Retro rental in Knoxville transports visitors to the Frank Lloyd Wright heyday
For years, Michelle Flanigan-Hill has taken leisurely drives by the Vista Road houses in Louisville, Tennessee. These 1950s-60s mid-century modern homes are her favorite architecture era, reminding her of joyous, warm childhood visits in her grandparents’ home.
In 2021, Michelle and her husband, David C. Hill, and their partner, Jim Johnson, bought one of them. The couple are both real estate professionals with Coldwell Banker Nelson. Today, the 6,716-square-foot “Casa Vista View” house is a popular vacation Airbnb rental. Groups and families regularly book it.
“This place is really quite busy,” she says. Michelle is particularly proud of this since she has redesigned the entire home, bringing back a look and feel that combines a bit of Frank Lloyd Wright craftsman and mid-century modern. The 17-year real estate broker traveled several states to find just the right chairs, vases and tables to fill the home—in true mid-century style, original and of the period.
“Wright’s designs influenced many great architects,” Michelle says. “George Belleville was one of those architects. He designed Casa Vista View back in 1959 for a doctor from California.”
The Dream of Restoring This House
When the three bought the home, their goal was to restore and sell. Michelle, who lives in Maryville with David, loved the home’s straight lines, large windows, and quality of the construction and materials used in the 50s and 60s. “It looked like it would be sitting on the windy bluffs of the Pacific Ocean in California,” she says. “The use of older growth hardwoods for construction, which is seen in the Douglas fir siding, means it’s still in remarkable condition—as is the timber frame crossbracing in the exterior and interior walls.”
When they were acquiring the property, Michelle would stop by and peek through windows. She saw kitchen cabinetry painted pink and concrete floors covered with carpets. Big decisions were coming as Michelle—who studied architecture at the University of Tennessee—began to envision restoring it.
Today, a floating bamboo floor covers most of the square footage and 80 percent of the home’s furnishings are from the 50s and 60s. “They aren’t new except for a very few pieces that are remakes, which are simply not made as well as all the authentic used furnishings I found,” she says. Her journey began online and on the road to Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee in serious search of the perfect vintage pre-owned furniture of her favorite era. “Finding hundreds of pieces in decent shape is challenging,” she notes.
Creating the Perfect Time Capsule
Having filled their own home with mid-century furnishings, Michelle knew what brands to go after: Heywood-Wakefield, United, Lane, Broyhill. Although many companies have changed the way they make furniture today, Michelle was lucky. All the furniture she found is in great condition except for a few nicks and water marks.
The massive volume of furnishings includes couches, bed frames, ottomans, tables, lamps, and stools filling the equally massive house. “It’s really awesome furniture, and the people who are staying in the Airbnb want to be in this time capsule,” she says. The time capsule includes decorating various tables with oversized Life Magazines in perfect shape from the same era.
Even the plants in the indoor atrium are of the time period and something she loves helping maintain. They are a part of the water feature, too, that runs full length along the main entrance. “Like these designs from the mid-century modern era, the front entrance is on the side of the house.” It’s one of those architectural features people ask her about and is a signature part of the era’s design.
Along with furniture, she would choose all vases, figures, statues from the same era she is so passionate about. Walls are lined with artwork that are classic mid-century modern reproductions.
The biggest surprises at the time now seem not so surprising: finding materials and then waiting for them was part of working during a global pandemic that stymied deliveries nationwide. “I finally found my front door in Woodstock, Georgia, and I actually drove down myself and got it,” she says. A stunning reproduction of the time period, she knew she must have it.
Michelle and her construction team also took on the restoration of the fireplaces and walls. This meant cleaning and refacing some of them, which included the use of ashlar cut marble. The house exterior also utilizes this type of stone.
Ashlar cut stone has been shaped and dressed to have smooth and even faces, as well as square edges. It can be used for walls, arches, fireplace surrounds, outdoor kitchens and full-scale buildings among other projects. This method of cutting stone goes back thousands of years to Greece, Crete and other parts of Europe.
Today, ashlar has a broad spectrum of applications and is found on historical buildings, along with mid-century modern and craftsman homes like Casa Vista View.
When it came to building the mailbox, this seemingly easy task took some heavy lifting—literally. The half wall at the back of the carport had to be torn down and rebuilt, an enormous job. The ashlar cut marble it was faced with was removed and cleaned so that it could be creatively used to build an oversized mailbox, matching the ashlar cut marble on the fireplaces and exterior of the house. Michelle loved the result.
“It’s a really stately mailbox—beneath a stone capstone so heavy we had to use a Bobcat in positioning,” Michelle says. “An awesome stone mason made the mailbox look like it had been there from day one.” That master stone mason for the house was Steve Jinks, a long-time craftsman. “We were just lucky he was able to work us into his busy schedule,” she says.
The kitchen evolved into a more expressive craftsman look in its cabinetry and countertops—no more pink. Michelle searched for original Formica but found none for the countertops. Instead, she found black diamond granite for the kitchen and bath surfaces. The pool would be resurfaced with hand-cut blue coping stone, as well as blue-gray “penny tile” on the inside edge of the pool.
Mixing Old and New
Part of restoring the house was making it both comfortable and efficient for 21st century living. All utilities are now underground, plate glass windows are now insulated with modern low-e glass (low emissivity) and roofing material “so thick that when airplanes are flying over Alcoa Highway in front of the house, which is common here, you can’t even hear them,” Michelle says.
The pitch of these mostly flat-roof mid-century modern homes means less need for gutters. Calming riverstone surrounds the home, and rainwater falls evenly in four directions onto the river rock below. Only in a few places are gutters required.
Everyone Has a Story of Casa Vista View
The veteran construction and engineering team took Michelle’s dreams to reality. “Fidel Cacho was our amazing carpenter and craftsman who I’ve worked with on properties for more than 15 years,” she says. “He did most of the frame and finish work on the Vista Road house under the supervision of general contractor Steve Carico and our structural engineer, James Bauman.”
While Michelle and the team worked to meticulously restore this gem, she noticed people stopping by the house. They wanted to see the transformation. “People would drive up and ask us if they could go inside.”
So of course, Michelle decided to host an open house. More than 100 people came one Saturday over the course of four hours. “They all had a story to tell as they had been watching that house for years,” she says.
Their attachment to the immense six-bedroom, four full and three half-baths home grew. Michelle, David and Jim began to find reasons to turn down offers to buy it. It was final. They would keep it. Eventually, the couple did sell the house to their partner Jim, who knew it would make a great Airbnb, with Michelle as its designer.
Jim actually handles the bookings, while Michelle helps make sure the house continues to look its best as new pieces are added now and then.
Stepping Back In Time
“Our goal was to be able to walk onto this property and feel as though you had just stepped back in time to the 1960s.” The focus was on every detail, down to the furniture, decorations and vintage magazines on the tables. Clearly, they succeeded.
For Michelle, the restoration was an eclectic mix of the styles she loves best: mid-century modern and craftsman. “This home was built in an era when the quality of construction and materials used was stronger and more solid.” Even the furniture was heavier and built differently. Dovetail joints adjoined wooden furniture, instead of nails and screws with lightweight materials.
These days, Michelle keeps Casa Vista View looking its best in true ‘50s and ’60s style. It’s exactly the retro look these Airbnb clients want. “We all grow up with a different perspective of what feels like home,” she says, “and we have a feeling about our favorite memories from childhood that bring us comfort.” For Michelle Flanigan-Hill, Casa Vista View is exactly one of those.