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Letter of Douglas D. Ellington to the Commissioners of Buncombe County dated January 18, 1927.
Commissioners of Buncombe County
Dear Gentlemen: -
I shall always believe that you three gentlemen, deep in your hearts, wanted to go ahead with the civic center as agreed of by you and the City Commissioners on last July 6th on the basis of the architectural solution which I prepared at that time and on which your agreement with the City had its foundation. I believe this notwithstanding the fact that is some instances it has been proclaimed that you gentlemen found me stubborn and impossible to work with, notwithstanding the fact that you did not give me notification or a hearing before your full Board prior to making public announcement of your decision not to abide by the general civic center scheme, notwithstanding the fact that your final action was a very thorough repudiation of me and my work.
When you gentlemen came to my office following your joint agreement with the City officials, you expressed great satisfaction with the action that had been taken, with the opportunity of building a joint project of great beauty and excellence and harmony. You stated that you wanted the County Building in complete architectural balance and harmony with the City Building with just enough variation between the two to distinguish them and to give added interest. You also stated that the County Building would require greater floor area than the City Building and that, if it could be done without damaging the harmony of the buildings, you would want the top of the County Building treated differently from the City Building because you had heard criticism of the design of the top of the City Building and also because the upper part of the County Building would probably have to contain the jail. You were told that all of this could be done and in a manner that would make the group perhaps more attractive than would be two identical buildings. You then stated that you would prepare a complete program of your requirements and provide me with it, and in the meantime that you would like to have me go ahead with my studies on the problem while you were preparing the program and getting other matters in shape. This program was never provided me.
A few weeks subsequent to the above I became aware of the fact that influences undisclosed to me were at work striving to bring about discord and unfriendliness between you gentlemen and me, and my consciousness of this increased as time passed. I was at a great and an unfair disadvantage. I had devised an architectural solution for a joint City-County building group or civic center which had been adopted by you and the City officials, but while employed by the Cit I had not been officially employed by the County. On the one hand I had the position, duties and responsibilities of official employment; on the other hand I had the desire and will to serve and cooperate but was without official employment or authority. Necessarily my position became one of constraint, almost intimidation. I wanted to consult with you, cooperate with you, serve you in any and every way possible, and without regard as to whether you would ultimately officially employ me or not; but to have attempted to initiate this under the circumstances that had come to exist would have put me in the position of soliciting or seeking a "job." I was always at your service, but it came about that you did not confer or communicate with me any more except when you had some point of objection to raise – objections which, I believe you will admit, could readily have been taken care of far in advance had you continued your confidence in me or had not his invisible barrier been thrown up between us.
Had your project been purely an individual one I could and would have dismissed the matter from my mind; but as it was, my heart had been placed very deeply and broadly in Asheville’s civic center. Moreover, the nature of this site for the City and County Buildings made it absolutely necessary that the buildings be treated as a unit, and I would never have advised that a joint project would be practicable on that property unless I had clearly understood that the project would positively be carried out in harmony and as a unit. The general scheme as originally contemplated was the only logical solution of the problem possible under the circumstances; and with the result will inevitably be nothing more than two separate structures, unrelated, inharmonious, misplaced. Had the general project been proceeded with in harmony, then I know that it would have created widespread approbation both in this country and abroad; and I know that the weight of genuine authority in architecture and planning would agree with this statement.
Born in North Carolina, I have always remained a North Carolinian at heart, and I have become a great believer in Asheville. It was as a North Carolinian that I became the only Southerner who had been awarded the Paris Prize in Architecture, and it was as a North Carolinian that I became the only American who has received the Rougevin Prize of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts of Paris, the first mentioned being the greatest prize awarded in architecture in this country, the latter being the greatest prize awarded in decorative architecture in Europe. So far most of my efforts have been in the North and abroad, but I had long awaited and desired the opportunity to be of service to the South and especially to North Carolina. My first important work in the South was for old St. Paul’s Church of Richmond, Virginia, the official church of the Confederate Capital, where worshipped Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and other famous in Southern history. My first call to Asheville was the First Baptist Church of this city, and the new City Building followed. When the joint City-County project came up I never dreamed that it could proceed along any other lines than those of ultimate harmony. With Asheville at heart, and with desire to provide my clients in Asheville with the best and most thorough service possible, I brought to Asheville from my Pittsburgh office a very complete and capable organization. It was also in my mind that we could prepare the County Building plans and specifications right here in Asheville where you could keep in constant touch with the progress and development of the work through all its stages, thus securing that close cooperation and study between owner and architect which tends to bring about a perfect result. Briefly, I was dreaming and preparing and giving whole-hearted readiness toward what I believed you gentlemen and the City Commissioners and the people of Asheville generally wanted – a beautiful, adequate, harmonious, modern, noteworthy civic center group.
