Hunt, Reuben H. (1862-1938)
Reuben Harrison Hunt; R. H. Hunt
- Chattanooga, Tennessee
Styles & Forms:
Gothic Revival; Romanesque Revival
Among the most prolific architects in the country, Reuben H. Hunt (1862-May 27, 1938) designed hundreds of religious, educational, and commercial buildings in every state from Virginia to Texas. Although his home office was in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Hunt had satellite offices in Jackson, Mississippi and Dallas, Texas. He was especially known for his designs for substantial yet affordable churches, which he sold to congregations throughout the South. He designed at least three churches in piedmont and western North Carolina: Central Methodist Episcopal Church in Asheville, First Methodist Church in Lenoir, and First Baptist Church in Durham.
The son of Reuben Smith Hunt, a Civil War veteran and planter, and Mollie McCrary Hunt, Reuben H. Hunt was raised in rural Elbert Country, Georgia. He moved to Chattanooga in 1882 and found employment with the firm of Adams Brothers, building contractors. Working initially as a carpenter for day wages, he learned over the next few years how to read plans and manage fellow workers, and by 1885 he assumed the duties of an architect within the firm.
In 1886 Hunt had accumulated the resources and contacts necessary to start his own firm in Chattanooga. In partnership with L. W. McDaniel, he designed his most noteworthy early project, Chattanooga’s First Baptist Church, a Romanesque Revival edifice much inspired by the work of H.H. Richardson. From 1890 to 1892 Hunt worked in partnership with E. N. Lamm. The short-lived firm secured several important commissions including three county courthouses in Tennessee and Georgia and the imposing Second Baptist Church in Atlanta. After 1892 Hunt practiced under his own name, though he did occasionally work in association with other architects.
Hunt often repeated the designs of his buildings, modifying a feature here and there. Second Presbyterian (now Bay Street Presbyterian) Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, is essentially a mirror image of First Baptist in Elberton, Georgia, both designed about 1898. The tower on these buildings recurs on Central Methodist Episcopal Church in Asheville, North Carolina. Such standardization made possible Hunt’s impressive output. By 1907 he was able to list among his buildings no fewer than sixty churches, five hotels, twenty-eight schools, twelve courthouses, five municipal buildings, and twenty-two commercial buildings, including two skyscrapers. Yet he was less than half-way through his career. In 1907 Hunt opened a satellite office in Jackson, Mississippi. He opened another in Dallas in 1919, and in the early 1920s he formed the R. H. Hunt Company.
Although Hunt designed just about every type of building (trolley car barns, creameries, fire houses, skyscrapers, schools, municipal buildings, auditoriums, dormitories, etc.), he considered himself an authority on churches and used that expertise as a marketing tool. In 1916 he published plans for churches in a three-volume set entitled Modern Church Designs. Each volume included plans for churches of increasing cost, ranging from extremely modest chapels of wood to sizeable assembly halls of stone. Such publications helped Hunt sell his services to church building committees across the South.
By all accounts, Hunt was an excellent salesman. He had a reputation as a community booster and a church-going man of genuine faith who often opened his business meetings with a prayer. As L. J. Wilhoite, Hunt’s friend and chair of the Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board, put it, Hunt had “a capacity for infusing men with the validity of his own ideas. . . He had the enthusiasm and the salesmanship to persuade men to attempt great projects, and the mature wisdom and judgment to help them to carry out the projects.” Also contributing to Hunt’s success and reputation was his recognized ability to construct “fireproof” buildings. He avoided commissions calling for wood framing, preferring to use brick, stone, steel, slate, and ceramic tile.
After World War I, Hunt began work on a series of campuses in the Southwest—Baylor College for Women in Belton, Texas; Ouachita Baptist College in Arkadelphia, Arkansas; and Daniel Baker College in Brownwood, Texas—and in 1919 opened his office in Dallas. Among the “specialists” in the R. H. Hunt Company was Mouzon William Brabham, an authority on the design of religious institutions who began work with Hunt in about 1926 and in 1928 published Planning Modern Church Buildings. While the ostensible aim of the 240-page book was to discuss the process of church design for a lay audience, most of the illustrations were designs by the R. H. Hunt Company, which boosted the profile of the firm. Included in the illustrations was a presentation drawing of First Baptist Church in Durham (1926-1928), one of several large neoclassical churches Hunt designed in the 1920s.
Although most of Hunt’s churches of the 1910s and 1920s displayed the Gothic Revival style, he employed the neoclassical style for several sizeable urban churches including, in addition to First Baptist in Durham, such examples as Galloway Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi (1913-1915), Northside Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga (1916-1917), First Methodist Church in Denton, Texas (ca. 1924), and First Baptist Church in Rio de Janeiro (ca. 1929).
Some of Hunt’s smaller neoclassical churches displayed a distinctive format that became widely popular. In 1917 he prepared drawings for the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Pikeville, Tennessee. Set on a corner lot and neoclassical in style, the church used the “Akron plan” favored by Methodist congregations and featured a bold corner entrance and a domed sanctuary flanked by classroom wings. That same year, Hunt and his associate, Charles W. Carlton, designed the very similar First Methodist Church in Lenoir, North Carolina, for which Carlton was probably the supervising architect. Between 1917 and 1924, this same church model was used by other Methodist congregations throughout piedmont and western North Carolina, including First Methodist Church in Murphy, First Methodist Church in Lincolnton, Avondale Methodist Church in Mooresboro, Proximity Methodist Church in Greensboro, and Asbury Temple Methodist Church in Durham. Architects for these churches have not been firmly identified. Their designs may have been inspired by a published example, but it is likely that either Hunt or Carlton, who worked in Hunt’s office from 1916 to 1921 and later on his own, had a hand in planning some or all of these churches.
