Book Report: Cabins & Castles

After you return the musical picture frame, the seasonal socks and the John Hughes DVD box set, buy yourself something you really want. Like Cabins & Castles: The History & Architecture of Buncombe County, North Carolina by Douglas Swain. The coffee table-appropriate paperback was first published in 1981 and reprinted this year by Fairview, N.C.-based Bright Mountain Books. Pages of local history, images and achitectural blueprints also include current (‘80s-era) photos by Mary Jo Brezny.

According to Bright Mountain, “Cabins & Castles contains two major sections: [An] historical overview and the specific record of individual properties built in this area, primarily those constructed prior to 1930. Historical sketches of Buncombe County and Asheville, written by John Ager and Talmage Powell, are followed by Douglas Swaim’s essay on local architectural history.” That’s the overview. However, despite the passing of decades—decades during which Asheville saw unprecedented growth—Cabins nods to what has remained the same as much as to what has changed.

Browse the chapter on downtown Asheville’s historic district. Therein lies an image of the Grove Arcade’s interior—lovely with its polished marble and curved iron staircases—completely empty. (Already it’s hard to imagine the indoor market space without the cheerful clutter of the Grove Corner Market and the Fresh Quarter.)

A humorously dated passage from the 1979 book, The Historic Resources of Downtown Asheville, North Carolina reads, “The decades since WWII have not produced a wealth of new construction in the downtown that is either well-designed or compatible with existing buildings. Several recent projects, however, suggest that this trend is being reversed. Chief among those are the Civic Center by Wood and Cort, the new Pack Memorial Library, designed by J. Bertram King, and the new corporate headquarters for AKZONA Corporation on Pack Square, designed by I.M. Pei and Partners.”

Who among us looks at the Civic Center and sees a “new” building? And yet, only three decades have rendered that monolith—thanks to the fast march of technology—nearly obsolete.

As this book serves as reminder for the once-newness of downtown institutions, it also recounts tales long lost. Even for those who’ve lived in the area long enough to remember when Clingman Street’s Grey Eagle Tavern was located in Black Mountain, the whereabouts of the club’s name might be a bit foggy. “The hamlet of Grey Eagle changed its name when the Western North Carolina Railroad named its new station Black Mountain,” the book reveals in an early chapter. 

Some blasts-from-the-past from my own neighborhood: The Rockwell House on Hillside St. is photographed with a neatly kept lawn; the text noting, “Kiffen and Col. Paul Rockwell, both WW I heroes, were raised in this house.” Today, the pebbledash domicile crumbles behind a thick hedge, a chunk of the porch roof torn away by a fallen gutter. It looks to be haunted—or at least inhabited by Dickens’ Miss Havisham.

More happily, Cabins depicts a storefront at 241 Broadway, left over from the area’s combined residence and commercial days, in bleak disrepair. “None of these buildings are presently made use of in this way,” the book says of the street level-store, upper-level residence structure. This year saw the completed renovation of that very property, however. Though it’s one of the few remaining corner store buildings, the structure is now in use as office space. And, with the newly-constructed Pioneer Building, a return to shops below, homes above looks immanent.

Page after page, Cabins turns up such surprises.

Understand, Cabins is probably not to everyone’s taste. While it deserves a place on the coffee table, its photos are not conducive to idle page flipping. Images are small and in black and white. The text is extensive but warrants a magnifying glass.

This is a book for history buffs and architecture fans. (Preferably for fans of historic architecture.) For folks who enjoy driving country roads or wandering through neighborhoods, musing over the styles and purposes of buildings. This is the book for people who enjoy a little detective work, unraveling a mystery and drawing the stories from houses—whether, as the book’s title suggests—humble log cabins or grand, multi-storied mansions.

—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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One thought on “Book Report: Cabins & Castles

  1. Lee

    Cabins and Castles is a great book and I’m thrilled to see it reprinted. My first copy, bought shortly after I moved here in ’80, was borrowed by a friend who never seemed to be able to find it when I asked about it. Needless to say, I was very happy earlier this year when I heard of it’s reprinting. As it is, I searched used book stores for years for a replacement. I bought my new copy on the first day it was available and it’s not going to be lent as the other one was.

    Bright Mountain Books, thank you so much for listening to those of us calling for the reprint.

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