Far Fetched, Dear Bought, and Homegrown

Biltmore House, Asheville, North Carolina (1889-1895). Image courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

By Catherine Bishir

Since the colonial period, architecture in North Carolina has embodied many cross currents of influence and practice. For most of the state’s history as a rural and small-town state, vernacular traditions dominated the landscape. Artisans planned and built the vast majority of buildings, in which they incorporated time-tested forms and techniques carried from various regional and cultural backgrounds, such as German-inspired forms and plans in the Piedmont or Caribbean influenced porches along the coast. In the 19th and 20th centuries, local carpenters and masons incorporated changing popular styles and industrialized production of building materials, bringing their work increasingly into the broadening American mainstream.

Yet, from the colonial period onward, architects of myriad backgrounds have designed some of the state’s premier architectural landmarks. Although some stereotypes depict Southern architecture as being static and localized (and some of it is), in North Carolina (as elsewhere) architects from hither and yon have turned up regularly for a single project or a lifetime of work. Some were big-city architects who provided designs long distance: “Far fetched and dear bought” complained a local man in the mid-19th century. Others came from elsewhere and stayed for a time before moving on, and still others settled down, sometimes as a “big frog in a little pond,” in a community that offered fresh opportunities.

Three buildings stand out among the state’s best-known architectural landmarks, which highlight these patterns and illuminate architectural practice in different times.


Designed by the “dean” of late-19th century American architects, the Beaux-Arts trained Richard Morris Hunt of New York, Biltmore was the grandest private home in the nation and Hunt’s last major work. The magnificent grounds culminated the landscape design career of Frederick Law Olmsted, likewise at the head of his profession. Biltmore was the project of steamboat and railroad heir George Washington Vanderbilt, who had fallen in love with Asheville and the mountains during a stay at a local hotel. Biltmore’s design marked a transition in American architecture that played out in North Carolina as in the rest of the nation.

Biltmore from the south terrace. Image courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

On one hand, Biltmore stood at the end of a period of picturesque and romantic eclecticism, which had produced elaborate edifices by a variety of architects in North Carolina. Even before Biltmore, the resort town of Asheville had a full spectrum of ornate Queen Anne style buildings by architects from England, New York, and Philadelphia. Elsewhere in the state, big city architects such as Samuel Sloan of Philadelphia designed equally ornate edifices. Some city architects moved to the state, such as Sloan’s assistant, Adolphus Gustavus Bauer of Philadelphia who designed exuberant Queen Anne style buildings during his short life. Minnesota architect Charles McMillen who won a competition for a Masonic lodge in Wilmington and moved there, designed robust Richardsonian Romanesque buildings like those in Duluth, before relocating to Oklahoma.

Biltmore also opened an era of Beaux-Arts influenced architecture. English-born architect Richard Sharp Smith, supervising architect for Biltmore, became western North Carolina’s leading architect, working in a Biltmore picturesque mode as well as Beaux-Arts Classicism. Douglas Ellington, the first North Carolinian trained at the École des Beaux-Arts, arrived in Asheville to create the city’s celebrated array of Art Deco detailed Beaux-Arts work before moving to Charleston.

North Carolina State Capitol, Raleigh, North Carolina (1833-1840). William Richards, photographer.


The Greek Revival capitol resulted from contributions by four different architects. The cruciform plan came from the highly mobile architect William Nichols, who had come from Bath, England, around 1800, and introduced that city’s English neoclassicism into North Carolina. In 1819, he redesigned the 1790s State House in Raleigh into a cruciform edifice with a dome and porticoes before leaving in the 1820s for Alabama and later Louisiana and Mississippi. After the State House burned in 1831, he and his son supplied a cruciform plan for the new State Capitol of local granite. After construction began in 1833, the nationally prominent New York firm of Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis entered the picture. Necessarily retaining Nichols’ cruciform plan, Town and Davis redesigned the building in their bold Greek Revival style inspired by the order of the Parthenon. Town sent David Paton, an Edinburgh-trained neoclassicist who had worked with Sir John Soane, to supervise the project. Paton soon supplanted the New York firm as architect and refined the design. Disgruntled about his pay, Paton left for Scotland and then settled in New York. Davis, however, maintained a long relationship with North Carolinians and designed buildings that fulfilled antebellum leaders’ progressive vision of the state.

J.S. Dorton Arena, Raleigh, North Carolina (1952). Justin Doub, photographer.


