Ask Doc Knox:

In Search of George F. Barber Photos

Dear Doc Knox,

I have been researching the work on noted "pattern book" architect, George F. Barber, for several years now. You probably already know that Barber, who practiced out of Knoxville, achieved national historical significance due to his extensive use of mail-order delivery of architectural services, stemming from his publication of pattern books to promote his designs. 

I have collected quite a lot of historical data on Barber houses throughout the USA and Canada, but surprisingly, I have very little in the way of decent historical photos of many of the prominent Barber designed homes in Greater Knoxville. I am hoping you can help me discover old or historic photos of Barber houses built in Knoxville. In particular, I am looking for two houses that were lost to "progress." The first house was the Isaac B. Ziegler house that once stood at 721 N. 4th Avenue. This was a beautiful Queen Anne Victorian design that was so popular it was built for many other Barber clients, throughout the U.S. The second house was the James E. Johnston house that once stood at 939 N. 5th Avenue. Here again this house was a beautiful Queen Anne design that featured an interesting "keyhole" shaped window on the first floor.  

I have already contacted the McClung Collection, but much of their photos are un-categorized and cannot be searched using "online" tools. My hope is that either you or your "Secret History" friend can find some photos of these two beautiful gems. There are many more houses like these that also need photos to be found. Barber was an important nationally recognized architect. There really needs to be some sort of recognition of this, perhaps even a museum dedicated to him, in Knoxville, the town of his residence and practice. 

So good luck and happy hunting. I have faith in your skills to uncover the hidden thruth.
Chris DiMattei - Architect
Reading, Mass.

Mr. DiMattei:

George Barber is an interesting character, easily the most famous architect who ever lived in Knoxville. His Victorian houses, most of them built from his mail-order plans, are beloved across the country, coast to coast. Knoxville has the highest concentration of his surviving houses, and they're occasionally the subject of architectural tours. Unfortunately, some of his best work has fallen victim to fire, neglect, and, especially, highway construction. The construction of I-40 and subsequent expansions of I-40 and I-275 through central Knoxville, beginning in the 1950s, seemed almost designed to target Barber neighborhoods. 
I regret to inform you that we have no extensive photographic archives. In many cases photographs of old houses simply don't exist, and never did. Have you ever taken a photograph of your own house? The only time I ever did, it was because an enormous tree had fallen on the roof, and I needed something to show the insurance company. 

As it happens, however, there are images of the Ziegler house, these courtesy of a tip from the good people at Knox Heritage

ziegler house image.jpg
It is, as I'm sure the Zieglers used to say, quite a joint. 

No clue about the Johnston house, which I believe was on a street that no longer exists, exactly. But that's no reason to stop looking. It may be in someone's drawer, unrecognized. It's a long shot, but if you're serious and have some free Sunday afternoons to do the research, you may do some genealogical work and see how many of the descendents of Ziegler and Johnston you can track down, and ask them. 

Barber is, incidentally, the father of Charles Barber, whose name survives in the firm of Barber McMurry. Charles Barber turned away from his father's Victorian flourishes, but unlike many of his modernist generation, he favored even older styles, the stalwart gothic stonework of an updated Medieval era. 

Yr. Obt. Svt.,

Z. Heraclitus Knox

Comments » 2

  • December 16, 2009
  • 8:38 PM
mjordan writes:

I would highly recommend contacting BarberMcMurry architects to see if they can offer advice or materials from their archives.

Also visit to see Merrymeeting House Archives, who publish electronic photo-books of George Barber homes.

  • October 18, 2010
  • 8:06 PM
Oil Painting writes:

Would agree George Barber was an interesting fellow. Great photos of the Zeigler house...looks like something out of a Hitchcock movie. Thanks for sharing.

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Come one, come all! Dr. Knox answers your questions regarding the history of the Knoxville metropolis.