Friday, May 18, 2012

5709 Lyons View Pike - Westcliff

There has been a lot of discussion in the local property blogs about the proposal of a new shopping development located at the intersection of Cumberland Ave. and Alcoa Hwy. Anyone who has played or follows rugby in Knoxville knows this place very well. It's called Fulton bottoms and the reason it is called Fulton bottoms is that just across third creek was once the principal factory of the Fulton Company.

 The Fulton Bellows factory as it appeared in the 1930's. This is looking from the Southeast. Note the train tracks which still exist and Cumberland Ave./Kingston Pk. looking very rural. Most of the background in this picture is taken up by the Alcoa Hwy/Kingston Pike interchange.

 Roughly the same view today. The factory is gone. The foundation pads are all that remain.

The story of the Fulton Co. is an interesting but long one. It's probably a subject for another entry, however if you'd like to read the whole story you can find it here, as told by Jack Neely. In short, the company was founded by Weston M. Fulton.

Weston Fulton


Mr. Fulton was a meteorologist from Alabama, the son of a cotton farmer. He graduated from the University of Mississippi and worked as a meteorologist in Vicksburg and New Orleans before coming to Knoxville in 1898 to manage the weather bureau office. Mr. Fulton's job in Knoxville required him to walk from his office on Barbara Hill ("The Hill" to all the UT folks) down onto the railroad bridge to measure fluctuations in the Tennessee river, which was then very volatile. Mr. Fulton, disliking this part of his profession, invented a device that he called a sylphon, which would measure and record the river levels for him. The device trapped water moisture in a seemless metal accordion cylinder, which was able to expand and contract. Mr. Fulton continued to refine the device. He realized that the bellows device would have several industrial applications, so in 1904 he obtained financing and stared the Fulton Company.


An early ad from the Fulton Company, and an illustration from the company's modern website. These are bellows.


The bellows device has been used on almost every machine produced from the beginning of the 20th century. They are found on everything from refrigerators to modern stealth jet fighters. At one point in time, most of them were manufactured on Third Creek in Knoxville. The Fulton company was sold to RobertShaw, who continued to manufacture bellows, and then to Siebe, a British company that used the plant to make auto parts. The plant was closed in 1998. In an unlikely turn of events, a finance man named Randy Greaves bought the plant and opened the Fulton Bellows Company. The plant manufactured bellows again for a short time in the early 2000's before it ultimately closed and was razed. Today, the site of the plant stands to become an interesting shopping development on an otherwise depressing brown field.


University Commons, proposed for the Fulton Co. factory site.

What does all of this industrial history have to do with Lyons View? Well, as one might expect, the proprietor of a company that makes a part that fits every machine on earth might have a bit of a fortune. Weston Fulton was no exception. He and his family became immensely rich, and in the late 1920's they decided to move from their house on Temple Avenue (still standing, the only remaining Fulton residence) to the luxurious environs of Lyons View. Mr. Fulton's house on Temple (now Volunteer Blvd) is currently sitting on Knox Heritage's Fragile 15 list as the University of Tennessee plans to demolish it. 

The Fulton House on Temple Ave. (Volunteer Blvd).
The house Mr. Fulton built was (and still would be) without peer in all of Knox County.However, prowling aroung Lyons View, one may never even realize that Mr. Fulton's house, which he named Westcliff, ever existed. There are a few clues and pieces left for those in the know. As one travels west down Lyons View Pike, past the Cherokee country club on the left, then the site of the J. Allen Smith house (sadly demolished at twilight of the "bulldoze it" era) on the right, one comes across a building that looks like part of an Italian monastery. This was the gatehouse of the Fulton estate. It looks just as it did when Mr. Fulton lived at Westcliff. One can still travel up the long driveway to the top, but instead of a Biltmore-esque estate, one finds the Cherokee at Westcliff condiminiums. The estate is gone. Demolished in 1967 by a developer from Nashville. Strangely though, if one looks at the complex's clubhouse with focused eyes, something becomes evident. Part of Westcliff survives. The clubhouse is comprised of a portion of the first floor of the Westcliff estate. It really is bizarre.

Any driver having driven down Lyons View Pike will recognize this scene.

The entrance to the Cherokee at Westcliff condominiums.

The Westcliff gatehouse, original to the property and still standing in 2012.

The gatehouse at the bottom of the driveway is the portion of Westcliff with which most people are familiar. It, and the portion of the wall facing the road, is constructed of sandstone. That feature plus the tile capped roof and steeple-like chimney give it a bit of a Mediterranean monasterial look. That look is ironic, since the building it once guarded actually served as a dormitory for nuns in the 1950's and 60's, just after Mr. Fulton died.

The Westcillf gatehouse as it appeared in 1939

That long stately driveway leading up the hill from the pike still exists and still follows the original route. However, what one finds at the top of the driveway is not even a shadow of the former spledor that once loomed high over Bearden.

The clubhouse at Cherokee at Westcliff

On top of the hill, one is greeted by several two or three story apartment buildings which are flanking a simple one room club house. On closer examination, however, this isn't any ordinary 1960's residential housing clubhouse, this building has some interesting details. The most telling sign is right out in front of the place.

Fulton's Mansion, Est. 1928

The sign in front of the club house reads "Fulton's Mansion, Est. 1928." This is without a doubt, a very peculiar thing to have in front of what basically amounts to a pool cabana and a banquet room. But there's more.

A conspicuously placed buttress, buttressing nothing.
An ornate lamp.

Some very fancy arches leading to the pool area.


The grand entrance hall leading to the community room.
An interesting porch (note the windows which have been filled).
If this seems a little grand to be a simple community pool house, it's because it is too grand to be a simple community pool house. This pool house was once Weston Fulton's grand manor on the hill. It was once almost too intricate to be described in words (and strangely I've only been able to unearth one picture of the entire structure). The building you see before you is of course not the entire mansion. When the place was sold to the developer that built the surrounding apartments, the house was scalped of three upper floors, gutted, and simplified. It was once a rambling four story masterpiece of mediterranean architecture with prominent arabic influence.
The house had an elevator that led to a thrid story ballroom. It had towers, balconies, and fountains. It was designed by Charles Barber, but the design was changed many, many times by Mr. Fulton. The house was visible from miles around and, according to local folklore, contained a spotlight in the highest tower so that Mr. Fulton could shine a light onto his son's grave in Highland Memorial Cemetery on Sutherland (killed in a car wreck). Family members deny that the spotlight story is true.
The house reportedly cost over a half of a million dollars to construct in 1928-29. That would be roughly $6.3M today, assuming one could find a contractor to construct it. Historians speculate that Mr. Fulton sold his company in order to build his dream home. He died in 1946 and the property proved too much for his heirs. Most of the manor was torn down in 1967 when the apartments were constructed by a Nashville developer.
Here is the house as it was constructed.
From the side, note the arches that now lead to the pool.
From the rear, you'd now be looking at the pool.
There's that porch.
And now, as it once stood...
Similar views today...
Some of the finer details of the old place...
A fountain

The tower

Finally, the actual house as it stood finished. An irreplaceable masterpiece...

Yes, that once stood in Knoxville, TN. One could safely bet that nothing like it will ever be built again. While there are promising developments on the horizon, the existence of Knox Heritage's Fragile 15 list reminds us that we still haven't learned our lesson and ironically another Fulton house, albeit much less grand, stands in the crosshairs of "progress".
Until next time when we return to downtown Knoxville to see what else we can find...