An icon of modernism in North Carolina, the daringly engineered livestock judging pavilion at the State Fair was designed by the brilliant young Russian-born architect Matthew Nowicki, who came from Poland to New York after World War II and became acting head of North Carolina State’s newly established School of Design. His design for the state fair expressed a progressive’s vision for the postwar era and he seemed headed for architectural stardom until he was killed in a plane crash in 1950. William Henley Deitrick’s firm, with whom he had been affiliated, completed the project, which instantly became the pride of the state and garnered international recognition.

The School of Design became a widely influential center of modernism. Founding dean and devoted modernist Henry Kamphoefner came from Oklahoma and recruited a stellar faculty that included not only Nowicki but also Argentinian Eduardo Catalano,  Californian  George Matsumoto, Nebraskan-born, New York-raised James Fitzgibbon, and others. California architect Harwell Hamilton Harris joined the faculty in the early 1960s and graced the state with late examples of his gentle, regional modernism. Other modernists who arrived in the mid-20th century era of architectural ferment included Miesian architect G. Milton Small, who came from Chicago to Raleigh to work for Deitrick and established his own firm, Charlotte corporate modernist A. G. Odell, and Edward Loewenstein of Chicago, who married a daughter of Greensboro textile family, the Cones, and became the city’s premier modernist architect.

Tryon Palace, New Bern, North Carolina (1767-1770, rebuilt 1950s). Image via WikiCommons.


John Hawks, the architect of Tryon Palace, was one of several architects who came to North Carolina for a specific project, then settled down permanently. Brought to the colony to plan the governor’s residence for Governor William Tryon, Hawks drew upon his first-hand experience and training in England to design a stylish and elegant edifice in the English Palladian tradition. A departure from the generally conservative and modest architecture of colonial North Carolina, its construction involved specialized craftsmen from Philadelphia. Hawks’ other work may include houses in New Bern and possibly the Palladian format Chowan County Courthouse in Edenton. New Bern’s elegant Georgian and Federal style architecture, as well as public edifices in Raleigh and elsewhere continued the Palladian influence of the palace into the early 19th century.

Duke Chapel, Durham, North Carolina (1930-35). Kevin Payravi, photographer.


The soaring Duke Chapel is the centerpiece of Duke University’s campus, designed by African-American architect Julian Abele, chief designer in the Philadelphia firm of Horace Trumbauer, which specialized in Beaux-Arts work. James B. Duke and other members of the Duke family, who had created a national tobacco empire and then expanded into textiles and electric power generation, had always supported education and the Methodist church. In Durham, they sponsored the transformation of a small Methodist college, Trinity, into a major university. Using Beaux-Arts design principles, Abele planned two campuses, the east campus in a Jeffersonian red brick Georgian style, the west in Gothic Revival in local stone.

In a period of unprecedented investment in education, the New York firm of McKim, Mead, and White planned a new quadrangle at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, culminating in the neoclassical Wilson Library. The Beaux-Arts era also corresponded with North Carolina’s burst of urban growth in the 1910s and 1920s. New York architect Hobart Upjohn designed Beaux-Arts revivalist churches, schools, and college buildings, Ralph Adams Cram planned Gothic Revival churches, and Shreve and Lamb designed the R. J. Reynolds skyscraper in Winston-Salem in an Art Deco ziggurat form that (to the delight of Winston-Salemites) preceded their Empire State Building.

Catherine Bishir, an architectural historian with North Carolina State University Libraries, is the author of North Carolina Architecture and other works on the state’s architecture and history. See these and other buildings at North Carolina Architects and Builders: A Biographical Dictionary, maintained by the North Carolina State University Library.

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One Response to “Far Fetched, Dear Bought, and Homegrown”

  1. Great Article Catherine! A friend of mine just pointed me to it on Facebook. I was a student of yours in 95/96 at NCSU and I really enjoyed your class on the history of Architecture in North Carolina. This article rings true about the vast differences in style that the State has going through. I have an appreciation for all of these styles and influences. I live in Richmond, Virginia now, which also has a rich architectural history (as I am sure you know)- but the Capital in Raleigh is a true gem… it’s an architectural masterpiece for it’s time (even slightly better than the Richmond Capital (designed by Jefferson) – although I don’t say such things outloud around here… 😉
    I hope you are doing well. -Trey
    (ps – I make a living creating “3D virtual reconstructions” now, so your class really came in handy from a historic preservation standpoint)

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