VERY SPECIAL EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s blog is TennMod’s first ever guest blog. It was written by my good friend (and pamphlet archivist) Brian McKnight. Although his passion is collecting history on film (as documented on his YouTube page), I appreciate him taking time to help make TennMod a well-rounded repository for the modernist architecture of Tennessee.
Structure: Christus Gardens
Location: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Architect: Tom A. Windrom
Story: Ronald S. Ligon opened Christus Gardens’ doors to an enthusiastic crowd on August 13, 1960. Getting to opening day, however, wasn’t an easy task.
In the left photo, Ronald Ligon (in the suit, on the right) shakes hands with the first group to visit Christus Gardens
Let’s explore the full story. This one starts, as most stories do, with a dream. Ronald S. Ligon had a dream. His dream was to open a museum dedicated to telling the story of Christ. Ronald S. Ligon also had a plan, and his plan was to buy an existing motel in the Smoky Mountains and turn it into a museum.
However, when a real estate guy (Prichard Barnes) showed Ronald a parcel of land on River Road, Ronald knew he had to build his museum from the ground up.
With the perfect spot obtained, he was off to find the perfect design, but finding an architect to design a structure to house 71 biblical characters in 10 large dioramas proved more difficult than one might think.
Ronald visited several architectural firms, but no one would take up his project. Thinking back, Ronald recalled firms saying “Well, you see we are quite too busy at this time to consider your ideas, but maybe we might get around to it at some future date.” This put a damper on Ronald’s search. “Such enthusiastic responses were becoming commonplace” he said at one point.
Eventually, a close friend of Ronald’s convinced him to talk with Tom A. Windrom of the Memphis-area firm Windrom, Haglund and Venable. This meeting went well, and Windrom took on the project with great enthusiasm. You might say Ronald and Windrom were a match made in heaven (?).
Windrom’s design contained over 22,000 square feet of space, appropriate for displaying the large dioramas recreating significant chapters in the life of Christ.
The exterior was built using unpolished marble blocks combined with split-face ashlar (masonry made of large cut stones) streaked with pink and black markings.
The eye-catching marble patterns were used to great effect in the rotunda, a circular enclosure independent of the museum which connected to the enclosed lobby.
Also noteworthy were the solar screen paneled arches constructed of tiles lining the marble walls.
Christus Gardens closed its doors in 2007, but was reopened under the name “Christ in the Smokies” a year later.
As of January, 2021, the museum’s lease has been purchased by Gatlinburg Skylift Park leaving Christ in the Smokies without a home, and leaving the future of Windrom’s building uncertain. Here’s to hoping the new owners (Skylift Park) know a good thing when they see it. Fingers crossed. Or say a prayer.