Belcaro

Copyright 2008 * All rights reserved
J.C. (Jim) Tumblin, OD, DOS
3604 Kesterwood Drive, East
Knoxville, Tennessee 37918-2557
(865) 687-1948

Fountain City Places That Made A Difference

(Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress)

Belcaro

(1922-1923)

Hugh Lawson McClung (1858-1936)  

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.)  

The circular 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 four seasons.  

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 garage.  

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 today.  

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 www.fountaincitytnhistory.info/.  

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