Building Hendersonville: Erle Stillwell’s Legacy

Architect Erle Stillwell.

Architect Erle Stillwell.

You may not be familiar with the name Erle Stillwell, but if you’ve spent any time in downtown Hendersonville, you know him well. Stillwell (1885 – 1978) was one of Western North Carolina’s most influential architects, with more than a dozen downtown area buildings to his credit, including City Hall, the Citizens National Bank building, the Landmark apartments, First United Methodist Church and Saint James episcopal Church.

Stillwell’s influence on downtown’s appearance is so strong that the Hendersonville Historic Preservation Commission is dedicating this month’s Preservation Week to his work. “We’ve never focused on one area or person before,” says the HPC’s Lu Ann Welter. “Our Community Affairs Committee thought there would be interest as Stillwell’s been written about over the last few years.”

The revival of interest in Stillwell’s prolific career is due in large part to Bill Mitchell, a retired architect working at the county library, who took on the task of cataloguing the library’s collection of Stillwell’s architectural drawings. “The drawings were donated to the library after Six Associates was sold and downsized,” Bill says, referring to the famed architectural firm in Asheville of which Stillwell was a founding member. “I realized how much more interesting the catalogue would be with photos attached to it and with some notes about the history of the buildings themselves.” The project soon grew into Bill’s book Buildings As History: The Architecture of Erle Stillwell, which soon came to the attention of the Preservation Commission.

Although born and raised in Missouri, Stillwell moved to Hendersonville with his mother in 1903 and lived here for the rest of his life after earning his architectural degree from Cornell in 1912. The two houses Stillwell designed for himself and his wife Eva, the daughter of Laurel Park’s developer, still stand. The first was a Tudor Revival brick home on Pinecrest Drive, west of downtown, built in 1926, which Stillwell lost in the Depression. The second, a Craftsman-style home on nearby Blythe Street, occupies the southern portion of the large lot Stillwell managed to keep, and was built in 1935, just below the first home. Stillwell lived there until his death in 1978.

“Stillwell was very eclectic in his styles, and very good at a number of them,” Bill says of Stillwell’s residential work before the stock market crash in 1929. “His houses were rather typical of the era, a lot of ‘neos’ — Colonial, Georgian, Spanish, Tudor — with some bungalow styles for the more modest examples.”

Stillwell’s versatility is evident in the three other homes joining his own on this month’s home tour: the 1917 Craftsman-influenced Hedges-Burrowes house, the Colonial Revival Sam Hodges house, and the Wilfred McCall bungalow, both built in about 1920. It was the height of Stillwell’s career, when not only residential work but a number of civic projects came his way, including Hendersonville High and virtually every other school built in Henderson County, along with City Hall, several buildings on the Western Carolina University campus in Cullowhee, the Blue Ridge School for Boys and Christ School in Arden. Downtown, Stillwell’s hand can still be seen in such buildings as the current Flight Restaurant, originally a bank building erected in 1922 whose upper floors housed Stillwell’s office; the Kirk Building, now the Christian Science Reading Room; and, next to the Stillwell-designed Genealogical Society building, the old Ewbank & Ewbank building, now Fountainhead Books.

The collapse of Stillwell’s career in the Depression forced him to give up his private practice to help form Six Associates, based in Asheville, which survived on the government contracts that were about the only work to be had during World War Two, and for which Stillwell performed mostly administrative work but little actual design.

But it was the really the movies that saved Stillwell and that brought some of his most exuberant work in the form of more than 60 movie theaters he designed in North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama during the 1930s and 1940s. “After losing all his property himself in the Depression, he got in with two men who ran the Paramount chain in the Southeast,” Bill says. “It brought his career back by designing scores of theaters for them. I’m not a fan of Art Deco, but I think some of his theater work in that style is his most original and beautiful.”

Few of them still stand, among them Hendersonville’s Queen Theater, now virtually unrecognizable as a jewelry store (The Goldsmith by Rudi) on Main Street, between 4th and 5th Streets, although the upper facade is intact. The closest Stillwell theaters to survive and to continue to be used for that purpose are The Tryon Theater in downtown Tryon and Shelby’s Don Gibson Theater, representative of Stillwell’s efficient incorporation of Deco elements.

Completed in 1939 as the State, it sat vacant for nearly 30 years before being rescued from demolition by a group of volunteers and reopening as the 400-seat Gibson, named for Shelby’s favorite country music son. But with few other exceptions, including Raleigh’s Varsity Theater, nearly all the Stillwell-designed movie palaces were either repurposed, remodeled beyond recognition, or torn down altogether.

But Stillwell’s many other contributions to Hendersonville remain intact, along with his reputation, thanks to Bill Mitchell’s work. “I was impressed at how he adapted to the hard times of the Depression,” Bill says. Now, as a challenging economy has once again settled on Henderson County, Stillwell’s legacy reminds us of what can endure.

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