AN ARCHITECTURAL ORIENTATION
to the Smith-McDowell House
The Smith-McDowell House is the oldest surviving house in Asheville and the oldest brick structure in Buncombe County. Pictured here in a McDowell family photograph from 1875, the house is seen as it was originally constructed and landscaped. Today Smith-McDowell House is a blend of architectural styles dating from its original 1840 construction and additions completed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a Local Historic Landmark and is included in the National Register of Historic Places.
Early Brick Structures in Asheville
When constructed in circa 1840, James Smith's brick farmhouse was highly atypical for antebellum Western North Carolina. Prior to the Civil War, most homes were log cabins or roughly fashioned frame houses. An 1824 visitor to Asheville reported that there were four brick structures--a jail, three dwellings, and that the foundation for a brick courthouse had been laid. The low number of brick buildings did not result from a lack of raw materials. The soils of the region provided plenty of clay deposits suitable for brick making and rock deposits across the southern end of the county provided quicklime. In fact, bricks had been manufactured locally in small quantities for use in chimneys as early as the 1790s. However, to build a large structure of brick took many laborers to make bricks and skilled bricklayers to construct the building. In 1840, it took a man of great wealth to build a brick mansion such as the Smith-McDowell House.
Two important brick structures from the 1840s survive in the city of Asheville: Smith-McDowell House and Ravenscroft School (29 Ravenscroft Drive). These are the oldest surviving buildings in Asheville and definitely the oldest brick buildings in the county. Local tradition and turn-of-the-century newspapers reinforce the identification of the Smith-McDowell House as the oldest house in Asheville. In any event, no other structure has been identified as such during historic building inventories conducted since 1980.
Smith-McDowell House is an impressive double-pile plan, Flemish bond, five-bay mansion that features a double-tier porch semi-engaged beneath an extension of its gable roof. Each three-bay end wall has a pair of interior chimneys. The brick walls are 12 to 20 inches thick. The original Federal character that dominated the house's exterior remains in the large fanlights above the front doors and in the delicacy of the front porch that is supported by twelve slender fluted columns (six on each level). The house has corbelled cornices that feature dentils. The exterior of the building at one time displayed penciling, and remnants remain in several spots. Although much of the dwelling's original Greek Revival interior woodwork was replaced during a Neoclassical style remodeling in 1913, the second floor's mantles, window frames, and door frames are original, dating from the 1840s. A one-story semicircular sunroom was added to the southern end wall in the late 1890s.
In spite of careful searches of all known records, little is known of the construction of this house. No records confirm the exact date of construction. Although he had owned the land for years, Smith petitioned the County Court in January 1849 for a cart way from his farm between the Buncombe Turnpike and the French Broad River, the current location of the house. In addition, a 23-year-old plasterer named Thomas Neill was listed as a member of Smith's household in the 1850 census. Family tradition indicates that the plans for the home were brought from England. Since pattern books of house plans were common in that time and were often sent over from England, this is quite likely. The floor plan is typical of Adamesque style, better known as Federal style in America. Oral family tradition also indicates that the brick was made in England, shipped to Charleston, South Carolina as ballast and, then, brought to Asheville by ox cart. This could be true, but since brick could be made locally, it seems unlikely that anyone would go the expense of bringing brick from Charleston and, with walls as thick as 18 inches, this house's construction would have taken an extraordinary amount of brick. In addition, stone was more typically used as ballast. While granite is used for the house's front steps, it appears to be of local origin or from Mount Airy. Given the financial resources, chemical analysis could scientifically confirm or disprove either of these theories.
No contractor-builder can be positively identified for many of Asheville's early brick buildings. However, there is a high probability that several of the remaining structures are the work of Ephraim Clayton, who was active in the area during the two decades preceding the Civil War. Clayton was born in what is now Transylvania County in 1805, but lived much of his life on Spruce Street in Asheville. The 1850 industrial census lists him as a carpenter and house builder with $16,000 capital and twenty-eight employees. According to the census, he cut lumber, made brick by hand, and had constructed twenty-five houses of brick and stone by 1850. Local historian and author Foster A. Sondley stated that Clayton dominated the construction trade in western North Carolina and northwestern South Carolina for years before the Civil War. Sondley also identifies Clayton as the builder of the fourth Buncombe County courthouse, a brick structure that burned in 1864. Interestingly enough, in 1823 James Smith was sitting as Justice of the Court and contracted for building a new courthouse. Records also indicate that Smith's property in downtown Asheville ran adjacent to Ephraim Clayton's place.
