The Douglas Ellington effect: An Appreciation
by Rob Neufeld
“Dear Douglas,” Kenneth Ellington wrote his brother, the 38-year old Pittsburgh architect, on May 6, 1925, “I know things are going to ‘break’ beautifully for you within a fairly short period. Just hold a high head, and all will be well.”
Just two weeks before, Douglas Ellington had spent a few days in Asheville, staying at the George Vanderbilt Hotel on Haywood Street, in order to make a presentation to the building committee of the city’s First Baptist Church. Supplied with a portfolio that Kenneth had prepared for him, he made his case. At one point, he flipped over a photo of his completed Maute Theater in Irwin, Pennsylvania, to sketch a church design on the back.
He’d get the contract and his deserved break.
“Ellington,” Kenneth had informed a Virginia Beach hotel developer he was soliciting on behalf of Douglas, “is one of the finest designing architects in America, having won the Paris Prize [from the Society of Beaux Arts Architects in America], which gave him free study in the Beaux Arts school in Paris and travel throughout Europe for a period of three years.” While there, he won the top design prize,” and is the only American that has ever won this prize.”
Yet, in January 1925, Douglas had still been hustling to get paid by a theater-builder who had kept Ellington’s designs and changed architects; and Kenneth was peppering the east coast with proposals.
The artist gene
Douglas and Kenneth grew up on a farm in Clayton, North Carolina, a town that Kenneth’s daughter, the late painter Sallie Middleton, compared to Mayberry when I spoke with her in 2000.
The boys’ mother, Sallie Williamson Ellington, died at age 36, when Douglas and Kenneth had been 15 and 13. She’d been laid low by consumption, contracted, it was believed, from a beggar woman whom she had tried to rescue.
Douglas had inherited his mom’s looks and artistic personality. “He was like an innocent child,” Middleton said. His playfulness along with his acute sense of color and his love of found materials became his hallmarks.
Kenneth shared his brother’s traits to the extent that he could provide inspiration and support. Middleton recalls how she had once asked her father to help her decide why her painting of an old apple orchard did not seem quite right. He looked at the painting, “rays of pride” emanating from him, and then “he walked out of the room. Sometime later, he came back with a curled, yellow, worm-eaten apple tree leaf and laid it on a spot—and that was the answer.”
For Douglas Ellington, artistic sensitivity could be painful. “His eyes,” Middleton reflected, were “dark and brooding, but when lit up with joy, there was a red light in the middle.”
He carried colors and lines around in his head, she said, as did her sister, who drove house painters crazy trying to eliminate ghosts of wrong hues from her house walls.
Once, when Douglas had to have a surface painted according to a client’s jarring concept, he added a “soupcon of purple in the yellow” to please himself without alerting the client.
Many of Ellington’s great buildings feature strikingly original color schemes. He’s also celebrated for his use of natural materials (such as stonework in residences); organic masses (see the Asheville High School and the Merrimon Avenue Fire Station); and Art Deco motifs (see the S&W Cafeteria).
The fire-flash purple, brown, red, ochre, and verdigris-green clay tiles on the roof of the First Baptist Church simulate, in an impressionistic way, aging effects on the copper dome of a Florence cathedral.
The bottom-to-top progression of pinks and rose reds in Asheville’s City Hall represents the gradation of color in the region’s soil.
When Rose Brown threw Ellington the challenge that he couldn’t build her a nice-looking house out of cinder blocks at 24 Kimberly Avenue, he incorporated bands of red brick in the walls to produce a vernacular Moorish pattern.
Ellington built his own home at the end of Chunn’s Cove Road out of materials salvaged from other projects, including bricks still showing traces of painted advertisements. He built it without a set of plans. “Architectural Digest” celebrated it as the most significant residence in the country in 1932.
