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Signal Mountain Historic District Newsletters and Events
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published on 11/26/2002

This is the House that Marr Built ...and the renovation, concerto, historic district, CD-ROM and publishing company it inspired


On November 30, the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Orchestra will present the first public performance of "The Four Seasons of Marrcrest," a concerto for orchestra and piano written to commemorate the historic renovation of Marrcrest, the Signal Mountain home built in 1926 by the automotive pioneer who built the first Buick. That day also marks the release of a multimedia CD-ROM that includes both the story of the home and the full concerto, performed by the Chattanooga Symphony, as well as the launch of a publishing company to market both the CD-ROM and the orchestral score.

The story behind the music and the publishing company is a tale of inspiration, crossing half a continent, two centuries and two families; of many people engaged and inspired over many years by a unique quality of place. There is a delightfully intricate "house that Jack built" quality to the Marrcrest story, when it is told in its full complexity and context: "this is the mountain, that attracted the inventor, that built the house, that inspired the concerto, that was performed by the symphony....." The many parts of the story are in themselves compelling, but they canıt be separated from the elaborate chain of inspiration that connects them. This is the story in brief:

In 1914 Walter Marr, who built the first Buick automobile and served as the companyıs chief engineer, stopped in Signal Mountain on the way from a working vacation in Florida to the company's Flint, Michican headquarters. He fell in love with the area, moved his family and ran Buick's engineering division from there. Over 80 years later, Robert and Charlotte White bought the house he built and had it renovated to historic preservation standards and enhanced with elegant ceiling paintings. The renovated home inspired a composer who happened to visit to write The Four Seasons of Marrcrest, a piano concerto celebrating Marrcrest and the Whites.

The Whites' growing commitment to historic preservation led them to organize a successful effort to place Marrcrest and the homes surrounding it on the National Register of Historic Places. At the same time, they commissioned a new orchestral arrangement of their gift concerto, which was performed at the dedication of the Signal Mountain Historic District in May 2002.

In addition, they had the concerto recorded by the Chattanooga Symphony and published it on a CD-ROM with the story of the house and the historic district. Robert White also created a company, Marrcrest Publishing, to market both the CD-ROM and the orchestral score. The CD-ROM can be purchased at The Grapevine on Signal Mountain, at Susannaıs dress shop in Riverview and from the web site


There is a delightfully intricate "house that Jack built" quality to the Marrcrest story, when it is told in its full complexity and context: "this is the mountain, that attracted the inventor, that built the house, that inspired the concerto, that was performed by the symphony....." The many parts of the story are in themselves compelling, but they can't be separated from the elaborate chain of inspiration that connects them.

A Mountain Attracts an Automotive Pioneer

Though his name does not enjoy the same recognition as Henry Ford, Walter Chrysler, or David Buick, Walter Lorenzo Marr is remembered as a leading figure in the early development of the American automotive industry. From the workshops of this skilled machinist and self-taught mechanical engineer came innovations that dramatically improved early automobiles. Marr invented the valve-in-head engine, the forerunner of overhead cam technology. As chief engineer at Buick he helped set the standard for quality and excellence in automobile manufacturing.

After a brief visit to Signal Mountain, just outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, the invigorating mountain setting restored his failing health and inspired him to move his family in 1914 from Flint, Michigan to Signal Mountain, where he ran the engineering division of Buick until his retirement.

After Marr moved to Signal Mountain, two draftsmen moved there and worked with him in the Signal Mountain cottage where he and his wife lived until Marrcrest was built. Plans for new vehicles would be drawn up by Marr and sent to Flint to be built. The resulting vehicles were often shipped to Tennessee from Flint for testing. Marr remained Buick's chief engineer until 1918 and was a consulting engineer until 1923. Walter Marr built the Italianate residence he called Marrcrest in 1926 and lived there until his death in 1941.

A Grand Home Begins Teaching a New Family

Walter Marrıs widow and descendants lived in Marrcrest until the 1990s, but the imposing house had stood empty for three years when Robert and Charlotte White bought it in 1996. They undertook its renovation and rehabilitation as both a historic treasure and a livable home for them and their young children, thus beginning a unique chain of events that has included the establishment of a national register historic district, the unexpected gift of a piano concerto commemorating the house and the Whites, an orchestral arrangement of the concerto, a CD-ROM of music and history, and a publishing company.

Robert and Charlotte Whiteıs journey toward becoming preservationists began the day after they closed on the house, when they received a book sent from the headquarters of General Motors. It was a history of Buick Motor Company, and it was inscribed "Welcome to the family."

"We didnıt have any idea of the history that we were stepping into," said Robert White. They soon began to learn more, when their new next door neighbors came to greet them as well. Bill and Sara Close were not only some of Walter Marr's descendants, but Bill Close turned out to be the historian of the family. They shared information and eventually even allowed the Whites to return some of Marrcrestıs original furnishings to the house.

"That prompted us to start looking at who this man was," said Robert White. "Learning about the house and the man prompted us to learn more about the mountain."

Although the Whites bought and renovated the home, sometimes it seems that the house has changed them more than they have changed it. "The structure was in good shape," said Robert White. "We have really just brought out what was already here, but along the way we've learned so much. As we've learned more, the history has become more beautiful to us than the house, and we think itıs worth protecting."

A Historic Renovation Thatıs Also Kid Friendly

The renovation project was undertaken at a standard of excellence that surely would have suited Walter Marr. Marr was an uncompromising perfectionist. After construction of the first floor of Marrcrest was not up to his standards, he fired the builder and architect and had the unfinished construction removed down to the foundation. The finished house totaled 6,600 square feet, with an additional freestanding five-car garage, quite unusual for 1926.