Some sources suggest that slave labor built Smith-McDowell House. According to the 1850 census Smith did have 44 slaves, but those slaves worked his farm and his city businesses, including a toll bridge, a mercantile, hotel, and a tannery. While records do indicate Smith's slaves were trained as a blacksmith, tanner, shoemaker, and wagoner, there is no indication that they were skilled as bricklayers or plasterers. It is probable that Smith's slaves assisted with the construction of the house and the manufacture of the brick, but it is obvious that Smith-McDowell House is not the result of unskilled laborers. This fact that this type of construction required high levels of skill is supported by Catherine Bishir of the NC State Historic Preservation Office when she describes Land's End, a circa 1830 house in Perqumans County that is very similar to Smith-McDowell House. She points out that “materially, the house is the statement of an artisan who knew and could afford the best work--Flemish-bond brick walls, brick partition walls 18 inches thick, and fine stone steps . . . .” Bishir's words could easily describe Smith-McDowell House.
The Smith farm originally included numerous outbuildings. Today, only three of the original outbuildings still remain. The one-story Summer Kitchen, originally detached, is now connected to the rear of the house. A second building (the Dependency) still remains detached. This structure has had various uses, including storage, salt curing, and a laundry. Another circa 1840s building reported to belong to Smith-McDowell House is located behind Fernihurst which is also on the campus of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. This two-story brick building is said to have been the slave quarters for Smith-McDowell House. Certainly, it predates the construction of Fernihurst by many years. Photographs and surveys also document a now-demolished building used for servant's quarters that was located directly behind the Dependency and a stable that was located in what is today paved parking behind the house on the A-B Tech campus.
Changes to the House
The Smith and McDowell families, who occupied the house until 1881, probably did very little to change the structure. The first major change came between 1881 and 1890 when the house was owned and occupied by Alexander Garrett. The east wall of the Summer Kitchen was removed and an extension was added that connected the kitchen to the main house. Although the Summer Kitchen was attached to the main house, the side entrance was not yet added, as documented by a newspaper photograph from 1899. It is unknown how this addition changed the internal use of the house, although it is easy to guess that the connection added a more modern (late Victorian) kitchen, a butler's pantry, and a serving area. The pine shake roofing of the main house and summer kitchen was replaced with a metal roof. Italianate brackets were added beneath the eaves, partially in support of the addition of a copper lined gutter system. The original windows nine-over-nine leaded pane windows were replaced with the then popular two-over-two plate glass windows (that can still remain on the second and third floors). It also appears that Garrett refaced the brick underneath the front porch with mortar that was scored to look like cut limestone.
Other improvements were made by either Robert Garrett between 1891 and 1898 or by Charles Van Bergen between 1898 and 1907. A major change was the addition of the two-story back wing that today includes the back entrance to the house, the rear staircase, the bathrooms, the west section of the upstairs hall, and the corresponding hallway downstairs. A seam in the floor of both the upstairs and main hallway documents this addition to the house. The main stairway was replaced and the addition of a landing changed its slope--the original stairway's slope can be seen in the plaster line for the old basement stairs. The newel post and railing to the third floor was also changed at the same time. (Thus, the only original stair railing remaining from the 1840s is located on the third floor.) Finally, a large, square opening was added to the back of the room currently installed as the Museum's 1890 Dinning Room where the current archway is. The original design of this opening is documented in photographs dating from 1908 to 1913.
In 1900, Charles Van Bergen hired Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. to design a planting scheme for the property; the Olmsted drawings document other changes to the house. An entrance was added to the north side, but had a different orientation from the current side entrance. Based on the Olmsted drawings, the sun parlor or solarium was added to the southern side of the house sometime before 1899. Tradition says that Alexander Garrett added the solarium, but this has not been documented and does not seem to be confirmed by surveys. Certainly, the tiles in the solarium are consistent with early 20th-century materials. Van Bergen also remodeled the dependency from a food-storage or salt curing building to a laundry, adding a chimney and wood stove for heating water and dividing the high-ceilinged space into two stories with stairs.
