange (1845), the United States Naval Asylum (1827), the United States Mint (1829), and restorations at Independence Hall (1828), had brought him fame. He was acknowledged as America's first native born and educated architect of note. The State capitol at Nashville, an original adaptation of Greek forms to a public building, is regarded as one of Strickland's best works.

The capitol conforms in every respect to Strickland's original design, as may be seen from a comparison with his report to the State legislature on May 20, 1845. The dimensions, according to the architect, were to be, including the porticoes, 232 feet by 124 feet, with a surrounding flagged terrace or platform 18 feet in width. "The architecture of the building consists of a Doric basement, four Ionic porticoes, two of eight and two of six columns four feet in diameter, surmounted by a Corinthian tower in the center of the roof, the whole height of which is to be 170 feet from the summit of the site. The porticoes are after the order of the Erechtheum, and the tower from the Choragic monument of Lysicrates in Athens..."

When Strickland died, April 7, 1854, his body was buried in a vault in the north wall, where he had prepared his own resting place. The capitol, completed by his son, Francis, has been in constant use since 1853, when it was first occupied by the legislature.

During the nine years of Strickland's life in Tennessee his services were in great demand. He was a master of Greek design, and expressed himself in many structures in that mode. He demonstrated his versatility in designing a few luxurious houses in the manner of Italian villas, while the First Presbyterian Church in Nashville is reminiscent of Egyptian architecture. His influence on Tennessee architecture has been such that public buildings consonant with the capitol are favored throughout the State; similarly, his domestic designs have had a wide influence.

The firm of Wills and Dudley, of New York, designed Holy Trinity Church (1852) and the Church of the Advent (1857-1866), both in Nashville. These edifices are still acknowledged as the purest examples of the Gothic Revival style in the State. Holy Trinity is suggestive of the English village parish church. It is a small, blue limestone building with exposed roof trusses of polished cedar. The Church of the Advent, now the property of the Christian Science Church, is designed in the Pointed Gothic style. It is larger than Holy Trinity, and is constructed of native limestone, with a high pitched roof, the first roof entirely of slate put up in Tennessee.

West Tennessee was the last section of the State to be settled. Memphis was not laid out until 1819, and for thirty years the future western metropolis could boast no buildings of architectural significance. But during the decade before secession there was a considerable building boom. A number of architects had by this time settled in Memphis, and the directory of 1859 listed James B. Cook, Calvin Fay, Fletcher and Winter, P. H. Hammerscold, and Morgan and Baldwin, as trained architects. These men were responsible for a marked improvement in domestic and ecclesiastical architecture, and developed a superior type of commercial building. In Memphis the most noted buildings of the ante bellum period are the Greek House, the Hunt-Phelan Place, the Pettite Home, the Robertson-Top Home, the Gayoso Hotel (since altered), Chelsea Church, Calvary Episcopal Church, St. Mary's Catholic Church, and Irving and Adams Blocks.

The War between the States blotted out prosperity in the South. Many of the homes and buildings throughout the State were left in ruins, landscaped gardens were mutilated, public buildings, churches, and schools were converted into buildings of war arsenals, hospitals, and the like. Of the beautiful homes that remained, few could be maintained in their former splendor. Large plantations were divided, and rented or sold as it became impossible to maintain them. The small farm, the tenant farm, and the sharecropper farm came to Tennessee. There were few if any noteworthy buildings on these smaller farms; the majority were either log cabins or one-room rip-sawed board-and-batten shacks.

Recovery was a long time getting under way and for this reason architectural excesses of the Queen Anne and Victorian styles, flourishing in the rest of the country in the eighties, did not make much headway in the South. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, when building was revived in Tennessee, designers had returned to Georgian Colonial and Classical Revival models for inspiration. The Chicago Exposition (1893) contributed to a countrywide return to the classic mode; the Centennial Exposition (1897), at Nashville, brought it to Tennessee. It was at the latter fair that the Municipal Art Gallery, a full-sized model of the Parthenon in Athens, was built. Intended to be only a temporary structure, this building was constructed of wood and plaster, but stood out in such singular beauty that it was left standing at the close of the exposition. In 1922, it was rebuilt in the exact Athenian dimensions and now bears the name of its prototype, the Parthenon. Architects for the reproduction were Hart, Freeland, and Roberts; sculptors were Geo. J. Zolnay, Belle Kinney, and Leopold Scholz.

