The Norris Valley Dam was originally commissioned by the U.S. government as a pilot program for the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA was implemented in the United States to generate employment and electricity throughout eastern Tennessee.
Hungarian Architect Roland Wank was chosen by the TVA to be the chief designer of the dam. Wank was schooled at the Royal Technical Academy in Budapest and spent several years gaining architectural experience in Europe before he immigrated to the United States. His modernist aesthetic developed further during the design of the dam itself, and while Wank helped design the model town of Norris that was constructed before the dam. The TVA liked Wank’s design of the worker’s housing so much that the TVA Director David Lilienthal allowed him to make changes to the preliminary designs made by federal engineers (www.tva.gov).
The completed Dam supplied 131400 kilowatts to the area and upgraded the once strictly rural area into “modern America” where electricity and appliances were now a part of every household.
Wank’s early drawings depicted the dam as though it were a sleek “powerhouse or modern sculpture” (www.tva.gov). The design encompassed Wank’s ideals that public architecture should be grand, yet un-ornamented, mainly for the “comfort and enjoyment of many” (www.tva.gov). His design was intended to reflect the function and honesty of the concrete materials used as well as creating a public monument out of a purely functional structure.
The Norris Dam was constructed of poured reinforced concrete with dimensions spanning 1,860' x 256'. The dam creates the 129 mile long Norris Reservoir, and the Norris and Cove Lakes, and is located 73 miles up the Clinch River. The area is now in a Tennessee State Park and the surrounding areas are used for recreation and sports activities (www.norrislakeinfo.com).
The Norris Reservoir has 809 miles or shoreline and 33,840 acres of water surface (www.tva.gov). After the water is forced through the turbines the water level decreases several hundred feet off the backside of the sloping concrete structure.
The construction of the Norris Valley Dam began on October 1, 1933. In order to facilitate the construction process 2,899 families and 5,226 gravesites were moved into adjacent or newly constructed towns.
The Norris Valley Dam was the beginning of a long history of TVA sponsored dam building efforts in eastern Tennessee. The Hiwassee Dam, constructed in 1936 after the completion of the Norris Valley Dam, is 307' x 1,376'. The Fontana Dam (the fourth tallest dam in the world) was constructed after 1942 is 480' by 2,365' (http://newdeal.feri.org).
The dams of this area grew significantly in size as well as their ability to produce electricity for a growing nation. There are many smaller dams along the Norris Reservoir that are predominantly used to control the depth of the river and ensure that it can be navigated by marine traffic (http://newdeal.feri.org).
The construction of the Norris Valley Dam allowed, through gravity, for the Clinch River to turn turbines within the dam that generated thousands of kilowatts of electricity.
The Norris Valley Dam is a gravity dam, a dam that that resists the thrust of water entirely by the sheer mass of its own weight. The force of the water pushing against the dam is less than the force of the dam pushing down towards the ground, and the water that goes through the turbines generates electricity.
The main design elements of the Norris Valley Dam harped on the functionality of the structure and its lack of ornamentation. The structure itself served as the way in which a specific modern lifestyle constructed during this time in America was handed over to the once rural inhabitants of eastern Tennessee.
The dam was not only a producer and vehicle for electricity but of architectural style. The implementation of a new modernist style in a public, non-inhabitable space is much less controversial, and can act as an introduction to the unknown.
The American aesthetic of consumption and modern amenities followed the implementation on the dam, and changed the way of life for millions of people. Publications advertised the kitchen appliances powered by Tennessee energy that would now be readily available in the area. The standards of living were now changed forever.
The natural environment was also highly altered by the construction of the Norris Valley Dam. The flooding cycle for the area was eliminated, the Norris Lake was created, and entire towns were flooded to make way for both the lake and dam.
The Norris Valley Dam was the founding project of the Tennessee Valley Commission. The TVA was created to spur the economy during the Great Depression as well as provide electricity to the impoverished area of eastern Tennessee. Many attempts had been made to design a large-scale dam for this site in the past but private companies were unable to complete the task during the Great Depression. The dam’s namesake Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska pushed for the government to take over. Before the 1,860' wide, 265' tall structure was built the Tennessee Valley Authority Act had to be passed by Congress and signed by president Franklin D. Roosevelt. The dam was a pilot project, planned to assess the success of large-scale water works projects in this area. After the act was signed into law May 18, 1933 and plans to prepare the area began immediately. In order to make way for the dam and the lake it would create several rural communities were flooded and evacuated from the site. Over 150,000 acres of land were bought for the construction of the dam. The town of Loyston was flooded to make room for the dam, and several new interstate highway systems were built to connect this area with the rest of the state, increasing even further the range of modern lifestyle changes that the dam brought to the area. The dam was massive in scale, yet its smooth concrete finish allows the structure to appear to be no more than a vertical wall, holding back a powerful river. Roland Wank was able to integrate the necessary weight of the dam with an aesthetic that highlighted a lighter, refined, and more restrained edifice that was in direct contrast to hydroelectric gravity dams of the past.
The historical significance of the Norris Valley Dam lies within its technology as well as within its social implications for the area. This specific dam was the first to be constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority; many other subsequent dams were constructed and used design themes found first in the Norris Dam.
The Dam is also intrinsically linked to the way modernism was interpreted by American of this time and area. The dam allowed for “modern” amenities to be enjoyed by the citizens of the area, and linked those amenities to a new way of building public works.
The town of Norris planned by TVA Chairman Arthur Morgan, was built on a small scale, with electricity in each individual home. The town also included specifications for the homes to be built with local materials, a porch, and with walk ability in mind. The planning of Norris plays out like a page out of New Urbanism, yet it is from the beginning of the 1930s (www.tva.gov).
The Norris Dam also helped the country pick itself up economically after the collapse of the stock market in 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930s. The project employed workers from the area and worked to spur economic activity through the production of sellable electricity. The Civilian Conservation Corps was also created at this time to survey the surrounding area in preparation for creating a land reserve that would eventually become part of the State Parks System. Additional workers were employed by this venture and the CCC still exists today.
Kennedy, David. "Obama's Own ‘Rendezvous With Destiny’." The Washington Independent,
November 27, 2008 retrieved February 14, 201.
The New Deal Network, Norris Valley Dam photo gallery, retrieved February 10, 2010
Tennessee Valley Authority, The Norris Project: A Comprehensive Report on the Planning, Design, Construction, and Initial Operations of the Tennessee Valley Authority's First Water Control Project, Technical Report No. 1 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1940).
National Archives and Records Administration, taken 11/1933 Lewis Hines, Photographer.
Library of Congress Digital Archive, retrieved February 10, 2010
Tennessee Valley Authority Digital Archives, retrieved February 16, 2010
The Planned Community of Norris TN, retrieved February 17, 2010.