When Caroline Bates purchased the house in 1908, it “had greatly suffered from neglect,” according to her daughter Henrietta McKee. However, with John Ragsville as helper, Mrs. McKee started on a “renovation era and it soon became a showplace for tours.” While we are unsure what those repairs were, they certainly included decorating and might have included adding bathrooms or converting the gas lighting system to electricity. It is also believed that Mrs. McKee added the steam heating system to replace the fireplaces as the primary heating source. At some point, a boiler room was created from half of the original winter kitchen, the second chimney serving the boiler instead of a cooking fireplace. Mrs. McKee also reported that the house has been “restored and enlarged by Mr. Hunt, the architect, and Mr. Olmstead [sic], the famous landscape gardener, when they were building Biltmore House and four other large homes on Victoria Road facing the estate across the river.” Olmsted's son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., developed a landscape plan for the property in 1900. Oral tradition says that Hunt designed the Tudor-style pebbledash carriage house that is now demolished; certainly its style was consistent with both that of Hunt and Richard Sharp Smith, supervising architect for Biltmore Estate. However, there is no evidence that Hunt worked on the interior of Smith-McDowell House.
Brewster Chapman, who purchased the house in 1913, is largely responsible for the interior of the house as we see it today. He hired architect Richard Sharp Smith (perhaps, the origin of Mrs. McKee's story) to redesign the interior of the main level. The front doors on both levels were replaced and the original diamond-paned sidelights were replaced with the existing beveled glass. The two-over-two plate glass windows on the first floor were replaced with one-over-one plate glass windows. The side entrance was changed to include a portico flanked by columns that matched those of the dining room. The majority of the interior doors were replaced by the present two-panel mahogany doors. The complementary Neoclassical mantles in the Museum's present day 1880 Parlor and the 1890 Dinning Room were added at the same time. The entrance to what is today the Museum's 1890 Dining Room was changed to include an arch. In the second story, closets were added to three of the bedrooms. The bathrooms were updated with new fixtures and tile. The original pine flooring was covered with oak flooring. (The original pine flooring still remains under the oak flooring and can be seen at a cutaway to the in the upstairs hallway and on the third floor). Because the new flooring was higher, new tiles were added to the fireplace hearths to make them level with the new floor. Also, the woodwork throughout the main (first) level was replaced. While it has been suggested that this woodwork was replaced in the late 19th century, photo documentation and Smith's architectural drawings prove otherwise.
Other major renovations include the addition of a decorative cap to the chimneys and the replacement of the late 19th century metal roof with red slate from Vermont. Based on photographic documentation and Smith's blue prints, these renovations were also commissioned by Chapman.
In 1952, the house served as a dormitory and classroom for a private high school. The existing staff kitchen and public restroom (formerly a butler's pantry) date to this era. Other changes made during the school era, such as push bar exterior doors, were reversed during the restoration into a museum. The Western North Carolina Historical Association began the restoration in 1974 under the direction of Asheville architect Henry Gaines. For interpretive reasons, it was decided to leave the various changes to the house intact, rather than to try and restore the house to one period in time. The Dependency was renovated in the 1900s and, today, serves as the Museum's classroom. The restoration of Smith-McDowell House is ongoing and there are several features yet to be restored, including a basement cistern that would have collected rainwater for household use.
By Rebecca Lamb, Executive Director, Smith-McDowell House Museum, February 1999, Revised September 2001, November 2003, July 2004
- dating from before the Civil War (1861-1865)
- Ballast Stones
- stones carried by oceangoing vessels for weight. At port, the stones were unloaded when ships picked up heavy cargoes of timber and naval stores, and these stones were reused locally to build walls and foundations.
- Balustrade (baluster)
- a series of regularly spaced uprights (baluster) topped by a rail to provide an ornamental and protective barrier along the edge of stairs, roof, balcony, or porch; were typically turned and heavy as part of the Georgian style, simpler and slender for the Federal style, and heavier again with the Greek Revival and Italianate styles
- an opening or division along a face of a structure; a wall with a door and two windows is three bays wide
- the pattern in which masonry, particularly brickwork, is laid to tie together the thickness of the wall; specifically, the pattern of the headers and stretchers seen on the outer face of the wall. A header is a brick laid so that only the short end is visible and a stretcher is laid so that its long side is visible.
- a device, either ornamental, structural, or both, set under an overhanging element, such as the eaves of a house. Brackets are especially characteristic of the Italianate style.
- about; used before an approximate date; abbreviated as ca.
- Corner blocks
- a square element, either plain or decorated with a circular or other design, usually making the upper corner of a window or door surround
- small, closely placed blocks set in a horizontal row like teeth, used as an ornamental element of a cornice
- Double-Pile House
- a two-story center-hall plan house, two rooms deep on either side of the hall
- the edge of the roof, usually above a cornice, often overhanging to shed water beyond the face of the wall
- Engaged Porch
- a porch whose roof is continuous structurally with that of the main section of the building
- a window, usually semi-circular over a door, with radiating muntins suggesting a fan
- Federal Style
- style of architecture popular in America from the Revolution through the early 19th-century (in North Carolina from about 1800 to 1840) derived from the influential work of the Adam brothers in England. Characterized by a delicate use of Roman Classical ornament. Also called Adam style or Adamesque after the Roman-inspired style of Scots architects Robert and James Adam.
