Close to home

I’m nestled here in Twin Oaks, my cozy, sunny 1920 vintage residence in the Albemarle Park Historic District off Charlotte Street. It’s a special kind of Shangri-la designed by architect Richard Sharp Smith for Edwin Wiley Grove, some seven years after the completion of the Grove Park Inn, and some four years before Smith passed through those great pearly, pebble-dash gates.

Beside me on the couch sits the sharp, attractive cover of the Sept. 24 Mountain Xpress. I just reread Alli Marshall’s interesting article on Richard Sharp Smith and his significant influence on this city’s incredible architecture. I especially liked the subtitle, “The Enduring Vernacular of Richard Sharp Smith,” because he really did provide the creative centroid for architecture in modern-day Asheville.)

After falling in love with Asheville and the mountains some four decades ago, I moved here in 1986 to serve as the historic preservation engineering consultant for Douglas Ellington’s iconic Asheville City Building.

Since then, I’ve had the distinct privilege and pleasure of working on the historic preservation of a whole spectrum of Richard Sharp Smith’s design gems, as well as doing some major research on the man himself. I have worked on the restoration of the 1902 Smith homestead in Chunn’s Cove (just up the draw from architect Douglas Ellington’s award-winning 1932 historic homestead). As a preservation engineer, I’ve also labored over the 1914 Breezemont mansion, the 1910 Hopkins Chapel AME Zion Church, the 1919 Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, the 1926 Smith-Carrier Building, and the classic residence at 214 Montford Ave.—all Smith designs. In addition, I’ve been involved with the 1908 Basilica of St. Lawrence (which Smith worked on) and the additions he made to the 1840 Smith-McDowell House Museum in 1900.

The striking image of the Hopkins Chapel on the Xpress cover is dear to my heart: It testifies to the rescue of a notable historic structure, which I had a hand in. Spared by the tunnel bored through Beaucatcher Mountain in the 1920s and, more recently, by the Interstate 240 rock cut, the severely distressed chapel’s structural integrity was reinforced by a community-supported effort in 1995. Meanwhile, its “sister” church—Mount Zion, just southwest of City Hall, is a keystone of that portion of our historic downtown. The prolific architect also designed the vital, classic YMI Cultural Center, just around the corner, back in 1893.

And as Marshall’s article noted, Richard Sharp Smith’s post-Biltmore Estate Asheville was a totally unique place and time … and a rare opportunity in this part of the world to undertake so much outstanding design work.

But in my mind, I feel it had no actual design parallel in East Aurora, N.Y. (the home of the Roycroft Arts and Crafts Community), or Oak Park, Ill. (home to the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings), or Pasadena, Calif. (which is noted for its early 20th-century mansions). Nor do I feel that our current hyper-interest in the highly publicized “green” design and construction or LEED certification has any direct channel to Richard Sharp Smith’s designs and truly dominant influence on Asheville’s vernacular architecture.

There are a handful of us here in Asheville who do the lion’s share of historic architectural tours for both visitors and locals. We label our great buildings as “neo-Gothic,” “arts and crafts,” “Tudor” and “Queen Anne,” among other descriptive terms. But sometimes, if we’re not sure, we fall back on the word “vernacular,” which typically refers to using locally available materials and construction techniques, or to structures built by nonprofessionals without the involvement of architects.

Richard Sharp Smith grew up in West Yorkshire, England, in the mid-Victorian Age—a boom time based on British textiles. The famed philosopher/architectural critic John Ruskin visited this area and had quite an influence both on Yorkshire and on the young Smith himself. (Ruskin also had a major impact on Roycroft and the whole American Arts and Crafts Movement.)

In 1997, Historic Resources Commission Director Maggie O’Connor and I were advisers to Jonna Wensel, a bright, lovely, dedicated student at the Savannah College of Art and Design who did signal research for her M.F.A. thesis: “Richard Sharp Smith: Asheville’s Arts and Crafts Architect.” Jonna even went to live in Yorkshire, and her thesis is packed with facts about the architect, his life and amazing work.

Richard Sharp Smith and his remarkable designs are a true legacy for our beautiful “Paris of the South,” both now and for future generations.

[Asheville resident William Flynn Wescott is a historic-preservation engineering consultant.]

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