Story and photos by James C. Massey & Shirley Maxwell
There’s much to like about Knoxville, Tennessee—the mild climate, an excellent university, broad streets that host a relatively laid-back rush hour, and a population of about 185,000 friendly citizens. For unreconstructed Victoriana-philes, there’s also its bevy of Barber houses, thanks to the fact that George F. Barber, one of the most popular and prolific catalog-architects of the early 20th century, spent more than two decades living and working in the city.
Barber wasn’t a Knoxville native—he was born in De Kalb, Illinois, in 1854 and grew up in Marmaton, Kansas, where he learned the carpenter’s trade under the tutelage of his brother-in-law. Despite a sketchy formal education, young George was an exceptionally talented artisan who taught himself the basics of architecture through personal observation and by reading books he ordered through the mail. One of his purchases was a house-plans catalog from the Bridgeport, Connecticut, firm of George and Charles Palliser. Thanks to the growth of the U.S. mail service, so-called mail-order architects like the Palliser brothers and William Shoppell flourished after the Civil War (see “Dream Houses by Mail,” OHJ M/A ’08). Catalog readers could order working drawings of house plans, including detail drawings, along with materials lists, specifications, cost estimates, and instructions for builders. Prospective homebuilders also could request changes to plans by writing directly to the architects. Although the mail-order plans were a far cry from both prefabricated houses and the complete ready-cuts that evolved later from companies like Montgomery Ward, Aladdin, and Sears Roebuck, they were still a huge improvement over the architectural pattern books that preceded them, which offered only tiny engravings of façades and floor plans.
Barber quickly grasped the potential of the new sales-by-mail technology. To attract customers for his business, he distributed an array of increasingly sophisticated publications. These progressed from a small, ribbon-tied bunch of engraved cards illustrating his house designs to a series of full-size catalogs containing dozens of designs (the best known catalog is “Cottage Souvenir No. 2,” published in 1890 and available now as a reprint), and even a full-fledged magazine, American Homes: A Journal Devoted to Planning, Building, and Beautifying the American Home. Intended to advance the “growth of an artistic taste” and aimed at the general public, American Homes featured wide-ranging articles on interior decoration, American history, the history of architecture—even fiction, in addition to house designs.
Once settled in Knoxville, Barber shifted his professional focus from publishing to building houses and suburban developments. While he continued to design and build houses for prosperous clients in Knoxville and elsewhere, he also built speculative subdivisions, some of which survive, more or less intact, today.
Before Barber’s death in 1915, his plans had reached virtually every state in the Union and many foreign countries. Michael Tomlan, noted architectural historian and Barber biographer, thinks at least 20,000 sets of plans were produced and distributed by Barber’s Knoxville office, where he employed 30 draftsmen and 20 secretaries. Barber’s built homes likely number in the thousands.
Not every Barber house exactly matches a plan in his catalogs, however, for Barber invited revisions: “Write to us concerning any changes wanted in plans,” he wrote in “Cottage Souvenir No. 2,” “and keep writing till you get just what you want.”
George Barber practiced what could be called “broad-brush architecture.” While his work wasn’t academically correct, artistically refined, or stylistically advanced, his houses, large or small, are nonetheless unfailingly engaging and eye-catching, lavishly adorned with a galaxy of complex wooden ornament.
Barber’s early designs were based on the Americanized Queen Anne style that dominated the 1880s, and favored a mixture of building materials—shaped wood shingles; novelty wood siding placed horizontally, vertically, or diagonally; prominent brick chimneys and foundations; a plethora of lathe-turned and sawn wooden brackets, and other ornament. Multiple gables, conical-roofed corner turrets, towers and oriels, hexagonal end porches, and sprawling verandas were hallmarks of his designs, and second-story corner balconies were among his favorite touches—some too small to stand on, yet too delicious to omit.
As the asymmetrical, picturesque Queen Anne and Romanesque styles faded in popularity, Barber began offering several types of Colonial Revival houses. The smaller and simpler ones were modeled after early New England vernacular cottages. Others he called “Colonial Renaissance” because of their “Adamesque” features; the larger, more formal type based loosely on 18th-century Georgian mansions, he termed “Colonial Classic.” These, which were popular with wealthy executives, featured colossal, two-story columns fronting impressive porticos. Barber also experimented with the “bungalo,” as he preferred to spell it, and with “Old English” manor houses with simulated half-timbering.
Not all Barbers were made of wood. One of his earliest and largest designs was the Congregational Church in De Kalb (1885-88), which was brick, as were some of his major Colonial Classic houses.
If you’re in the Knoxville vicinity, you’ll want to check out areas where Barber houses abound. Look around the Old North Knoxville and the Fourth and Gill historic districts. Pay special attention to Washington and Jefferson Avenues, once part of a Knoxville suburb called Park City. Two houses Barber built for himself survive at 1635 and 1724 Washington Avenue.
Granted, some Barber houses have gone through rough patches, but an enthusiastic army of new owners is now cleaning up their neighborhoods and restoring their houses—in one case, even moving a house to a new site to save it from demolition (see Old-House Living, OHJ M/A ’08). But if Knoxville isn’t in your near-term travel plans, take heart. You just might spot a bit of Barber on a street near you, wherever that may be.Old-House Journal January/February 2010