Upland Chronicles: Architect West Barber loved the Smokies

Nov. 30, 2013 @ 11:23 PM

About a month before his 85th birthday, tragedy struck West Barber. On Dec. 4, 1974, he was working in the shop of his home in Knoxville making Christmas presents. A piece of wood spun from his lathe and buzzed at his unprotected good eye. He’d lost the sight in his other eye as a result of a detached retina a few years earlier.

This misfortune was only a temporary setback for the retired architect. He had claimed to be only 65 years old since his retirement almost 20 years earlier. This was said in half seriousness. For West had decided when he retired he would live his life in such a manner that he could remain active, defying aging.

West, his brother Guy, and cousins Charles and George Barber were charter members of the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club, founded in 1924. The first official hike of the club was to Mount LeConte on Dec. 6, 1924. Eight hikers participated.

Born Jan.. 7, 1890, David West Barber was a veteran of World War I. He married Carol Elizabeth Parmelee Barber, and they were parents of three children, Florence, David West Jr. and Dean.

In 1915 West joined his cousin, Charles Barber, and Benjamin McMurry to form the firm Barber & McMurry. Their strengths complemented each other as Charles Barber was the principal designer, McMurry operated as the business manager, and West took charge of the production of working drawings.

The firm’s earliest works included mansions built for affluent Knoxville residents in the Sequoyah Hills vicinity in West Knoxville. The firm expanded to commercial projects such as the Holston Hills Country Club, Church Street Methodist Church and the University of Tennessee’s Hoskins Library.

By the end of the 1950s, Barber & McMurry had designed over 50 churches, 14 schools, dozens of elaborate homes, several clubhouses and numerous buildings for the University of Tennessee. They were recognized nationally in both lay and professional journals. The firm also designed the iconic Great Smoky Mountains National Park Headquarters building, Trinity Episcopal Church and the First United Methodist Church in Gatlinburg.

While hundreds of original park buildings were demolished within the park’s boundaries in the 1930s, at least one new building was constructed. As early as 1926, the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club had proposed to erect a clubhouse in the Smokies and had investigated several sites.

Members of the hiking club met with Arno Cammerer, the director of the National Park Service, in 1933, at the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, where they persuaded Cammerer to allow the construction of a clubhouse in the national park.

In 1934, the club obtained a special permit for the construction and use of a cabin, which was to be located in Big Greenbrier Cove. The hiking club chose the site due to the location of ruins of an original log house, a springhouse and a cantilever barn.

Charles Barber designed the club’s new cabin, and it was built with membership labor including West Barber. The cabin was centered around an existing stone chimney of a razed log house, which originally served as the Whaley-Messer Homeplace. Constructed with logs donated by the National Park Service from three razed log houses in Big Greenbrier Cove, the cabin was built in a traditional mountain dog-trot style house. The rustic-style cabin was completed in 1936.

In 1937 West Barber and Will Cain purchased 1.25 acres from the Marshall family, and the Barbers soon began building, as did the Cain family. West later bought an additional 19 acres. Initially, building of a cabin on the property was slow as David Jr. and Dean, both teenagers, would spend as much as a week at a time camping on the homesite and doing a lot of swimming and activities other than working.

At the time of its construction, all trips to the Barber’s cabin had to be made by fording the river. Despite the young men’s questionable work ethic, the family completed the cabin in 1939. Initially using an outhouse, they completed the cabin with indoor plumbing and later added an additional bedroom.

West enjoyed the cabin and remained active in the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club for the rest of his life. By the next summer after the accident that left him blind, he was in good spirits again. With the help of friends and a close-knit family rallying to the cause, he was hiking again, including a hike to Maddron Bald, a 10-mile round trip.

In the autumn of 1975 West hiked with legendary Knoxville News Sentinel columnist Carson Brewer.

In his column published Nov. 9, 1975, Brewer wrote: “When you hike with West Barber he hooks his right forefinger into the belt loop above your left hip. It rests so lightly you soon forget it’s there. When we started walking I did not set a very fast pace, for I hadn’t hiked with West since he lost his sight, and I wasn’t sure how fast he’d want to go.

Perhaps he was a little leery of putting his feet down too fast on unfamiliar ground. After a half-mile of this, West said he’d like to move faster, Brewer wrote. “It was a good hike on a good day with a delightful companion.”

David West Barber died on April 17, 1979, at age 89. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Knoxville. His family continues to enjoy the rustic cabin at Emert’s Cove.

Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County Historian.

The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics or would like to submit a column, please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org, or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com