The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Loghaven in South Knoxville melds natural and human habitats to serve regional artists

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IMG 2979Sanders Pace Architecture blended the collection of the decades-old cabins at Loghaven in South Knoxville with the existing natural environment.  Photos by Anna Lawrence/Hellbender Press

Loghaven: An award-winning natural and built environment in South Knoxville intends to get minds moving

Five years after he first saw the property that would become Loghaven Artist Residency, architect Brandon Pace was in one of the renovated cabins, listening to a performance by now-late composer Harold Budd, in town to perform at the 2019 Big Ears music festival. 

The experience brought home the full potential of a truly special place.

“That was wonderful,” Pace said of that moment. “You could see it being a place for a composer. You saw this could be something. You could see how our city comes alive in events like this.”

This spring, Knoxville-based Sanders Pace Architecture was awarded a 2021 AIA Architecture Award for the design and architectural rehabilitation work at the 90-acre Loghaven property, which is owned and managed by the Aslan Foundation.

“The role they play in supporting good design in our community cannot be overstated,” Pace said of the Aslan Foundation.

 Team member Michael Davis was awarded the 2021 AIA Young Architects Award.

On June 1, Loghaven Artist Residency opened up the application process for its second class of in-person residents, artists who work in visual, performing, literary, and interdisciplinary artistic fields.

“Save Loghaven”

Loghaven is a uniquely quirky part of Knoxville history. It began as a collection of log cabins in a heavily wooded area along Candora Road in South Knoxville.

The cabins were built as rental properties by single mom and entrepreneur Myssie Thompson in 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression. Her cabins, as well as one built by neighbor John Hightower, are the heart of the property.

Generations of UTK students and professors, young professionals, and others rented the alluring cabins. But by the late 1990s, the area was sinking into disrepair, with kudzu, privet, and other invasive plants growing up around the cabins and previously cleared areas.

In 2005, a developer bought the land with the intention of building condominiums. A wooden “Save Loghaven” sign still swings along the shaded lane that’s home to the Thompson cabins. It’s a memorial to the time when those who loved the property realized it was threatened and acted to protect it. And it wasn’t just this property – the entire ridge top, which includes significant historical sites, was being eyed by developers.

The efforts to preserve this area were the beginning of what is now the Urban Wilderness. The Aslan Foundation played a significant role in establishing what was then the nascent urban nature preserve and outdoor playground: High Ground Park and the Loghaven site in 2008.

The Aslan Foundation and its board conducted numerous studies to determine the best and highest use of the property, and concluded it should be used as an artist residency. The foundation brought in Sanders Pace to do the work.

Brandon Pace remembers the first time he saw the property in 2014.

His first impression was that it was in serious disrepair and that some questionable additions had been made to parts of the property.

“I thought, ‘we really need to edit some of this back,’” Pace said.

On a recent sunny afternoon, an enormous male turkey strode out of the glen behind a cabin and strutted around eating grass.

Old and new

Pace knew that each cabin would have to be thoroughly renovated. It was also important that the property not be considered a mere collection of cabins. The architects would have to renovate existing buildings and design new ones with the idea of Loghaven coming together as a cohesive whole and a true community.

Pace considered how the cabins are sited along the lane, the view each has of its surroundings, and how the structures speak to the natural environment around them.

Each cabin is different, and had unique problems. Foundation and roofing work were needed. HVAC systems had to be redone, and 1930s-era kitchens and bathrooms replaced. In renovating, Pace and his team realized that the cabins weren’t built to last as long as they had, and they would need extra thought how to make them last another 80 to 100 years.

As they worked, they consulted National Park Service Standards for Rehabilitation, which are generally followed during the restoration of historical properties. The team also used materials that Myssie Thompson herself might have used had they been available.

The cabin that is normally opened for tours is a spacious one. It is the last of the five along Loghaven road, perfect for collaborative groups such as dance companies or theater troupes.

The Hightower cabin, with a porch made of marble scraps from the old Candora site, sits slightly south. A seventh residential structure, not one of the original cluster, will be renovated in the future.

One of four new structures that Sanders Pace added is the McDonough House Gateway Building. It’s named in honor of late Aslan Foundation board member James McDonough, who took a personal interest in the project and provided the architects with much encouragement and ideas.

The McDonough House references the original style of the cabins while still presenting itself as new and contemporary.

“We wanted a much cleaner look on approach,” Pace said.

The team used bluestone to replace the rubble stone foundations of the cabin. The new building has a zinc roof, and unlike the small windows in the cabins, the McDonough House has tall windows all around the space. They let in natural light and give an “outdoor living” feeling to the whole place.

In the building’s multipurpose room, where visual or performing artists can gather to work, a tall window looks out on mature trees just outside.

Artists are asked to eat together at the McDonough house each night of the residency. Chef Jesse Newminster (of Knoxville’s downtown delectable Kaizen fame) is the residency’s chef.

Beyond the dining room, a communal living space is lined with shelves of books – professors at UTK were asked to recommend the best works in their fields. Guides to identifying local trees share space with histories of Buddhism and the Black Mountain arts movement.  

Pace and his team also designed two studios south and below the gateway building and the cabins. A fourth new structure, a caretaker’s cottage, sits near the McDonough House and was designed in a similar style.

“The studios are another departure” from the retro, old-fashioned look of the cabins, Pace said.

These are utilitarian spaces, almost black boxes, including a performing arts studio with a sprung floor, and a visual arts studio built-in skylights. They sit where the foundations of an old homestead had been. The Aslan Foundation, which consulted arborists and landscapers throughout the process, did not want to remove any healthy trees from the property, so the studios were built with the trees in mind, as they cantilever into the tree canopy.  

Residency director Sarah Swinford joined the team three years ago, moving here from Ohio to take the job. On a walking tour of the property, she pointed out the communal gardens and the seating areas where artists can escape outdoors.

She said there are also fruit trees and bushes planted around the property so the artists can forage, but they have to beat the turkeys to some of the berries.

Walking trails around the property lead to Cherokee Cove and High Ground Park. Artists are encouraged to spend as much time on the property, and with each other, as possible. All artists must live at least a two-hour drive from Knoxville. They all take at least one field trip to places like Ijams Nature Center or the Knoxville Museum of Art. 

“We want them to leave with a sense of what a great place East Tennessee is for artists,” Swinford said.

Tours of Loghaven Artist Residency will take place the afternoon and evening of June 16. The one-hour tours are free. Space is limited; you can register for the Loghaven tours here.


All pictures by Anna Lawrence/Hellbender Press

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