John Shearer: A Tribute To Gavin Townsend

Wednesday, June 20, 2018 - by John Shearer
Gavin Townsend touring the 
Seretean home on April 3
Gavin Townsend touring the Seretean home on April 3
- photo by John Shearer

I somehow missed it until a few days later, but longtime UTC art history professor Dr. Gavin Townsend died on June 3 at the age of 61 from a fast-moving and unfortunate bout with pancreatic cancer.

Besides his 30-plus years of work at UTC in such areas as the art department, the honors program, and in leadership with the faculty Senate, he was also very interested in historic preservation.

And that is where I had most of my dealings with him. On numerous occasions, I would write a story about a historic structure or one of local significance, and he would help me out with a quote that would offer insight from one trained in architectural terms and history.

I knew an old building might be attractive or worth saving, and he would offer a knowledgeable and engaging quote that would tell why.

I first met Dr. Townsend back around the late 1980s, not long after he came to UTC. He had already become immersed in local historic architecture – despite having grown up in New York and also having attended school in California -- and was documenting information on some of the area architects.

He had taken a special interest in R.H. Hunt due to all the significant buildings he designed – such as the County Courthouse and Memorial Auditorium – and had apparently spoken to the Rotary Club of Chattanooga about the architect.

I was at the Chattanooga Free Press at that time and editor Lee Anderson – a member of the club who also knew of my interest in historic buildings – passed his name along as someone I should interview for a story.

So I called him up and went over to his office in the UTC Fine Arts Building and interviewed him about his interest in R.H. Hunt and historic architecture. I have forgotten the details of what all he said about Mr. Hunt, but I could tell he was someone with whom I enjoyed conversing. 

As I began to write other stories about historic structures, somewhere along the line I figured he would be a good one to give me a quote about what made a building attractive or significant.

And over the next three decades, as I moved on from the Chattanooga Free Press in the late 1990s and later started writing some for chattanoogan.com and the Mountain Mirror, I started regularly seeking him out for a quote.

I bet I ended up getting a quote from him for a story at least 30 or more times over the years. Initially I would call him on the phone, but in later years, particularly while I was living in Knoxville and still trying to contribute local stories, it would be via email. Sometimes I would even send him photos of a building to ask what made it unique or handsome, or what kind of style it was, and he would always reply.

His comments were always thought provoking and had a perspective of someone who was both well trained and had an innately keen insight into the beauty of architecture.

I remember he once told me that he thought W.T. Downing – who designed such buildings as the Lyndhurst mansion, the Hotel Patten and the older buildings at UTC and Baylor – had a more creative and original style than Mr. Hunt.

And one time I was writing a story about Central United Methodist Church in Knoxville after learning it was designed by Mr. Hunt. Dr. Townsend pointed out that the balcony of the church was shaped, in a smaller way, just like the balcony of Mr. Hunt’s Memorial Auditorium.

I would have probably never noticed that myself. Needless to say, my stories were always made richer due to his comments.

Sometimes when I told him I was working on a story on a building and was wanting his help with a good quote, he would tell me he was on vacation in somewhere like Maine or traveling on a UTC-related trip to Europe. But he was always kind to email me something back, no matter how busy or preoccupied he was with his numerous hats he wore at UTC.

And he almost always kindly complimented me on the published story after I sent him a link, whether I deserved it or not.

I realized he was probably someone I would enjoy spending time with socially, but unfortunately never did try to pay him back for all his help by occasionally treating him to lunch.

We did occasionally cross paths in person when I was working on a story. In the summer of 2011, I started getting interested in writing about some of the mid-century modern buildings of Chattanooga that were just then turning about 50 years old.

I wanted to come down from Knoxville one day and take some pictures of several for a slide show to go with my story and called him the night before. I thought it might be good to get some quotes from Dr. Townsend, and he met me at his office one morning before his summer school class and gave me some audio on my little tape recorder to go with the photos.

About three months ago, I was able to get a tour of the old Bud Seretean/Don Brock home that was for sale on Missionary Ridge. It was designed by the noted California architect Harold Levitt, and uniquely features a large pool in the middle.

Knowing Dr. Townsend might be interested in seeing it, I invited him to join me on the tour with Realtor Diane Patty and Savannah Marshall of the Downtown Chattanooga Property Shop/Keller Williams Realty. I know he probably enjoyed it.

After we were finished, I pulled out my old tape recorder again. I wanted to get him talking about the home and the architect for about a minute or so.

Since I am not as comfortable doing audio interviews as writing print stories, I was trying to figure out what we could talk about to make it sound semi-professional.

He told me simply to just start asking him questions. I did, and that worked out better than if we had sounded too canned.

He also helped me with a story I wrote on some of the mid-century commercial buildings found along Hixson Pike not long after that.

And then, just last week, I emailed him about a story I was working on regarding a map drawn in 1930 by Chattanooga artist Frank Baisden. Especially since they both were connected with the UC/UTC art department, I figured he could give me a lot of good insight.

I did not hear back from him as quickly as I usually did and thought about following up. And then Sunday, I received an email back with his name on it, but it was from his wife, Bonnie, telling me the sad news that Dr. Townsend had died.

I could not believe it.

On a professional note, I know from what he told me that he must have had quite a collection of information about local architects and buildings. So hopefully that will end up in one of the local libraries for future students of historic architecture to enjoy.

Like with many scholars today, much of it may be on his computer or computers.

Besides a general interest in and obvious love for students and the world of college teaching, he also had a deep appreciation for many of the Chattanooga community’s historic and handsome buildings and wanted to see them preserved.

I, in turn, had an appreciation for him, and I hope the memories of his many worthwhile contributions are preserved for a long time, just like he wanted to see done with all the Chattanooga buildings and homes he admired. 

To listen to an audio of Dr. Townsend talking this spring about the Seretean home on Missionary Ridge in one of his last recorded interviews click here.

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Jcshearer2@comcast.net



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