Richard Sharp Smith’s legacy lives on—or rather is lived in—Asheville’s turn-of-last-century neighborhoods and public buildings.
Smith is the architect who envisioned Biltmore Village, large parts of the Montford community and stretches of homes along Chestnut Street and Sunset Mountain. His artistic reach extends as far as Flat Rock and Hendersonville. Indeed, according to a local landmark report designating Smith’s personal residence a historic place, Smith received more than 60 commissions during the architect’s first five years in business (from 1896 to 1901).
During his partnership with engineer Albert Heath Carrier—from 1906 to Smith’s death in 1924—the firm handled some 700 projects (see box to learn more). And by the nature of his style, he was an early precursor to today’s eco-builders and green remodelers.
Smith not only left his mark on the face of Western North Carolina, he dominated its edifice. It’s a trick today’s builders are hard-pressed to repeat.
“I don’t think anyone now can have that same effect on Asheville,” says Asheville architect Diana Bellgowan. “Because of our size, I don’t think that’s possible.”
Why? It’s the simple equation of right place, right time. When Smith arrived, Asheville’s population was only about 2,700. A hamlet that dreamed of becoming a city.
“Smith came at a time when there was a blank canvas,” notes Asheville Art Museum curator Frank Thomson. “In a town of 2,700 people, how many architects do you need?” (The 2008 Yellow Pages for Asheville lists some 67 individuals and firms under “Architects,” and that’s not counting entries for builders, contractors or home-design-and-planning services.)
“He could make up his own vocabulary; he was planning whole communities,” Thomson says.
Bellgowan concurs. “He had cohesive work. It was done in groups, created a neighborhood context.” After architect Richard Morris Hunt died, Smith inherited the Biltmore project, designing most of the structures within Biltmore Village.
“A lot of people say it was developed as a place for artisans and crafters to work, but it was really a real-estate venture,” notes Asheville-based architect Robert Griffin. Beyond that, he explains, the wealthy and elite of that time period (in this case, George Vanderbilt) constructed neighborhoods as a contribution to society but also to “show how town planning was done.” Perhaps the pinnacle of that effort culminated in Biltmore Village with the collaborative efforts of Hunt, Smith and famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
Even though Smith never knew the fame outside of Western North Carolina enjoyed by the likes of Olmsted, he certainly made the best of his big-fish-in-a-small-pond status. His motto was, says Griffin, “We can do anything and we will.”
This expansive attitude was enabled by a dearth of building codes and historic review boards. “That’s something we all, as architects, sort of envy in the profession,” Griffin admits. “Because of being more informed today, we don’t have the freedom.”
Eventually Smith brought in Carrier, an engineer and inventor, to look after the mechanics of the projects: mundane details such as “would the building stand?” But even reigning in creative expression with stuffy structural integrity, Smith still had great expanses of acreage with which to work.
These days, designers are caught between well-populated neighborhoods and steep mountainsides: the proverbial rock and a hard place. “I think there are definitely architects who have a distinctive look,” Bellgowan allows, pointing to Michael McDonough, who contributed to Fairview’s Eastwood Village, and James Samsel, whose firm designed the community buildings at The Ramble in Biltmore Forest. But vision aside, space is the major limiting factor in new projects. “If they did do something, it would have to be somewhere out, like at The Cliffs or someplace that isn’t so important to the center of what Asheville is, like Biltmore Village and the Asheville area.” She says that there simply isn’t room within central populated areas to create new, congruent neighborhoods.
While there might not be the wide-open spaces requisite for a next generation of Smiths, the legendary architect continues to inspire those who restore and build in Western North Carolina. “There’s something timeless about Smith’s work,” Griffin says. “If we had an Asheville style, it would be based largely upon what Richard Sharp Smith did.”
That style is summed up in a Citizen-Times article from 1957: “The overall rustic character of the [Smith] house results from the substantial stone walls paired with other materials—pebbledash stucco, leaded glass, and heavy timbers…” In essence, the natural materials, earthy tones and clean lines characterizing so much of the area’s architecture.
These days, it’s hard for a builder to make such a notable splash, though a few—such as contractor Pat Dennison, whose complex rooflines and breezy porches are cropping up around Montford—are aligned with the Smith tradition. Dennison arrived in Asheville in the early 1990s. Volunteering with Habitat for Humanity got his foot in the door for remodeling and eventually building projects. A decade later he’s completed seven new homes in the Montford historic district; he both designs and builds them (after Smith’s “We can do anything” mindset).
There was no Habitat for Humanity when Smith came to the United States from England in 1882. He was 30 and a practicing architect at the time, and found work in the New York City firm of Bradford L. Gilbert. Later, he was employed by Hunt, who brought Smith to Asheville to work on a little project commissioned by George Vanderbilt. That was the foot in the door. In 1890, Smith had become Vanderbilt’s resident architect, and during that tenure he worked on not just the Biltmore Estate but also Biltmore Village—a collection of homes intended for the estate’s workforce.
What cemented Smith as the man for the job was his fluency with English detail: The Web site for Western North Carolina Heritage lists these as stone, stucco, shingles, earthy colors and informal composition.