In 1928., despite his monumental successes in Asheville, his plans for a County Courthouse that would complement the City Hall was opposed by certain locals; and Milburn and Heister of Washington D.C. rushed in to take the contract. The firm ultimately employed Ellington’s plan, except for the Art Deco details, and featured a mash of classical column types. Mayor John Cathey, a major Ellington booster, was devastated by the loss of the unified plaza, which also included a Beaux Arts raised park.
Douglas Ellington died in 1960 of cancer, working on a concept for a mural that, Middleton said, he knew he’d never start.
“When he was very young, his paintings were dark and brooding,” she recalled, such as “Pittsburgh at night….He had fits of painting, and with each fit, his paintings went lighter and brighter. Toward the end, his paintings were mostly mists and skies with accents of a twining tree. His very last painting was not well controlled—a blasting forest fire.”
Tour of Ellington buildings in Asheville
1. Asheville City Hall, 1927. The Mayan shapes and terra cotta colors were designed to match the mountains. The trail-blazing Art Deco building followed the landmark Paris exhibition by only two years, and preceded the Chrysler Building in New York and the Buffalo and Kalamazoo City Halls, all more famous trail-blazers.
2. S&W Cafeteria, 1929. Ellington coined the term, “deliberate gaiety,” to describe the façade, composed of polychrome terra cotta imagery, gold leaf and a porthole. The interior, with its chrome fixtures, evokes a 1920s luxury ocean liner. In its time, it had been downtown Asheville’s business persons’ lunch spot and family dinner place.
3. First Baptist Church, 1926. The roof tiles are notable, as are the exterior brickwork, and the windows, doors, and interior woodwork.
4. Merrimon Ave. Fire Station, 300 Merrimon Ave., 1927. Called Old Station 4, it incorporated a six-story drill tower and truck company; and now houses the Arson Task Force and Fire Department archives.
5. Sanford and Rose Brown House, 24 Kimberly Ave., 1949. The brick and cinder block invention recreates a “Book of Kells” effect.
6. Lewis Memorial Park gate, 415 Beaverdam Rd. A pleasing mini-Ellington.
7, 8, and 9. 472 Chunns Cove Rd., c. 1930; 500 Chunns Cove Rd., c. 1930; and 536 Chunn’s Cove Rd., c. 1926. Private residences, hidden by trees.
10. Ellington House, 583 Chunns Cove Rd., c. 1929. Ellington built his home around a pre-existing 1850s log cabin; and used scrap materials from previous projects. The windows are a cabinetmaker’s creation, using cypress. Ellington employed an atypically large kitchen and a lower level great room as social spaces.
11. Asheville High School, 1928. As with the City Hall and First Baptist Church, Ellington related the building to the mountain landscape. Three wings radiate from a hexagonal tower along the contours of a shallow cove. The Balfour pink granite for this building came from a quarry near Salisbury. The interior of the rotunda features a checkerboard brick pattern.
12. Biltmore Hospital, 1930, and a 1953 addition for Imperial Life Insurance renovation, 14 All Souls Crescent.
13. Francis Reynolds Oertling House, Reynolds Mountain, 1946. Sen. Bob Reynolds had the one-story log-and-stone residence with a front stone terrace built for his daughter.
14. 128 Windsor Rd., 1948. Private residence.
15. Coggins house, 410 Beaucatcher Rd., 1950. At the time, George Coggins was trying to buy the West Asheville quarry that he would use as a site for the Westgate Mall.
16. 686 Haw Creek Rd., 1948. Features the rough-sawn wood siding Ellington liked to use on 1940s homes.
17. Starnes house, 2 Clarendon Rd., 1952.
The Asheville Art Museum has many documents and drawings related to Ellington’s work in Asheville, and they are viewable on the NCSU Libraries’ Digital Program website.
Rob Neufeld writes the weekly “Visiting Our Past” column for the Citizen-Times. He is the author of books on history and literature, and manages the WNC book and heritage website, “The Read on WNC.” Follow him on Twitter @WNC_chronicler; email him at RNeufeld@charter.net.