Thoughts on Richard Sharp Smith and the Charlotte Street Demolition Threat

Richard Sharp Smith, a Yorkshireman, came to Asheville at the behest of Richard Morris Hunt, the architect of George Vanderbilt’s “little project.” Smith, after serving as supervising architect at Biltmore, and finishing the design of Biltmore Village after Hunt’s death, stayed in Asheville. By his death in 1924 he had designed hundreds of residential, commercial, and institutional buildings in the area, including the redbrick block on the eastern side of Broadway between College Street and Walnut Street, the Masonic Temple on Broadway, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on Charlotte Street, the William Jennings Bryan house on Edwin Place, and the YMI Building on South Market Street.

We are fortunate to have a more or less complete set of his architectural drawings, which I have spent some pleasant hours with recently. The breadth of his imagination is evident, and the quantity of projects is breath-taking. Many were not built—not every architect lands every project he or she pitches—and many have, unfortunately, gone the way of the bulldozer and wrecking ball. But many are still extant, and, at the remove of a century or so, still serve their city and its neighborhoods with grace and style.

One such building is 276 East Chestnut Street, originally the home of Wooster Baird McEwan, who came to Asheville from Connecticut in the 1890s to run a high-dollar lumber company. He commissioned Smith to design a home, which was finished around 1899. The building quickly became a social hub for the well-to-do. A June, 1911 article in the Asheville Gazette-News, for example, tells of a pre-wedding party given in honor of Miss Kate Nichols, a young relative of Mrs. McEwen, soon to marry Wallace Davis, an up-and-coming young banker. Everyone who was anyone was there, as they say. You might find the Wallace Davis name familiar—he was president of Central Bank and Trust when it crashed in 1930, leading to Mayor Gallatin Roberts’s suicide and financial ruin for the city and its citizens. In 1914 Davis was Central Bank’s “Cashier” and a Director; McEwen was its Vice-President.

It would be a shame to lose this part of Asheville’s social and economic history. Not to mention that this house is a healthy part of a vitally functioning neighborhood, one that depends on older buildings, older trees, and slower speeds than might be needed on, say, Hendersonville Road.

I was fortunate to have worked in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood for a decade. My sister-in-law, Kathryn Long, and I worked out of a Richard Sharp Smith house, the Annie West Cottage at the corner of East Chestnut and Central Avenue. Finished in 1905, its first use was as a boarding house, then it became the home of the Rogers family, plumbing moguls. After they sold it, it became home to a CPA firm, real estate folks, various human service organizations, and probably a stray animal or two. Ambiance Interiors moved there in 2009 for a ten-year stint. The building is now the home of the Lancaster Law Firm.

After Ambiance had been on Broadway for years, working in Chestnut Hill was like a respite—from traffic, noise, parking problems, all the clash and clatter of downtown life. The neighborhood actually had birds other than pigeons. One could take a walk on a sunny day down, say, Washington Avenue to Hillside Street, then up to Liberty Street and back, watching flowers and bees and trees and people, not to mention seeing the lovely buildings designed by Smith and others, still functioning after all these years. A neighborhood with few intrusions, Chestnut Hill is a fine—and quiet—place to live and work.

Oh, I know there are folks who denigrate Smith’s work. (I’ll not mention that he designed the Vance Monument.) Tony Lord was reported as having said if he were in an old Asheville building and put a marble on its floor, if it rolled to one corner of the room it was a Richard Sharp Smith building. It was sure that way in the Annie West Cottage! But that simply accented the charm of older construction and, by the way, made cleanup easier if a drink were spilled. The light inside, the grass and flowers outside, and the generous porch made life there so much more tolerable than in downtown. It would be a shame to lose yet another example of Smith’s work.

One of Smith’s great talents was to blend a new structure into an existing neighborhood without disruption, yet keeping a sense of unique style. That does not seem to me to be a talent the Charlotte Street Properties people have in their plans. The proposed project is wrong for Asheville on several levels, but I choose to emphasize its break with Asheville’s history, the mood of Chestnut Hill—and the spirit of Richard Sharp Smith.

—Wayne Caldwell