Backroads wisdom

A passionate pastime shared by old-building lovers and dedicated preservationists is the unfailing delight in searching out our region’s rich architectural legacy. Most encounters happen by chance, as we rubberneck along winding back roads; all too often, though, we’re left with more questions than answers.

But no more! Or, at least, much less frequently: Both amateur and professional building sleuths may now rejoice in the publication of A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Western North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

This book — the second volume of a three-guide series covering the entire state — offers the newest map-and-compass to the rich built-environment of the 25 western counties, which stretch from the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge to the Smokies.

Unlike many architectural guides that are long on description and short on interpretation, this book offers a concise — yet stunningly comprehensive — overview of the social, political, cultural, economic and material forces that have shaped our buildings and communities.

A project of the State Historic Preservation Office of the Division of Archives & History, the guide is a testament to the excellence and depth of the Division’s effort to survey, document and interpret North Carolina’s architectural resources. All three authors work for Archives & History. Catherine Bishir is senior architectural historian and coordinator of the statewide survey program; Michael Southern is a research historian who set up the Division’s Western Regional Office in Asheville; and Jennifer Martin recently moved from the Western Office to Raleigh, to serve as the new coordinator of the National Register of Historic Places program.

Certainly the greatest challenge for any historical guide — and one which this book soundly succeeds in meeting — is conveying the fullest sense of the historic character of a place. Once the guide has helped steer us to a site, we often still must struggle to see beyond its present-day circumstances, in order to reveal the true feeling of the place and its historical associations. Accurate historical information and thoughtful interpretation are essential to crossing the threshold to the past — but often it’s a voice from the past that completes the journey.

Among the many sources used by the authors of this guide are numerous 19th- and early 20th- century passages describing Western North Carolina. These quotations — peppered throughout the guide, and often replete with the convoluted syntax and vocabulary of the Victorian era — wonderfully evoke the former character of these places, while helping us transcend the present.

The guide is generally user-friendly; it’s organized by county, progressing from the county seat to outlying properties. Entries treat many sites individually, with others grouped by theme or geographic locale. An excellent introduction summarizes the general developmental history of the region, and helps us put all the entries in a clear historic context. (Even the seasoned professional will find in this introductory essay a useful outline of the successive waves of change that have transformed both the settlements and the landscape of these mountains). An extensive bibliography offers years of further reading opportunities.

This book is not a Roger Tory Peterson-type guide that describes the genus and species of architectural styles, although the reader will certainly not lack for architectural information. Anyone wanting an identification guide might want to pick up a copy of A Field Guide to American Houses, by Virginia and Lee McAlester (which is, hands-down, the best book of its type), to carry along with the WNC guide. Together, these references would arm the most inexperienced observer with the tools to recognize and understand the area’s historic structures.

One caution, duly noted by the authors, reminds readers that most of these properties are private, and one should not succumb to the temptation to trespass.

The only difficulty the reader will encounter is having to adjust to the convention of locating rural sites according to the North Carolina road-numbering system, rather than by street names. The authors acknowledge this problem and advise the serious building-hound to get copies of official county road maps, which identify state and county roads by number, before venturing out. Then again, if you don’t, you just might be lucky enough to stumble upon some hitherto-unknown relic of the past that’s not listed in the guide. Luckily for you, you’ll have the tools on hand to figure out its relationship to our mountain past.

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