Asheville Archives: Mayor John H. Cathey’s fight over City Hall, 1926-28

CITY AND COUNTY: In 1928, both the Buncombe County Courthouse, left, and Asheville City Hall were completed. The former was designed by the Washington, D.C., firm Milburn and Heister; Douglas Ellington designed the latter. Photo by George Masa, courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville

On Jan. 2, 1926, The Asheville Citizen reported a surprising announcement by Mayor John H. Cathey. According to the city leader, plans were in place to construct a new City Hall. The project would begin in March with the demolition of its then-current municipal building, located on the east end of Pack Square (see, “Asheville Archives: The former 1892 City Hall building comes down,” Xpress, Dec. 4, 2018).

In the following day’s paper, The Sunday Citizen declared  that the mayor’s words “came as a distinct shock to the people of Asheville.” Only a month prior, the paper reminded readers, Cathey had insisted no such project would take place under his administration. “The people of Asheville accepted this statement of the Mayor as final,” the article continued, “but it seems that the Mayor has had another change of heart[.]”

Demolition of the 1892 City Hall began in March. Little else would go according to Cathey’s plans.

On June 27, 1926, The Sunday Citizen reported on calls to postpone bids on the building project. Asheville was on the “verge of an unprecedented period of growth and expansion,” the paper wrote. For this reason, all construction plans should be “considered logically and with an eye to the city’s beauty and symmetry[.]”

Location was a key consideration, the article stated. The mayor wanted to build the new City Hall on the former plot of land previously occupied by its predecessor. Not everyone agreed. “Since the razing of the old city hall a vista toward Beaucatcher Mountain has been opened which a great many leading citizens feel should be preserved,” the June 27 paper reported.

There was also an expressed desire to construct city-county twin buildings, in an effort to create a unified civic center. On July 7, 1926, the paper reported a decision had been reached between city and county commissioners to do just that. “This step, which is regarded as the final solution of the city hall and county courthouse problems that have been giving trouble here for some time, came after various plans drawn by architects individually and in groups had been considered,” the paper noted.

EARLY SKETCH: Architect Douglas D. Ellington offered this proposed sketch for Asheville City Hall and Buncombe County Courthouse, circa 1926. Photo courtesy of the Asheville Art Museum

The resolution was short-lived. The city wanted to start construction immediately; the county was being more deliberate in its approach. In August, the paper wrote that a committee, formed by the Chamber of Commerce, implored the city to postpone its construction until both projects were ready to commence. Without a unified approach, the committee insisted the civic center project would fall to “utter ruin.”

The mayor vehemently disagreed. “I have no intention of quitting the City Hall work which has already been started or of delaying one damned second for anybody,” he told The Asheville Citizen on Aug. 27, 1926. The mayor repeated this assertion throughout the interview, intensifying his language with each subsequent response. The talk concluded with Cathey declaring:

“[C]ity hall is going up, — going up if we have to lay the foundations so deep that they will hinge on hell. … I intend to see it go up if I lose every friend I have in the city and forfeit forever the chance of making any more.”

The following day’s paper chastised the mayor over his word choice and inflexibility. “His explosive language used so freely … adds neither emphasis nor grace to his reasons for his obstinacy,” The Asheville Citizen wrote. The article concluded that it was unfortunate city residents had to be “subjected to such ill-mannered treatment at the hands of a Mayor. Surely it is high time for the Mayor to understand that he is the hired servant of the public and not its master.”

Ultimately some compromises were made on the county’s end. But even with these adjustments to the courthouse design, the concept for the city-county twin buildings never came to fruition.

On March 19, 1928, thousands were reported to have gathered for the dedication of Asheville’s new (present-day) City Hall. By then, Gallatin Roberts had replaced Cathey as mayor. Nevertheless, the former city official was invited to speak at the ceremony.

The following day’s paper included excerpts from the evening’s speeches. In his address, Cathey promised the crowd that he would refrain from using obscene language. “I shall get through without one swear word,” the former mayor declared.

And though Cathey stayed true to his word, the pugnacious former politician seemed unable to resist throwing one last punch at a long-settled fight. “Just to keep the record straight … this building is not on the site we chose for it,” he told the crowd. “I am still convinced that it should be standing where the old City Hall stood. But I guess I ought to be glad to have gotten it at all.”

The new (present-day) county courthouse was completed later that year on Dec. 2, 1928.

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original text. 

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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5 thoughts on “Asheville Archives: Mayor John H. Cathey’s fight over City Hall, 1926-28

  1. Curious

    An interesting and informative article. A real community service from the author and MX.
    The pugnacious Cathey must have been a colorful character. Will Xpress historians in 50-100 years be writing such entertaining articles about our current colorful characters, perhaps Mumpower and Bothwell?
    Ellington’s original conception for the two buildings (https://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2017/10/01/visiting-our-past-architect-ellington-shaped-asheville/720193001/) would be much admired by today’s preservationists, had it been allowed to happen. Do we regret that it didn’t?

  2. bsummers

    “The proposition now made to change entirely the style of the county building and to erect on the county site a building based on classical precedents, which shall be yoked with one based on Romantic antecedents is calculated to produce discord and seriously to impair the impressiveness, and dignity of the Civic Center itself.”
    https://psabc.org/an-art-deco-blend-ashevilles-city-hall/

    That was the judgement of the Federal Fine Arts Commission at the time. The County’s decision to reject matching buildings was “calculated to produce discord.”

    They would rather have it look stupid and incongruous for all time than follow the City’s lead. No wonder the Mayor at the time had such strong words. Welcome to the place they call “Buncombe”.

      • bsummers

        I certainly do wish they had gone with the complimentary buildings. But the truth is, that would be obscuring the deep divide. Some portion of conservative Buncombe County has always hated relatively progressive Asheville at it’s center, despite the fact that it is the engine that drives Buncombe’s economy. And to this day, some continue to flog the difference in the two buildings, as if it’s something to be proud of. Here’s one from just two months ago:

        ““This is Buncombe County; it’s not the city of Buncombe,” said Commissioner Mike Fryar. “Every time I turn around, the city wants something. This building’s not pink,” he added, referencing City Hall’s distinctive art deco facade.
        https://mountainx.com/news/commissioners-reluctant-to-support-asheville-transit-plan/

        Like I said – here’s a current county official touting the discordant buildings as if that’s something to be proud of.

  3. Big Al

    But what we DID get was the best Asheville joke of all time: “HERE is our new city hall, and THERE is the box it came in!”

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