Rich’s Dept. Store by Stevens & Wilkinson
Structure: Rich’s Department Store
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Stevens & Wilkinson (Barber & McMurry, associates)
Story: We do an awful lot of house stories here on the blog, this is true. But today, we’re doing a Knoxville city landmark: the department store called Rich’s.
Rich’s was a chain of department stores that was founded in Atlanta in the late 1800s. Under the chain’s founder, Morris Rich, the chain grew and grew, achieving immense commercial success in the south.
The company’s second owner (Morris’s son Daniel) continued to oversee great success for the chain. When Daniel’s son Richard (who went by Dick) took over in 1949, he had a mind to (1) expand outside of George and (2) modernize.
So, in the early 1950s, Dick commissioned three legendary artisans to create a massive, modern new Rich’s in Knoxville.
First, Dick commissioned the Atlanta based architectural firm Stevens & Wilkinson to design the modernist, three-story full-line store. The building’s design received an AIA award when it was built…and you can see why!
The resulting building featured lots of glass, green glazed brick on the front, red glazed brick on the side, and a wavy concrete awning as an accent.
Although the interior photos (from the Library of Congress) are low-resolution, may I draw your attention to the furs section!
Next, Dick got ahold of notable mid-century landscape architectural firm Eckbo, Royston & Williams to design the landscaping. This firm was known throughout the U.S. for helping to blend architecture into its surroundings, even if the surroundings were man-made.
Eckbo, Royston & Williams were up for the task, surrounding the department store with terrain that was walkable, accessible, and scenic (despite the building being on a major street).
In the mid-century era, the landscape was equally as important as the building, as department stores like Rich’s were hubs of community activity.
With the building designed and the landscape planned, Dick commissioned a lighting specialist named Abe Feder to light the building. When he passed away in 1997, the New York Times called Mr. Feder a “master of lighting in all its forms.”
You can see the lighting Feder (right) used in this nighttime photo of Rich’s
I couldn’t find a color photo of the Knoxville store all lit up but here’s an image of the Georgia store at Christmastime (below, left). You can see how lighting played a big part of the store’s look and feel. The photo below on the right is the Knoxville store at Christmastime.
One interesting anecdote about Christmas. Every year, in the Atlanta Rich’s, a great big Christmas tree would perch atop the multi-level bridge. Mark Millkey, son of architect Herbert Millkey Sr (whom we’ve written about on the blog previously) told me that he thinks his dad may have designed the bridge. Regardless of the bridge’s pedigree, Mark shared this amazing anecdote about the bridge at Christmastime, “Once a year around the holidays, possibly on Thanksgiving, the bridge was the site of a choral performance. There was a different choir on each level, with the youngest performers at the bottom, and a professional choir (with a formidable soprano) at the top. As I recall, the performance always culminated in a performance of O Holy Night, at the end of which the tree atop the bridge was lit.
As it happens, I was in one of the choirs one year when I was in high school in the mid-1970s.”
As Rich’s sales waned in the mid 1970s, the store was sold to another department chain called Miller’s (which was headquartered in Chattanooga). The Miller’s store had a restaurant, a snack bar, and a bakery counter…which makes me wonder if the store had all those things when Rich’s created it.
At some point, Miller’s shut down and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville took over the building to use it as a conference center building.
As is to be expected with things UTK takes over, the building is rather run down and the marvelous landscaping has all been torn out and replaced with concrete.
Both photos via the marvelous Inside of Knoxville blog
Regarding the Rich’s Knoxville department store, I recall that there was a restaurant on the third floor. I have read that the Raymond Loewy’s design organization was involved in the interior design, which was also quite open and modern. Unfortunately, the current owner gutted the interior and turned it into walled offices and conference rooms. However, they did do a nice restoration of the turquoise exterior tiles.