Belcaro: Crown Jewel on Black Oak Ridge

Dr. Jim TumblinFountain City

Hugh Lawson McClung Jr.’s expertise in the law, his business acumen and his investments in real estate and coal properties enabled him to retire from his law firm in 1908 a wealthy man at only 50 years of age.

The great-grandson of Gen. James White, the founder of Knoxville, Hugh Jr. was born on June 2, 1858, the youngest of the two children of Hugh Lawson McClung Sr. (1810-1891) and Anna Gillespie McClung. His father had seven children by his first wife, Rachel Morgan McClung, before her untimely death in 1842 at only 32 years of age.

Young Hugh read law with his brother-in-law Maj. T.S. Webb. When he passed his examinations in 1879, he joined the Webb-McClung law firm as a full partner. The senior partner found attorney McClung to be keenly analytical and soon entrusted him with the preparation and trial of cases which he managed with the skill of a veteran. Although confined mainly to the civil courts, both circuit and chancery, the practice became extensive and lucrative.

While still a young man, he accepted the position of Knox County chancellor when he was appointed to the office by Gov. Malcolm R. Patterson. He served with notable ability and strict impartiality. Although his services on the bench were for a period of only 18 months, they were months of unremitting labor. He entered over 700 orders and decrees, many of them contested. Of the 32 appeals taken from his judgments there were only four reversals in the Supreme Court, an outstanding record.

On Dec. 15, 1892, Hugh L. McClung Jr. married Ella L. Gibbins (1870-1951), daughter of William E. and Ellen Henry Gibbins. William Gibbins was a Knoxville business and civic leader, an early partner in the W.W. Woodruff Hardware Co. and quite prominent in social circles. The McClungs had one child, Ellen Lawson McClung (1894-1992).

The family home was at fashionable 1111 Circle Park contiguous to the University of Tennessee campus. In the 1890s Circle Park was lined with fine houses. Her father was a trustee of the university, as were his father and grandfather before him.

After graduating from Prof. Charles Coffin Ross’ private school locally, Ellen entered Ogantz School for Girls in 1913. Ogantz is an exclusive Philadelphia finishing school which Amelia Earhart attended four years later. Louise Freeman, her classmate there, was a member of high society in New York who became a lifelong friend. They visited New York regularly where they stayed in Louise’s suite in New York’s Plaza Hotel. The classmates took tea at the Plaza, attended the theater and gave glittering parties.

The McClungs made frequent trips to Europe, often staying for months. Ellen and her mother were both interested in the villas, particularly in Italy, and collected fine arts and antique furnishings. By 1922, the family, especially Ellen, had collected enough ideas and architectural knowledge that they were ready to build their stately Italianate villa and gardens atop Black Oak Ridge.

East Arcade. This is one of the 24 black and white interior and exterior views of Belcaro from the Historic American Buildings Survey.

They wanted their home to show a convincing sense of scale, beauty and harmony between the elements of the house, landscape and gardens. Therefore, they retained famous Houston architect James H. Chillman and landscape architect Ralph E. Griswold to draw the plans for Belcaro. They began construction on the house in 1922 and completed it in 1923.

To complete the interior plan, the family employed Albert Gredig, a local Knoxville architect. Local artist Hugh Tyler was retained to paint the sun parlor’s murals, modeled on the frescoes in the colonnades in the Villa Guilia in Rome.

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 (C. 1923), 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 McClungs’ daughter, Ellen, 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 allees 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 100 feet wide and 200 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.”

On Oct. 18, 1928, Ellen Lawson McClung married Thomas H. Berry, a prominent local coal mine operator and nephew of the famous Martha McChesney Berry, founder of the North Georgia College named for her. The wedding at the water garden on the south lawn was the social event of the season.

In 1934, Thomas and Ellen Berry built a smaller classic revival temple-form home 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, sometime 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 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.

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