On December 22nd, in the face of what appeared to be a crisis and in an effort to revert to the plane from which we seemed to have slipped, I placed before you drawings and studies indicating further development of the general scheme as originally contemplated and with special reference to the County Building, these drawings and studies having been prepared almost without data as to the particular requirements of Buncombe County except such as you provided me when you called at my office last July and such as I was able to pick up here and there, but at the same time presenting a thoroughly workable and elastic solution of the problem and one in perfect harmony with the agreement between you and the City officials and with the wishes which you expressed to me following that agreement. I submitted these drawings and studies somewhat reluctantly because of the indefinable atmosphere of misunderstanding which had come to exist, but I was truly delighted when Mr. Lyda and Mr. Johnson, on viewing my work, seemed to grasp clearly the end to which I was striving, seemed to understand and respect my attitude, seemed to appreciate my efforts. In all truth I can say that Mr. Lyda and Mr. Johnson appeared to be moved with enthusiasm from the first moment of inspect and this increased as a more detailed examination was made. Mr. Lyda, speaking of the presentation of the group, said in substance: "There they are! They harmonize absolutely – and yet they are not absolute twins." Speaking of the water color perspective showing the County Building alone, he said: "It is beautiful", and kept reverting to it, admiring it, approving it, making remarks that indicated clear understanding and appreciation. After carefully inspecting the floor plans from sub-basement to roof, he stated that he could see that the general plan would permit of all the areas required, including still further increase of areas if need be, and that it was elastic and flexible and would permit of almost any adjustment which might be desired. Mr. Johnson concurred thoroughly, and, in reference to the design for the County Building, said in substance: "That’s the building we want. When we put that up it will be the finest Court House in this country. They will all be trying to copy it." Mr. Jarrett, who was present with you two gentlemen, remarked in substance that he was more accustomed to flat or horizontal buildings but that he was beginning to appreciate and admire the "graceful vertical progression and harmony and balance" of my design. Following this number of other gentlemen were brought in and shown "the new Court House", and the situation seemingly one of almost excited unanimous admiration and satisfaction. Finally, without the slightest abatement of the pervading enthusiasm, the meting was brought to a close and I was told to return at 9:00 o’clock the following morning in order that Commissioner McLean, who had not been able to be present, might be on hand with Mr. Lyda and Mr. Johnson for the purpose of going over everything again. I presented myself at the time mentioned and was told by Mr. Johnson that neither Mr. McLean nor Mr. Lyda could be present at the particular time but that they would get together at the first opportunity possible and call on me to meet with the commissioners as a body. Mr. Johnson added, in substance: " Your design is the building I want. Don’t worry. We’ll call you." This was on the morning of December 23rd.
After that I heard nothing whatever from you except that a few days later the County Purchasing Agent telephoned my office and asked that my drawings, etc. be moved to a different room, and I had this attended to at once. On the morning of December 31st I stopped at your office to ascertain if you had reached the point where you were ready for the further meeting which you had said you desired and also to ask if any specific questions had arisen which you wished me to answer, etc. You replied no, stating Mr. Jarrett could explain my work to you or answer any questions which you might desire to ask; and you further stated that you would notify me if you needed me. As I was leaving, Mr. McLean said, in substance: "We can’t tell you how much we appreciate you." The next news I received was through the newspapers of January 2nd.
With the best of regards, please believe me
Sincerely and respectfully yours,
Douglas D. Ellington