- Flemish Bond
- a pattern in which bricks are laid where the bricks are arranged in an alternating pattern; the long side (stretcher) alternated with the short side (header). In the next level or course, the header appears above the stretcher and the header's joint. The header-stretcher alternating pattern continues on every course. American bond differs in that five courses of stretchers alternate with a header course
- The middle portion of a classical decorative feature, usually located below the cornice
- Greek Revival Style
- mid 19th-century revival of forms and ornaments of architecture of ancient Greece. This style is characterized by broad, symmetrical forms, wide friezes and pilasters, doors and window frames marked by corner blocks, etc.
- Interior Chimney
- a chimney positioned inside the end wall of a house
- a revival of elements of Italian Renaissance architecture popular during the mid- and late 19th-century. Characterized by the presence of deep, overhanging eaves and cornices supported by ornate brackets
- the strip of wood separating the panes of a window sash
- Neoclassical Style
- early 20th-century style which combines features of ancient, Renaissance, and Colonial architecture; characterized by imposing buildings with large columned porches
- the principal post used to terminate the railing or balustrade of a flight of stairs
- method of finishing a mortared surface in which pebbles are incorporated as an aggregate to give a rough texture. This method was employed at Biltmore Estate and Biltmore Village in the1890s and soon entered the popular regional building vocabulary. 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.
- a crowning element that is triangular in shape
- the application of a white mortar or white paint in straight, crisp lines over all mortar joints so that the brickwork appears to be neater
- Porte Cochere
- a projecting porch that provides protection for vehicles and passengers. Vehicles can go under a porte cochere
- a roofed space, open or partly enclosed, forming the entrance and centerpiece of the facade of a building, often with columns and a pediment
- frame, usually of wood, that holds the panes of glass in a window. Windows with a double-hung sash ore sometimes described by the number of panes of glass in the upper and lower sash, such as nine-over-nine, two-over-two, etc.
- Semi-Engaged Porch
- a porch whose roof forms a continuous surface with, but is in a slightly different plane from, the roof of the adjacent building mass
- framed area of fixed glass of one or more panes located to either side of a door or window opening
- Tudor Style
- a style that was popular in the early 20th-century, characterized by motifs associated with Tudor and Jacobean English architecture. Typically had half-timbered walls and irregular plans
Asheville Pictures and Pencillings, Vol. 1, No. 6, June 1899.
Bishir, Catherine and Southern, Michael. A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Bishir, Catherine and Southern, Michael, and Martin, Jennifer. A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Western North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Blumenson, John J. G. Identifying American Architecture: A Pictorial Guide to Styles and Terms, 1600-1945, 2nd Edition. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History, 1981.
Cabins & Castles: The History and Architecture of Buncombe County, North Carolina. Edited by Douglas Swaim. Asheville, NC: Historic Resources Commission of Asheville and Buncombe County, 1981.
Gaines, Henry. “An Introduction to Smith-McDowell House.” Unpublished, in the collection of Smith-McDowell House Museum.
Iobst, Richard. “Smith-McDowell House Research Report Part 1: House Beginnings,” circa 1980.
Lane, Mills L. Architecture of the Old South: North Carolina. New York: Abbeville Press, 1985.
McDowell, Frances Arthur. “Oldest House in Asheville Located at 283 Victoria Road Known as the Smith or McDowell Home: A Brief Sketch,” 1974.
McKee, Henrietta Bates. Texas Bates' Memoirs on Asheville and Biltmore, NC 1878 to 1967. Self-published.
Photograph, circa 1908, Smith-McDowell House. From the collection of Smith-McDowell House Museum.
Rifkind, Carole. “How to Read an Old House,” in Historic Preservation, January/February 1988.
Rifkind, Carole. A Field Guide to American Architecture. New York: New American Library, 1980.
Smith, Richard Sharp. Blueprints for renovations to the home of Brewster Chapman, 1913.
Smith-McDowell House Museum staff, “Architectural Orientation to the Building,” circa 1985.
Williams, Henry Lionel and Williams, Ottalie K. Old American Houses 1700-1850: How to Restore, Remodel, and Reproduce Them. New York: Bonanza Books, 1957._______________
The foregoing is courtesy The Smith-McDowell House and the Western North Carolina Historical Society.