Even during the Great Depression, the R. H. Hunt Company continued to find commissions, though it sometimes involved considerable travel, negotiation, and association. From such work came Hunt’s last major project, the Federal Courthouse and Post Office in Chattanooga (1930-1933), which he designed in collaboration with the New York firm of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon (see Shreve and Lamb). The building brought Hunt national recognition. In 1938 it was listed by the American Institute of Architects as one of the top 150 buildings constructed in the United States since 1918. In 1936 Hunt was stricken with a “lingering illness,” and he died on May 27, 1938.
Like most architects of his day, Hunt followed rather than spearheaded stylistic trends; and he had little taste for the exotic. Rather, he prided himself on delivering durable, fire-resistant, buildings on time and within budget—buildings that were stylistically current, that have lasted, and are still much admired today. No fewer than 39 of his structure are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
- David R. Black, Historic Architectural Resources of Downtown Asheville, North Carolina (1979).
- Mouzon William Brabham, Planning Modern Church Buildings (1928).
- Sara A. Butler, “Inventing the Icon: The Chattanooga Post Office and Courthouse in the 1930s,” Arris: The Journal of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, 19 (2008).
- Ellis A. Davis and Edwin H. Grobe, Encyclopedia of Texas (1922).
- First Baptist Church of Rio de Janeiro, http://www.pibrj.org.br/index-e.html.
- Reuben H. Hunt, Modern Church Designs (1916).
- Claudia P. Roberts (Brown) and Diane E. Lea, The Durham Architectural and Historic Inventory (1982).
- Gavin Townsend, R. H. Hunt: Master Architect of Chattanooga (2010).
- Variant Name(s):
Central United Methodist ChurchDates:
1900-1905; 1924 [addition]Location:Asheville, Buncombe CountyStreet Address:
27 Church St., Asheville, NCStatus:
ReligiousImages Puslished In:
Catherine W. Bishir, Michael T. Southern, and Jennifer F. Martin, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Western North Carolina (1999).Note:
Asheville’s Methodist congregation began fundraising for a new church in 1899 and soon commissioned a design from Hunt. On August 1, 1901, the Asheville Citizen reported that Hunt had visited Asheville recently, “bringing with him the plans and specifications for the proposed structure,” from which the paper printed an illustration. The Manufacturers’ Record of Sept. 5, 1901, reported that the congregation had let the contract to Asheville builder J. M. Westall. A delay ensued when the quarterly Methodist conference advised abandoning the project, but the congregation persisted. In 1902 the plans were returned to Hunt for changes suggested by a new building committee, and Westall was engaged to superintend construction. The final design was similar to the original but adjusted to reduce the cost estimate from about $60,000 to $50,000. The cornerstone was laid on August 25, 1902; the Sunday school was ready for use in 1904; and the first service was held in the auditorium on November 5, 1905. Hunt subsequently planned a 1924 renovation and expansion (costing more than $200,000) including a large Sunday school addition.
1926Location:Durham, Durham CountyStreet Address:
414 Cleveland St., Durham, NCStatus:
ReligiousImages Puslished In:
Claudia P. Roberts (Brown) and Diane E. Lea, The Durham Architectural and Historic Inventory (1982).Note:
The large church with its imposing portico presents a dramatic sight in downtown Durham, dominating the axial view from West Chapel Hill Street.
Early 20th centuryLocation:Marion, McDowell CountyStreet Address:
176 Robert St., Marion, NCStatus:
Hunt’s records note his role in designing this church. Further information is needed on its status.
- Variant Name(s):
First United Methodist ChurchDates:
1916-1918Location:Lenoir, Caldwell CountyStreet Address:
309 Church St. NW, Lenoir, NCStatus:
Like some others Hunt’s churches, the church features an Akron plan and dome. The Manufacturers’ Record of June 28, 1917, noted that architects for the First Methodist Church in Lenoir were R. H. Hunt and Charles W. Carlton. Earlier, the Lenoir News of January 9, 1917, had published an unsigned drawing of the proposed church, and the church history cites church minutes of March 23 identifying the architect as “Chas. W. Carlton of Chattanooga, Tenn.” Carlton was probably the member of the Hunt firm who worked most directly with the congregation.
1902-1903Location:Lenoir, Caldwell CountyStreet Address:
1002 Kirkwood St., Lenoir, NCStatus:
No longer standingType:
Hunt’s records note his role in designing the church. It was razed in 1968 and replaced with the current building.
- Variant Name(s):
West End United Methodist ChurchDates:
Ca. 1921-1925Location:Thomasville, Davidson CountyStreet Address:
No longer standingType:
Hunt’s records note his role in designing a Methodist Protestant Church in Thomasville. It may have been the predecessor of the present West End United Methodist Church, which dates from the early 1960s.
1922-1923Location:Chapel Hill, Orange CountyStreet Address:
102 S. Columbia St., Chapel Hill, NCStatus:
ReligiousImages Puslished In:
M. Ruth Little, The Town and Gown Architecture of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1795-1975 (2006).Note:
According to M. Ruth Little in Town and Gown Architecture, the temple-form edifice of tan brick with Ionic portico was evidently Milburn’s last work in Chapel Hill.