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Bruce McCarty, Gentleman Modernist, 1920-2013

Bruce McCarty, Knoxville's gentleman modernist, died over the weekend, a few days after his 92nd birthday. Designer or co-designer of several of Knoxville's largest, iconic buildings, McCarty was Knoxville's avatar of modernism, his monumental buildings both beloved and controversial. He also designed houses early in his career. Among them was a 1955 model home in West Hills, one astonishing at the time--its roof cantilevered from a core structure--that begat dozens of copies across the nation. McCarty had an extraordinary distinction for an architect: He lived to see one of his own creations, that peculiar house on West Hills Road, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Son of an auto executive, McCarty grew up in Indiana and Wisconsin. He studied sculpture at Princeton, but during World War II, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and trained to be a P-38 fighter pilot. Though he never saw combat, wartime training brought him to Knoxville, where he fell for a young woman, Elizabeth Hayes. He attended the University of Michigan's architecture school. There he developed a fascination with regional hero Frank Lloyd Wright, then still very active; McCarty heard Wright lecture, and once visited Wright's famous home, Taliesin; the 80-year-old architect was napping in the next room. 

Deferring to his wife, McCarty settled in Knoxville, a billboard-strewn and soot-covered place he didn't like much at first. After a spell as a draftsman for Barber McMurry, he found work with the firm of Rutherford and Painter, where his early jobs included Fort Sanders Elementary, the battlefield school that suggested a new name for the neighborhood previously known as West End. 

After winning awards for his modernist houses, by 1960 he was designing grander monuments. The Civic Coliseum, originally pictured as a round building, was one he recently admitted he wasn't satisfied with. Its design, the result of a series of compromises, didn't age well, he thought. But after more than half a century it continues to serve a flabbergasting array of functions, from d├ębutante balls to ice-hockey games. Function is modernism's primary demand. 

In partnership with Robert Holsaple, he got heavily involved with UT, sometimes answering to the university's often-eccentric millionaire patrons, like heiress Ellen McClung Berry, endower of McClung Tower, and retired MGM director Clarence Brown, who at 80 consulted with McCarty on building the state-of-the-art auditorium that bears Brown's name. 

About 45 years ago, McCarty designed the Lawson McGhee Library, which he knew would need to be bigger someday, to serve a growing community, but its planned expansion space somehow became a small surface parking lot for the neighboring federal building. 

Other prominent modernists like Bob Church, Glenn Bullock, and Charlie Smith joined McCarty's firm, working closely with him for a time. Later his own son, Doug, joined. Bruce and Doug McCarty worked together on several projects, especially two similarly enormous buildings, the City County Building downtown and UT's Art and Architecture Building, both of them remarkable for their large atria and visible activity. 

They also worked together on a particularly rare project he could hardly have anticipated when he moved to Knoxville in the '40s, the plan for a World's Fair. They worked with internationally known German engineer/designer Horst Berger on the Tennessee Amphitheater. In recent years, McCarty has been a champion of saving the amphitheater as a genuinely innovative work of modernism. 

His design work was often controversial, but words critics commonly used to describe modernist architecture--"stark," "cold," "impersonal"--were the opposite of McCarty himself. Warm, genial, respectful, and impossible to dislike, McCarty convinced thousands of skeptical Knoxvillians that light and space were as important as walls and roofs. 

He loved modernism, but hated another phenomenon that coincided with it: suburban sprawl and the new necessity of architecture bowing to the primacy of the automobile. Though he lived in a lovely house of his own design in suburban West Knoxville, he described Kingston Pike as "gruesome." 

To help promote good planning, he co-founded the Community Design Center in 1970, and remained lively in its leadership for more than 40 years. Knoxville looks much better than the city that had been called, about the time McCarty arrived, the ugliest in America. He did his part to fix it. 

In the 21st century, he worked on projects at rapidly expanding Ijams Nature Center and, in his 80s, on a post-9/11 bomb-proofing of McGhee Tyson Airport. Until recently he kept his office in McCarty Holsaple McCarty, in the Bank of America building on Main Street he and his son designed. 

McCarty lived long enough to see modernism peak and slide, and he admitted modernism had failed to sustain its popular appeal, which to him remained obvious. Though he respected many old buildings, and was an active member of the preservationist group Knox Heritage, he didn't think architects should render themselves redundant by imitating their ancestors. 

"It doesn't seem right to be building the same building we did 100 years ago," this nonagenarian told us not long ago. "We should do something fresh." 

Thumbnail image for 2011_cover_mccarty.jpg
Photo by David Luttrell

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