The designs of public and semi-public buildings are based upon America's two dominant schools of architecture: the neo-Classic, led by McKim, Mead, and White; and the neo-Gothic, led by Cram, Goodhue, and Ferguson. Government buildings in the State are usually of modified Greek design, though somewhat bare for lack of sculpture. In each county seat is a "square," of one or two square blocks, in the center of which stands a courthouse with porticoes or fluted colonnades at two or sometimes all four sides. A number of college buildings are modifications of Jeffersonian Classicism, influenced by the University of Virginia, their design accentuated by colonnades and pedimented porticoes. But in the other group are the recent churches and colleges that tend to follow the Gothic style, with cloisters of sturdy piers and groined cross vaulting, deeply recessed windows and doors, buttressed walls, and pinnacled towers. Some of these, further accentuated by walls of varicolored sandstone, are the Church Street M. E. Church at Knoxville, Scarritt College at Nashville, Southwestern Presbyterian University and the Idlewilde Presbyterian Church at Memphis, and the University of the South, at Sewanee. Scarritt and Southwestern are two works of Henry C. Hibbs of Nashville, who in 1929 was awarded the gold medals of the American Institute of Architects for excellence in ecclesiastical and educational architecture, respectively.

There are few skyscrapers in Tennessee. The Sterrick Building, in Memphis, completed in 1930, with 29 stories above street level and a height of 364 feet, is the tallest in the State. Designed by Wyatt C. Hendrick, the structure is Gothic in detail and conforms to the modern set-back type. In the city shopping centers, plain fireproof buildings with brightly colored fronts are generally favored. The tendency is to remodel the exteriors of the old business houses, and very few completely new buildings are erected in the congested trading areas.

The inclination in Tennessee, as elsewhere, is for the exclusive sections of cities to edge toward the suburbs. Many of the modern homes in the suburban areas are of the traditional antebellum mode, similar to the old plantation homes but smaller in scale. In the rural sections, suburban city architecture is imitated wherever possible, but on smaller farms rough frame houses continue to be in vogue. Many old log cabins are still in use in the isolated areas, some with raised roofs and added lofts. Dog-trot houses have been developed with main central chambers in place of the former runway. Throughout most of the State, utility is becoming almost as decisive a factor as it was in pioneer days, and there is a marked return to the small one-family house that more than matches the development of the apartment dwellings in the larger cities.

At the present time (1939), Tennessee is experiencing a more rapid development in construction than at any other time previous to the War between the States. This new era of building has been brought about by the combined Federally assisted projects and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The principal housing project of Tennessee is the Cumberland Homestead, 3.5 miles southeast of Crossville. This is one of the subsistence homesteads established in 1933 by the National Recovery Act, whereby a stranded population was reestablished on farming lands and unemployed workers removed from congested areas. The site is a 10,000-acre plot on the eastern edge of the Cumberland Plateau, more than half of which is suitable for farming and almost one-fourth destined to remain in permanent forest. The homesteader secures complete ownership of his property by paying a small rental for about twenty years. He chooses his home from several standard designs. Each house is built of local stone, with shingle roof and wood trim. Many of the building materials are obtained on the land.

Slum clearance and housing projects in the larger cities have also made great headway. Compact project houses, by prominent architects, have modern conveniences. They are row houses, comprising four to six units and so arranged that each unit has individual yard space and private front and rear entrances. The units comprise from two to five rooms, the larger ones having a second story. The architects have shown a preference for a modified Georgian Colonial style in the design of these projects; a two-story central portion of four units is flanked on each end by a one-story wing. The interiors are so arranged as to utilize to the best advantage each foot of floor space. Electric refrigeration and stoves are provided. Heat (furnished from a central heating plant), water, and electricity are included in the rent.

The future architecture of the Tennessee Valley is indicated by the city of Norris, where a new standard for rural existence is being set. This town was born of the practical necessity of housing about 1,500 men engaged in the construction of the dam. Preliminary plans determined the street network possible in the hilly terrain, and three focal points were established: a community center, a construction camp, and a shop center. Around these points the streets with 350 houses were laid out. Arrangement, comfort, and modern equipment were the principal concerns of the architects. American precedent and local customs were taken into account, but the stress was on economy and residential convenience. For variety in appearance the exteriors were finished in brick, concrete, stone, shingle, and board-and-batten. Of the various designs employed, the favorite was a modern adaptation of the dog-trot dwelling. Here kitchen and dining quarters are on one side, sleeping quarters on the opposite side, with the center an open passage in the log cabin days arranged as the living room. The loft or low second story is used for spare bedrooms or storage. Electrical equipment has been provided to an extent unusual for moderately priced homes, including in many cases electrical heating.

The dams and power plants of the Tennessee Valley Authority deserve mention in any consideration of Tennessee architecture. These towering masses of concrete and steel are impressive and modern in form, harmonious in lighting and color scheme. Technicians of the Authority have succeeded in combining economy with significant design by well-studied organization and proportioning of spaces and masses, and by renouncing all surface detail and embellishment.

The Tennessee builder has been slow to recognize architectural fads, but encourages the development of proven styles. This accounts for recent architectural achievements of decided quality, seen in the State's suburban residential houses and in ecclesiastical and educational buildings.

  1. Federal Writer's Project, Works Projects Administration, Tennessee: A Guide to the State, American Guide Series, 1939, State of Tennessee, Department of Conservation, Division of Information
Living Places information is deemed reliable but not guaranteed. •
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