Underground Discovery

Historical kiln rediscovered at Norris is a reminder of TVA’s legacy.

MAY 28, 2019 — A long forgotten, 85-year-old underground structure representing a unique piece of TVA history has been discovered at TVA’s Norris Engineering Lab Complex. A large tunnel kiln used to fire glazed pottery, dishware and porcelain at the former Norris Ceramics Research Laboratory was unearthed during demolition of Building F. 


TVA established the lab in 1934 to assess various clays in the region to spur economic development of ceramic businesses. TVA ended the program by 1940 and leased the lab and kiln to the U.S. Bureau of Mines, which built several new structures at Norris including a machine shop in 1952. The shop, referred to as Building F, was constructed on top of the tunnel kiln. 

“Over time, the tunnel kiln was completely forgotten,” said TVA Archeologist Marianne Shuler. “It was part of a visionary TVA plan for economic development.  It served a very unique role in TVA’s research history.” 

In 1965, the lab site was returned to TVA. During the years, Building F was modified to accommodate various TVA departments.

In August 2016, Building F was struck by lighting and gutted by fire. As it was prepared for demolition, workers in TVA’s Generation Construction, Projects, Services & Facilities Management organization noticed extensive brickwork behind a hole under the stairwell.


Demolition was stopped and TVA’s Cultural Compliance group was called in to assess the discovery. Upon examination, it was determined the brickwork was likely part of the tunnel kiln used by the Ceramics Lab. TVA employees worked together to develop a plan to safely tear down Building F and preserve the kiln.     

“This piece of TVA history may have been completely lost without the Generation Construction team recognizing that something of importance was behind that wall,” said Shuler. “We appreciate their care and diligence in helping us preserve the kiln.” 

Preserving History

TVA continues to consult with the Tennessee Historical Commission on the proper treatment and history of the kiln. TVA has reached out to Swindell-Dressler, the Pittsburgh firm that designed the kiln in the 1930s, but it did not have any original design or construction drawings. Historical research at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and Atlanta, Georgia, yielded some information, but no drawings. 

“This kiln is part of TVA’s legacy and our history,” Shuler said. “There is still a lot we don’t know about it, such as how it was designed and operated. Initial tests with ground penetrating radar show what may be some connector to the kiln from the laboratory building to the north. Only future archaeological investigations will help us answer these and other questions.” 

Construction of TVA’s Norris Engineering Laboratory Complex began in the early 1930s, and it served as the primary civil and mechanical engineering research facility from 1935 to 1968. The town of Norris is on the National Register of Historical Places, and the Norris Engineering Laboratory Complex was determined eligible for listing in the NRHP in 2019. 

The Norris site is currently undergoing renovations as part of TVA’s Strategic Real Estate Plan to invest in and better utilize core buildings and reduce operations and maintenance costs. Click here to read more about TVA and the city of Norris.