Copyright 2008 * All rights reserved
J.C. (Jim) Tumblin, OD, DOS
3604 Kesterwood Drive, East
Knoxville, Tennessee 37918-2557
(Historic American Buildings
Survey, Library of Congress)
Many of Fountain
City‘s long time residents will remember the scene.
As one proceeded north on Broadway at about the Woodward-Williams
Mansion, hovering high above the flat roof of the Fountain City Bank, there was
Belcaro. The stately Italianate
villa stood like a gem atop Black Oak Ridge.
William R. McNabb, a
past director of the Dulin Gallery of Art, who formerly resided in Belcaro’s
guest house, described the estate in an article, “Italian Villas of East
Tennessee: The Formal Garden Revival Movement in Knoxville,” printed in the Journal
of the East Tennessee Historical Society (1989):
“Undoubtedly the most elaborate and successful of all the Italian
gardens built in the Knoxville area was that at Belcaro (C1923), the Hugh Lawson
McClung estate on Black Oak Ridge above Fountain City.
Named for the Sienese fortress-villa rebuilt for Baldassare Peruzzi in
1535, Belcaro is authentically Italian and similarly situated with magnificent
panoramas. James Chillman, a fellow
of the American Academy at Rome between 1919-1922, designed the house façade
and the entrance gate. Landscape
architect Ralph E. Griswold, another academy fellow, served as consultant,
contributing the idea for the large south terrace facing the axial vista.
But the main direction for the project apparently came from the
McClung’s daughter, Ellen (later Mrs. Thomas Huntingdon Berry), as a result of
extensive travel in Italy.
“The house, Georgian in style, with pilastered facades facing north
and south, and curving arcades to either side, resembles something of the
character of a pavilion with French doors opening onto terraces on both facades.
On the north is a circular forecourt, embraced by the arcades which were
once the focus of three converging allee’s of linden trees.
One of these avenues served as the drive approaching from the east; the
other two led to garden features—a circular pool to the north and a statue of
Diana to the west. On the south side
of the house, a balustrated terrace measuring some one hundred feet wide and two
hundred feet long, overlooks the vista of mountains and valleys, as well as the
Italian water garden on the lower level. This
garden closely follows the plan of the water garden of the classical Villa
Gamberia at Settignano, near Florence, with four pools and a circular fountain
at the center. Each of the four
pools is lined with hollyhock and iris, and the central fountain is a copy of
that in the courtyard of the Florentine Piazzo Vecchio.
At the west end a semi-circular exedra, bordered by a hemlock hedge,
forms the backdrop for statues depicting the four seasons.”
Is it any wonder
that Belcaro is one of two Fountain City homes and gardens described in the
classic History of Homes and Gardens in
Tennessee (Nashville Garden Club, 1936)?
Judge Hugh L.
McClung (1858-1936), attorney and businessman, had served as a special justice
on the Supreme Court of Tennessee, as a judge of the Chancery Court of Knox
County and also as a Trustee of the University of Tennessee, as had his father
and grandfather before him. His
wife, the former Ella Gibbins (1872-1951), and his daughter Ellen were both
interested in the fine arts and the family traveled at length in Europe,
particularly in Italy, where both ideas and furnishings were collected.
As a result they
wanted their home to show a convincing sense of scale, beauty, pleasure, and
harmony between the elements of the house, gardens and landscape.
In order to solve the problems of joining Chillman’s plan for the façade
to the other elevations and to complete the interior plan, the family employed
Albert Gredig, a local Knoxville architect.
Hugh Tyler, a local artist, was retained to paint the sun parlor’s
murals, modeled on the frescoes in the colonnades in the Villa Guilia in Rome.
Upon its completion
in 1923 arriving guests were introduced to the 81 acre estate by tall piers
topped with urns, flanked by wall panels containing arched recesses in which
were set plaques with the name “Belcaro” and its date, “MCMXXII.”
Proceeding down the allee’ through ball finial-capped piers on either
side they saw a straight drive through natural woodland which followed an
ancient Cherokee Indian trail.
(Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress)
As one emerged from
the woods, an S-curve led to an avenue of alternating linden trees and Lombardy
poplars and finally to the circular entrance court of the house.
(In 1953, 75 acres surrounding the six-acre Belcaro grounds were
subdivided into 122 lots and houses were built along the avenue, but the linden
trees still stand and the drive remains a very impressive one.)
entrance court revealed the curving arcades and dependencies to the south.
To the north a balustrade with a stairway in the center, led to another
avenue of linden trees and a circular pool.
To the west an avenue led to the statue of Diana (which fortunately has
been preserved at Allendale in Kingsport) and other statues representing the
Perhaps the most
spectacular aspect of the grounds was the terrace to the south with its
panoramic view of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Wide steps descended the hillside through a gate to the water garden
surrounded by more statuary, a central fountain and four reflecting pools
bordered by iris, hollyhock and other flowers.
The house itself,
set at ground level to reinforce easy communication with the outdoors, contained
a 20 by 40 foot living room, wood-paneled with French doors on each side opening
to the south terrace on one end and onto the forecourt on the other.
The western end contained a large stone mantle of Italian 15th
century style which the McClungs bought in Italy.
To the west of the
living room was the dining room with kitchen and pantry adjoining.
The loggia or sun room to the east was dominated by Hugh Tyler’s mural
depicting a trellis work dome with vines, birds, urns and escutcheons
concentrated on the coved ceiling. This
room echoed the airy openness of the living area.
(Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress)
To the north of the
sunroom was a small library opening onto the east arcade and the garage.
A small entrance hall with a curving stairway carried one upstairs where
the second floor contained four bedrooms, each with bath and dressing room, and
a sitting room above the dining room. The
servants’ rooms were in the western dependency across the entry court from the
Altogether the house
and gardens conveyed esthetic delight and they also served as a place for
generations of McClungs and their friends to congregate and socialize.
Such values and functions were as important to people then as they are
In 1934 Thomas and
Ellen Berry built a smaller classic revival temple-form house on a corner of the
Belcaro property facing Ridgecrest Drive. They joined Ella McClung in the main
house after the death of Judge McClung in 1936, but moved to another historic
home, Berrymount, in White Pine some time after Ella’s tragic death in 1951.
The T.C. Wilburns
bought Belcaro in 1954 and sold to the E. Neil Brooks family in 1957.
The Brooks sold to E. Denton Jones in the late 1970s.
In March 1996 neighbors along the quiet street were surprised when
awakened at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning by sounds of the demolition of the
10-room house. The owner explained
that the house had “insurmountable problems,” but many historic
preservationists grieved nonetheless.
Author’s Note: Thanks to William R. McNabb and Steve Coker for their
excellent architectural descriptions of the house and gardens.
Additional images and a bibliography may be found on