From Cupolas to Cornices
Photos by Michael Oppenheim
Tucked incongruously in Asheville’s “Chicken Hill” district, Hanger Hall shoulders the most gratuitous cupola in town. Ornate as a high-society wedding cake, the Queen Anne manor was built by a member of Russian royalty.
Another aristocrat, vintage Hollywood’s silkiest star Grace Kelly, stayed at North Asheville’s sprawling Tudor-style complex the Manor Inn — now luxury apartments — during the 1956 filming of The Swan. And, at various points in the early 20th century, Harry Houdini performed at the Kenilworth Inn and in Montford’s Homewood “castle.”
Absorbing such magical tidbits about memorable local buildings, one might soon forget that F. Scott Fitzgerald pitched drunken fits at the Grove Park Inn or that guest Henry James called the Biltmore Estate “dank and dreary.” Look Up Asheville II, the second illustrated book on historic Asheville structures released by Grateful Steps Publishing, aims to unveil the architectural treasures that don’t make the guidebooks — as well as the riveting stories behind them. The handsome volume, designed by Michele Scheve with a foreword by award-winning WNC novelist Robert Morgan, pairs the sharp, introspective essays of Blue Ridge Parkway Poet Laureate Laura Hope-Gill with vibrant photography by Michael Oppenheim.
Old architecture, as Hope-Gill says to Carolina Home + Garden, “was rooted in aesthetics, an idea that surroundings influence and inspire character. To this end, every single building served a whole vision of a ‘city beautiful.’”
Landscaping pioneer Frederick Law Olmsted and his mentor Andrew Jackson Downing, responsible for New York City’s Central Park, both have works in Asheville, notes Hope-Gill. Manor Inn architect Bradford Gilbert designed the first skyscraper in Manhattan in 1899 and also happened to be the first architect to hire Richard Sharp Smith. The creator of no fewer than 700 buildings in Asheville, Sharp Smith sculpted the city’s monumental Arts & Crafts heritage.
“It all connects,” says Hope-Gill. “While we’re rather trained to only see the ‘important’ buildings, there is much to be gained from knowing how the entirety fits together.”
Such connectivity can be sobering. Continually unearthing dark secrets while she researched both books, the author reveals in Look Up II that outlaws were once hanged in Pack Square, and that buried underneath the animal sculptures around Vance Monument are “white” restrooms from the city’s racially segregated past. “That’s why there’s a water source for the fountain now,” she explains.
A brighter facet of local African-American history is explored in glorious narrative and deep photographic detail. Hope-Gill and Oppenheim honor the legacy of master stonemason (and later development magnate) James Vester Miller, born a slave in 1858 in Rutherfordton. With Sharp Smith, Vester Miller built the YMI Cultural Center, Hopkins Chapel AME Zion Church and the St. Matthias Episcopal Church, among other historical gems.
About the latter house of worship, a well-known Gothic Revival masterpiece in and outside city circles, Hope-Gill writes: “[Miller] selected a more decorative pattern than in his work for Hopkins Chapel. The brickwork of St. Matthias seems to burst from within with a playful energy, but every single brick is laid perfectly, so this sense of things about to break from their form is an ecstatic optical illusion. Miller did not leave things to chance. The effect is a jubilant building.”
Elsewhere in central Asheville, dalliances in Victorian architecture served the whims of the rich; the luckiest of these ornate family manors survive as postcard-worthy bed-and-breakfasts. The 1899 Wright Inn & Carriage House in Montford is ruffled from shingles to studs. The gazebo-style side verandah projects like a fort parapet, warding off mundanity. Tiny spindles decorate the gazebo’s round eave. Bright-blue spheres decorate the spindles themselves.
“The desire,” writes Hope-Gill, was “for dynamics. The architect delivers whimsy, delicateness, and a beauty characterized by prettiness rather than boldness.”
The author tempers her description with timely context. Where once “size meant status,” today, she observes, “this shift quietly reverses as interest in green energy attracts even the wealthy to ‘tiny houses’ engineered for sustainability.”
However, a certain grand, blush-hued bed-and-breakfast, also in Montford, isn’t quite one of the “little pink houses” of the rock-and-roll song. The Lion & The Rose, writes Hope-Gill, “is an architectural contemporary of Biltmore Estate, YMI Cultural Center and Drhumor Building. A Neoclassical Queen Anne, it features Tuscan columns, deep porches and a Palladian window. These details ground the house in the teachings of Renaissance architect and writer Andreas Palladio.”
Ultimately, it’s all history for the taking. Notes Hope-Gill: “I came to see that while the city is always changing, the forces that define it remain the same.”
Look Up Asheville II is available online at www.gratefulsteps.com, and at bookstores. To further share the details of the city’s history, Hope-Gill offers architecture tours Monday and Thursday at 10 am and 2 pm, and during weekends upon request. See www.lookupasheville.com for more information.