“I’ve always liked building with detail,” remarks Dennison. He admits that when he began working in Montford, he resented the neighborhood restrictions enforced by the Historic Resources Commission of Asheville and Buncombe County. He quickly came to respect the commission’s standards for historic preservation and for complementary textures, rooflines and colors in new construction. Of course, those restrictions are in place to protect the historic integrity of the neighborhood, a tone set in part by Smith who, according to heritagewnc.org, “may have designed as many as thirty of the houses in the Montford district;” those homes characterized by (according to montford.org) “gambrel roofs, hipped gables, pebbledash or stucco walls, heavy porch brackets and simple Colonial Revival details.”
Dennison is inspired by the Smith vernacular, but his motivation comes from imagining a home’s future. “I think about the person who will live there. I’m looking for enjoyment, having fun. That translates into details,” he says.
Smith seems to have taken a similar approach, as evidenced by his Chunn’s Cove home. “The quiet forms and rustic character of the house—the home of his family—most likely exist as an expression of Smith’s personality and his family life,” wrote the Citizen-Times in 1957. Home, for the legendary architect, was something far greater than a place to hang his hat.
Green by design
“The reason people came to Asheville for the last 120 years is the same now as it was then,” insists Rob Moody, founder of Asheville-based EcoBuilders. “There’s a lot of biological diversity, a lot to do in the outdoors. People who were doing projects in town appreciated that.”
Love of nature is apparent in Smith’s selection of natural stone and timber. “In Western North Carolina, we had a lot of wood,” says Griffin. So Smith’s prevalent use of wood shingles on the second story of homes was likely “a carryover from English cottages with terra cotta tile.”
As for the proliferation of pebbledash, some historians believe that although Smith imported the technique to Asheville, he coined the term while living here. According to The Western North Carolina Historical Association and Smith-McDowell House Museum, “Although Richard Sharp Smith and Richard Morris Hunt used the term ‘roughcast’ on their drawings for this finishing method, pebbledash was in local use by the late 1890s.”
Moody suspects Smith would embrace today’s move toward green building. Natural materials aside, Smith designed buildings with tall windows for cooling in the days before air conditioning. Though some of his homes were grand, he’s said to have favored moderate-sized domiciles that related to the environs in which they were built. Of his lifestyle, the book An Architect and His Times, Richard Sharp Smith: A Retrospective notes, “The family owned both a horse and carriage and an automobile, but Smith frequently walked the three miles over Beaucatcher Mountain from his house to his downtown office.”
Moody and his company (incorporated five years ago) embrace similar values when planning new homes. He says that construction in the Montford neighborhood “aligns with our philosophy. We want to build in historic neighborhoods where infrastructure already exists and houses are on the bus lines or within walking distance from businesses.”
It doesn’t bother him that Montford already has a distinct style—Moody and EcoBuilders co-owner Jackson Bebber both sit on the local historic resources commission. “It’s great to have preservation standards,” Moody says. And while those regulations can be restrictive at times, change is afoot. “There’s a new solar bill of rights in North Carolina that says you can’t limit use of alternative energy except on the front of a house. That’s helpful.”
What that means is that even historic properties can get a green update while maintaining their curb appeal. But Moody doesn’t believe environmentally minded design has to trade quality aesthetics for eco-practicality. “Design is equal to green building in our philosophy,” he says. “I’m humbled by what previous architects have done in Asheville. We try to pay homage, but also to give a modern twist.”
Even in an uncertain housing market, green building and renovating is so desirable that EcoBuilders is keeping up a brisk work pace. Teamed up with real-estate company EcoHouse, the two companies seem to be dominating the landscape in many of Asheville’s neighborhoods, leaving an indelible mark. At least to a casual onlooker, green-built homes could be the 21st-century answer to Smith’s design monopoly.
Ask a local designer or art enthusiast about their favorite Smith building and the answers are as varied as the designs. “My favorite Smith house is one on Montford Avenue,” says Dennison. “I love the use of natural materials. That’s all part of the detailing.” Asheville-based architect Robert Griffin went so far as to purchase and relocate the former Biltmore Hospital (designed by Smith), turning the property into the offices of his own architecture firm.
“His buildings aren’t just about design, but about their relationship with the environment,” offers Thomson. Of Smith’s public and business structures, Thomson points out many of those had “sidewalk appeal,” street-level interest that encouraged pedestrian traffic and a sense of community.
The curator goes on to say that downtown Asheville’s visage doesn’t include many post-World War II buildings. “In terms of modern architecture that you look at and say ‘That’s a great building,’ there’s not that much,” he muses. “Smith’s vocabulary continues to influence what’s going on today.”
If that’s the case, then is Asheville haunted by Smith? Or did the famed architect simply pave the way for generations of designers to follow in his footsteps? The answer may be a little bit of both: Today’s Asheville holds a hint of the city Smith helped build, but it’s not the blank slate of the late 1800s. As much as Smith influenced (and continues to hold sway over) Asheville’s aesthetic, he also laid a groundwork upon which the area’s architectural visionaries continue to build.