Take it from the top

You don’t have to climb up City Hall to touch the terra-cotta tile that adorns its roof: One 50-pound piece hangs on a wall at the Asheville Art Museum, as part of “Pure and Simple: The Art and Architecture of Douglas Ellington.”

Like the patina of fine Japanese porcelain, tiny veins feather the surface of the 70-year-old tile. Designed by Asheville architect Douglas Ellington, its pastel pink and blue tones evoke hard marble — and mountain skies. The glazed surface is cool and smooth like marble, too. And, because the piece has been cross-sectioned, you can finger the rough clay interior and trace a crack that nearly splits one side.

Such cracks are what spurred city officials to borrow nearly $1.5 million to repair the historic structure’s priceless roof. Over the years, some of the building’s 1,744 tiles have been chipped, cracked and loosened, explains local architect Bill Wescott, who’s overseeing the work. In addition, the underlying structure needs repair, brickwork needs cleaning, leaks must be sealed, and — most importantly — the building’s unique character has to be preserved.

To take a close-up look at the work, Wescott and I donned hard hats and crawled through a temporary square hole in the roof. As we walked along the scaffolding around the perimeter, Wescott observed, “We have, right here in downtown Asheville — and within a few blocks of each other — three major architectural styles.”

He pointed to the Buncombe County Courthouse, with its massive Grecian columns. “That’s Neoclassical,” he said. Just west, the thin outline of the Jackson Building, spiked with long-necked gargoyles craning away from the brickwork, displays the Gothic Revival style. And City Hall, decked in pastel colors and trimmed with stylized geometric shapes — including the chevrons meant to represent the feathers on Cherokee arrows — is Art Deco, Wescott explained.

Ellington himself wouldn’t have used that term, said Wescott. The prolific local architect — who also designed the First Baptist Church (and several other downtown structures), Asheville High School, the Merrimon Avenue Fire Station and many private homes in the area — saw City Hall’s design as a flight of fancy in the Romantic style, says Wescott, a bit of 1920s exuberance also recognizable in the S&W Cafeteria on Patton Avenue (another Ellington gem).

Whatever you call Ellington’s style, it proved too playful for the Buncombe County commissioners of the time. Despite then-Asheville Mayor John Cathey’s vision of twin municipal buildings, both done by Ellington, the commissioners opted for the more sober courthouse (among the largest in North Carolina) that we have today.

“It would have been unique to have two Ellington buildings, side by side,” said Westcott, with a regretful sigh. In the City Hall lobby, visitors can see a model of Ellington’s rejected design.

Even by itself, however, City Hall is an eyeful. Ellington lovingly designed the various styles of tile. Some are simple wedges; others appear to have blue spheres rising out of their pink surfaces.

To fix the roof without destroying those special qualities, Wescott’s design-and-engineering firm — Wescott and Harris — first had to figure out what the tiles were made of and how they were glazed and colored. And, because the building is a historic landmark, each detail of the repairs had to honor Ellington’s vision.

At the same time, they had to make sure the old roof wouldn’t leak again for a long, long while.

Wescott pointed to places where tiles had been removed and numbered: Those that can be repaired will be fixed in a special workshop set up in the attic below; the rest must be replaced with exact replicas. The roofing materials underneath the tiles are also being repaired or replaced. The corners — those places most likely to develop cracks and leaks — get new metal flashing underneath the sheets of plastic ice-and-water barrier as well, Wescott explained.

All this top-of-the-world work is being carried out by crews from the Ohio-based Midwest Maintenance, who clamber about the roof as if solid ground lay mere inches away, instead of far, far below. “They’re the unsung heroes here. It’s always the architects and engineers who get all the glory,” Wescott noted, taking photos of the work, which should be finished later this summer.

He joked with Midwest Superintendent Jeff Lyman, as I clicked a picture. Said Wescott, as Lyman peered at the top of the roof, “His wife wants all the women of Asheville to know that he’s married.” Lymann laughed, surveying the work — and the view. The day had turned so clear, we could even see Mount Pisgah in the distance.

Leaning over the scaffold’s edge, Wescott pointed out a shiny metal drain installed years ago by city maintenance crews trying to stop leaks. “That’s going to go,” he said. The drain sticks out more than a foot from the building, and sunlight glints off its surface. “It’s not historic at all … and it doesn’t work too well, anyway,” Westcott observed.

“We’re doing this restoration work the way it needs to be done,” he noted, adding, “We want it to last 100 [or] even 150 years, so future generations can enjoy this building.”

Another Midwest crewman, Damien Beougher, gently tap-tapped a chisel, breaking off old tar applied in an attempt to seal cracks in the wall. “See, that’s how we’ve got to do it,” said Wescott.

While the underlying structure of City Hall is sound — it’s supported by giant steel beams, triple-riveted at every possible juncture, he explained — the building’s picturesque exterior requires a light touch, like that of a potter molding a teacup.

“It takes a little muscle, too,” said Westcott, smiling. “Some of those tiles weigh upwards of 400 pounds!”

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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