Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains are an unlikely location for the nation’s first subdivision that mandated modernist design. So it’s something of a surprise to discover Little Switzerland, a collection of homes built along the ridge of Brown Mountain, about eight miles outside Knoxville. The mini-master-planned community dates from 1939 and was the brainchild of architects Alfred and Jane West Clauss. Alfred, who hailed from Munich, Germany, worked in Mies van der Rohe’s office in the early 1930s, and Jane, from Minneapolis, worked with Le Corbusier.
A few years after moving to the U.S. to escape Nazi Germany, the couple developed Little Switzerland and lived there with their three children from 1939 until 1945, when they left for Philadelphia to continue their careers. Although 10 houses were plotted, only five were built before the Clausses moved on.
“This enclave was founded in their experimentations and with their own money—building and paying for it themselves, which is critical to how you grow as an architect,” says local architect John Sanders, FAIA, who has been purchasing and restoring the houses since 2013. Unusual in the South for its time, the community embodies the modern concepts of passive heating and cooling, a spare material palette, and indoor-outdoor connections.
What’s more, the houses were some of the first split foyers, which, for better or worse, would become a staple of postwar American suburbia. Here, though, they respond directly to the street section on the mountain ridge. “These homes illustrate the proper way to deal with a split-foyer condition,” John says. “You enter at grade and can go up or down. Each elevation expresses the rear view because the house is positioned high on a hill and daylights out the back. The lower-floor view is as panoramic as the upper view.”
Built in 1941, the 1,600-square-foot Clauss Haus II was the second house Alfred and Jane lived in at Little Switzerland. Their philosophy was that the main bedroom and living room should be on the upper floor, and the kitchen, dining room, and secondary bedrooms on the ground floor. All five houses followed this plan, and John had no intention of changing it.
“My specific needs were not a priority in the renovation, but rather the pursuit of a preservation effort that can bring recognition to this rare example of deed-restricted International Style architecture in the South,” he says. “It’s arguably one of the best early examples of regional modernism.”
Tweaks and Tucks
John is pursing National Register designation for the district, which requires exterior updates to mirror the original. That meant removing the sloped roof added by the previous owner and replacing it with a membrane flat roof. Diplomatically, he doesn’t fault the owner for the decision. “A non-fan of architecture created that pragmatic solution to solve a recurring problem of leaf and debris accumulation on the roof in this wooded area,” he says. “But I’d rather stand on a flat roof than a sloped roof any day.”
Every part of the house needed attention. John and a hired worker spent 18 months stripping paint from the redwood siding, an eight-step process that preserved the original aesthetic. They replaced boards that were too far gone with dimensionally correct redwood, shaped to match the old “Dolly Varden” profile of beveled and rabbeted horizontal lap siding. And they restored the redwood one-car garage doors and hardware.
Acting as general contractor, the architect also mocked up more energy-efficient redwood-framed windows, which he and a local craftsman built to match the deteriorating originals. A change to more-stable mahogany frames at the back of the house allows the large bank of sliding windows to maintain operability on the harsher southern exposure. There, detachable asbestos louvers were replaced with fiber-reinforced concrete louvers in the same profile.
The interior renovations came with more creative freedom, but also more angst for an architect intent on doing the right thing. John felt free to tweak a few room functions, if not their dimensions. “The bedroom windows step down so you can see the mountains without lifting your head from the pillow, so the room locations had to stay where they are,” he says.
However, the bedroom count went from four to two: removing two of the secondary bedrooms allowed for an expanded lower-floor bedroom with an en-suite bath, dressing room, and sitting room/study. The upstairs primary bedroom was altered slightly to access the en-suite bath through a new dressing area. All original built-in cabinetry, access panels, niches, and closets were re-established to reflect the Clausses’ design.
John’s biggest decisions respected the flow of the original house, which had few true partitions within the 20-by-40-foot floor plates. “I fretted most over the wall between the dining room and kitchen,” he says. “The pass-through window above the countertop gave us heartburn to remove.” The only interior wall that blocked the view of the Smoky Mountains and touched an exterior wall, it was likely inserted because resale value was based on room number, John says. For those reasons, he took the liberty of removing the upper portion that obstructed the view, while retaining the lower part with the angled counter. “We templated the angled island countertop to reflect what was there; now the eat-in moment is on the dining room side,” he says.
Poor-quality finish materials also begged for reinterpretation. Rift-cut white oak paneling replaced the variegated, cheaply made gumwood veneer paneling, which had turned burnt orange and sustained water damage. “We felt like Alfred used it because he worked with Mies on the Barcelona Pavilion, which had veiny marble walls that create the texture and visual aesthetics,” John says. “The rift-cut oak is a finer-quality material, admittedly not as veiny as the original intent. But refined details are more fitting to the modern way of doing things. If he could have done this, I think he would have.”
“Most of the surfaces that were wood are still wood, and those that were plaster are still plaster. The only difference is the color,” he adds. For example, the original black interior window trim and the exterior’s black metal accents informed John’s choice of matte black for the plaster walls and melamine kitchen cabinets, which complement the butcher block countertops and white oak floors.
John owns three houses in Little Switzerland, and the remaining two unrenovated houses are under agreement with the current owners. He has also purchased the unbuilt parcels so that the landscape can be preserved. The architect feels connected to the work on many levels, not least because it was personal to Alfred and Jane. “When we undressed the walls to do our work, you could see Alfred’s unique handwriting on just about every stud,” John says. “He built it himself with one other person.”
He also feels a kinship to Little Switzerland’s mission. “I love it because of its uniqueness. Alfred and Jane were trying to embody lots of different things through practicing different techniques, which is what we do in our work,” John says. “Lots of things they tried to accomplish, we’re still trying to do today. The Clausses built these modern homes not as a dream house but as proof of how well they function for passive heating and cooling through orientation and cross-ventilation. There is still pushback on modern design, especially in the South.”
But the impulse is deeper than that. John, who lives in the district, is interested in telling an untold story. “It’s like finding a Ford Mustang in a barn, covered with dust, that no one knew about. It’s fascinating that the Clausses continued the lineage of those two architects they worked for by building the first deed-restricted modern subdivision in this country. My work is about preserving and creating this memory of a place.”
Clauss Haus II
Architect: John L. Sanders, FAIA, principal in charge; Michael Aktalay, Assoc. AIA; Madison Butler, Sanders Pace Architecture, Knoxville, Tennessee
Builder: John L. Sanders, FAIA, Sanders Pace Architecture; Robert Fuhrig, Fuhrig Design + Construction, Knoxville, Tennessee
Project size: 1,600 square feet
Site size: 0.36 acre
Construction cost: $181 per square foot
Photography: Bruce Cole; construction photos by John L. Sanders, FAIA; historic photos by Billy Glenn
Acoustic: Mineral wool
Cabinetry hardware: Blum
Door hardware: Kwikset
Garage doors: Pella
HVAC System: Amana
Lighting: E-conolight, PATH
Lighting control systems: Leviton
Paints, stains coatings: Sansin (exterior), Sherwin-Williams (interior)
Sinks: IKEA, Delta
Windows: Custom by DeVol Millwork and Fuhrig Design + Construction