The renovation was directed by interior designer Will Hendricks following the planning and documentation standards used for the restoration of house museums. The Whites became more and more committed preservationists as the renovation progressed, but they were always adamant that the house must be warm and welcoming, both for guests and for their young children.

"It had to be a warm and friendly home, not like a museum," said Charlotte White. "We have three small boys, and they get to ride their bikes in the hallway. We want it to be that way. Itıs a big important house, but we want them to grow up like other kids. We donıt want the house to overrun them."

A typical morning finds the Whites' two preschool boys watching cartoons in a functioning kitchen that is also a subtly layered record of the homeıs history. "Three periods when the house went through historic changes are represented in this kitchen," said Will Hendricks. There are three generations of telephones: a non-working model from the 1920s, a functioning black rotary phone dating from a 1950s renovation and a new cordless portable phone.

Even more intriguing are the three generations of cabinetry and the fact that the kitchen was not expanded beyond its original 1926 dimensions. The original cabinets had been replaced in the 1950s, and were not adequate by 1990s standards. Rather than replace them, Hendricks suggested simply adding a bit of new cabinetry for more storage and making a new island out of a piece of the original 1920s cabinets that had been retained in another room.

According to Hendricks, accepting the idea of a kitchen that was state of the art in preservation terms, rather than in terms of contemporary kitchen design, was a milestone. "Buying off on the argument that their kitchen should be less fancy than their friends' kitchens was when they took their first step in giving historic preservation precedence," he said. "That was the first choice they made, and not many people would have done that."

From then on, he said, the renovation was guided by the preservationist ideal. "Functions are transient, they change over time. We said the house is more important if there is a conflict with function." Carved moldings made it impossible to move walls. Small 1920s-era closets were sidestepped by making a new walk-in closet out of Walter Marr's former office adjacent to the master bedroom. Ultimately, the Whites went beyond even what Hendricks expected, hiring an architectural photographer to document the unrenovated house and leaving the finished house without air conditioning, for example.

Warmer Colors and Decorative Ceiling Paintings

Although very few changes were made to the structure of the house, the renovation project did include significant additions of new color and new paintings on room ceilings. Many of the bright colors that had been in the original decorative scheme had been covered in the 1950s with a muted off white. Throughout the house the Whites wanted to create a warmer feel through the use of color. Decorative painter Ron Ames worked with Hendricks to create a brighter, warmer color palette throughout the house. Working on site, he took long walks through Marrcrestıs 10-acre grounds and through the adjoining state and national parks. The results can be seen throughout the two floors of the house, but particularly in the drawing room and dining room.

The dining room ceiling is almost entirely covered by a painted fan of autumn leaves of trees found on the property and in the nearby woods. In the drawing room, which now serves as the family's main living room, a color palette of sixteen colors was created using an antique oriental rug that was one of the home's original furnishings. The entire palette was used to create colored accents in the panels of an intricate plaster molding that adorned the ceiling. During the renovation, a 70-year old can of paint used in the original decorating was found. The long-dried paint was reconstituted and used on the ceiling of the drawing room.

A Gift Concerto

Music entered into the story in 1997, shortly after the renovation was completed. With the Whites' blessing, Hendricks brought several house guests to Marrcrest while the family was away for the weekend. One was composer Dr. W. Daniel Landes, who had never met the Whites. He was so struck by the beauty of the home and its setting that he wrotea concerto for solo piano, "The Four Seasons of Marrcrest," as a gift to Robert and Charlotte White.

Landes, who is a professor of Piano and Theory at Belmont University School of Music in Nashville, drew his inspiration from the new decorative painting on the foyerıs vaulted ceiling, which depicts a night sky and is accented with a palette of subtle colors representing the four seasons. Each movement of the concerto corresponds to a season of the year, a member of the White family and Marrcrest itself. "Fall" represents the Marrcrest estate. "Winter" embodies Robert White's love of the outdoors and the challenges each man faces. "Spring" is the arrival of a new life, the Whites' oldest son Isaac. "Summer" is a tribute to the warmth of Charlotte White, beloved spouse and mother.

A Historic District

The Whites' commitment to preservation continued to deepen in 1997, as the newly minted preservationists initiated a campaign with others in the community to have the "Old Town" area surrounding Marrcrest listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Encompassing 181 homes, "Old Town" represents the history of Signal Mountain's transformation from a summer resort community where Chattanooga residents escaped the heat and yellow fever epidemics to a year-round residential suburb.

The Signal Mountain Historic District provides a largely unaltered showcase of individualized popular early twentieth century styles of residential architecture. The area possesses a significant collection of early twentieth century residential designs such as Craftsman Bungalow, Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, English Cottage Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival influences. Originally, the area was accessible from Chattanooga only via a trolley line, and some rail tracks and trolley shelters are still intact.

In 2002, the Signal Mountain Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. At the same time that work on the Historic District was progressing, "The Four Seasons of Marrcrest" was also being arranged for orchestral performance, commissioned by the Whites. The completed concerto for orchestra and piano solo was first performed by the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera (CSO) Orchestra on May 11, 2002 at the dedication ceremony for the Historic District.

A CD-ROM, a New Company and Beyond

Even after that performance, the plot of the Marrcrest story continued to thicken. Robert White had the CSO record the music in the historic Tivoli Theater and began the work of creating a multimedia CD-ROM that would include the music, a biography of Walter Marr, the story of Marrcrest's renovation, and documentation of every home in the Signal Mountain Historic District.

Robert White also created a new company, Marrcrest Publishing, to market the CD-ROM to individuals and to market the orchestral score of "The Four Seasons of Marrcrest" to symphonies and music schools. CD-ROM marketing begins with the Nov. 30 concerto performance, while the score will be marketed beginning in January 2003.

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