Ornament in Asheville—a pictorial survey
by Rob Neufeld
In the urban renewal era, Asheville followed the modern trend away from ornament in architecture. The Akzona Building (now the Biltmore Building) and the Northwestern Bank Building (now BB&T) preferred exteriors that expressed structure rather than symbolism.
In the postmodern era—that’s today, still—ornament has returned in two ways: with simplified references to historical motifs; and with new age, art-nouveau-like fantasias.
The significance of the old ways is that people who had cared about style had connected to the classical and medieval concepts of a golden age. The Grove Arcade, for example, puts on the clothing of a Venetian palace. The misnamed griffins at the south entrance are Venetian winged lions. They don’t have an eagle’s beak and talons.
But Grove might be considered postmodern, too, in the way he combined and simplified styles. His Italian plasterers had at their disposal a Sears catalog-type of architectural options.
The window arches on the top level, for instance, are French. The heart motif in the cornice atop the first floor balconies are of no classical origin. And, of course, the most prominent feature, “GROVE,” is pure modern empire.
(Photo 2. Grove Arcade emblems.)
(Photo 3. S&W Cafeteria entrance detail.)
The Art Deco ornamentation on Douglas Ellington’s S&W Cafeteria, a building contemporary with the Grove Arcade, is truer to sources, and incorporates into its vocabulary Aztec, Egyptian, and machine age imagery and style.
(Photo 4. Drhumor building east side detail.)
Just down Patton Ave. from the S&W in Asheville is the Drhumor Building, now the law offices of McGuire, Wood & Bissette. Its frieze, carved into stone by Biltmore Estate stonecarver Frederic Miles, reveals an artist’s freedom in incorporating classical motifs—the Greek acanthus leaf; the Roman half-figure; the Renaissance mask—into a dynamic, narrative design.
The Biltmore House’s French Renaissance influence on local architecture, along with its English cottage and Arts and Crafts influence in Biltmore Village, are major reference points for Asheville. Builders and designers in the region know, when they create ornament, what local traditions they are tapping.
The courtyard at the south wing of the Biltmore House features a number of richly decorated columns, including one that features French fleur-de-lis.
(Photo 6. Grand Bohemian column capital.)
One of the newest ambitious uses of decoration is evident at the Grand Bohemian Hotel in Biltmore Village. The columns in the lobby, for example, combine a Germanic woodcarving style with stylized classical motifs in an original way, evoking a luxury hunting lodge.