McMichael, James M. (1870-1944)
James Mackson McMichael; J. M. McMichael
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA
- Charlotte, North Carolina
Styles & Forms:
Colonial Revival; Gothic Revival; Neoclassical Revival
James M. McMichael (December 14, 1870-October 3, 1944), a prolific early twentieth century architect headquartered in Charlotte, became known as one of the principal church architects in the state and is best known for his domed, classically detailed, auditorium plan churches for Baptist and other Protestant congregations. He also planned other building types including theaters, lodges, courthouses, stores, hotels, and residences. Early in his career he was associated with leading Charlotte architects in the firms of Wheeler, McMichael, and Company (1901-1902) and McMichael and Hunter (1903-1904), but for most of his life he operated his own firm.
Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to James and Lavinia (Venia) McMichael, James M. McMichael had at least four siblings. On October 23, 1896, he married Sarah Florence Williamson in Chester, Pennsylvania, where the couple was living in 1900 and he identified himself as an architect. Little is known of his education or career before he moved to Charlotte in 1901, where he immediately associated with architect Oliver Duke Wheeler.
McMichael quickly established himself as a highly productive architect and a church specialist serving the fast-growing business city and other communities. During the years 1901-1910 alone, the Manufacturers’ Record reported his association with thirty-nine buildings in eighteen counties across North Carolina, under his own name or with his partners; it is not clear how many of these were actually executed.
McMichael’s debut in the Manufacturers’ Record appeared in association with Wheeler, who was no stranger to the pages of that publication. The May 16, 1901, edition cited the firm as architects for the Scotland County Courthouse and Jail in Laurinburg. This courthouse followed a domed model already established for Wheeler’s firm in the Iredell County Courthouse by young architect Louis E. Schwend, who died in 1900; it may have been Schwend’s untimely demise that encouraged Wheeler to employ McMichael. The courthouse listing was soon followed on August 8, 1901 with the firm’s commission for a Carnegie Library in Charlotte, a prominent neoclassical edifice with the dome and portico characteristic of such facilities. McMichael designed at least four more buildings in 1901 with Wheeler: a hotel for J.E. Morgan and a residence for Mr. James in Laurinburg; a building for the Methodist Orphanage in Raleigh; and a Baptist parsonage and Bethel AME Church in Charlotte. It is also possible that Wheeler and McMichael designed Edward Dilworth Latta’s magnificent columned residence (1901-1902) in the new Dilworth suburb, but this has not been documented.
In 1903 McMichael and architect Leonard L. Hunter formed the firm of McMichael and Hunter, which lasted through 1904. During the firm’s brief existence, McMichael and Hunter reported that they had designed in North Carolina at least two schools, two houses, a courthouse, a lodge, an office building, and seven churches, the latter of which ranged from Baptist to German Reformed denominations and were located in Charlotte, Wadesboro, High Point, Concord, and Waynesville. After 1904 McMichael established his own practice, which continued for many years. By 1915 or 1916 his practice was so busy that he took into his employ young architect Marion R. Marsh, who later became a leading Charlotte architect on his own.
McMichael along with most of his contemporaries generally favored a classically derived vocabulary. Like architect C. C. Hook of Charlotte and others, he executed many of his residential designs of the early years of the twentieth century in the white-columned Southern Colonial tradition, including the Cannon-Guille House (1906) in Salisbury, and the A. P. Pearsall House (1909) and the William Gibson House in Red Springs (1912), imposing houses erected for some of the wealthiest residents of their communities. His practice also encompassed commercial projects, such as the Royster Building in Shelby with a symmetrical, classically adorned façade, and the Marianna Hotel in Marion, which combines a restrained Colonial Revival style with projecting bays unusual in McMichael’s oeuvre. He applied a similarly classical vocabulary to Charlotte’s 1907 Medical College Building, which displays a centered pavilion and robust classical details.
It was in his church designs that McMichael’s preference for bold, classically inspired compositions took especially distinctive form. A Baptist himself and a member of First Baptist Church in Charlotte, he designed an especially large number of Baptist churches—John E. Wells’s study of the Manufacturers’ Record indicates that between 1907 and 1925 he designed at least eighteen Baptist churches in North Carolina—but he also planned facilities for other denominations. Many churches of the early twentieth century continued the previous century’s taste for Gothic Revival and Romanesque Revival styles, and McMichael did design a number of Gothic Revival churches, including First Baptist Church (1922-1924) in Concord in “English Gothic type,” and Myers Park Presbyterian Church (1927) in stone for a prestigious Charlotte congregation. His most characteristic churches, however, took a different form, with a portico, cruciform plan, and central dome. Typically the portico shelters one or more entrances into a vestibule, which opens into an auditorium plan sanctuary, dramatized by a high domed ceiling and usually equipped with curving pews. Although in some respects his domed church designs shared compositional elements with the Wheeler courthouse model inauguarated by Louis Schwend, no definite chain of influence has been documented.
The First Baptist Church in Charlotte was the first and most unusual of McMichael’s domed churches—a “Byzantine”-inspired design with circular forms, a central dome with cupola, and twin domed towers flanking a recessed portico. The Charlotte Observer stated upon its completion that the church was “so striking in its unusual elegance that it will always be viewed with interest by strangers and passers by” and commented favorably on the absence of a traditional steeple: the “useless and costly steeple is beginning to be a thing of the past.”
Most of McMichael’s churches in the domed format, however, differed from the Charlotte landmark by taking a more conservative form, typically with neoclassical detailing and a projecting portico with Tuscan, Ionic, or Corinthian columns. Among many examples are the Page Memorial Methodist Church (1913) in Aberdeen, East Avenue Tabernacle Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church (1914) in Charlotte, Edenton Baptist Church (1916-1920) in Edenton, and First Baptist Church (1922) in Lincolnton. A notice of the proposed Edenton Baptist Church in the Manufacturers’ Record of March 30, 1916, described McMichael’s characteristic design—”brick; 82x135 ft.; steam heat; electric light; rolling partitions; accordion doors; Mt. Airy granite trimmings; Indiana limestone columns with bases and caps; copper dome with ornamental cathedral glass; auditorium of art glass.” McMichael occasionally departed from the domed format in classically detailed churches, as was the case for Charlotte’s Little Rock A. M. E. Zion Church (1908-1911), where he employed twin towers to flank the main block, omitted the dome, and maintained the classical emphasis with a columned portico protecting three pairs of double doors. Other churches across the state showed variations on these themes to suit the preferences and budgets of the congregations. (At roughly the same time, architect Reuben H. Hunt and his associate Charles W. Carlton were designing somewhat similar churches, chiefly for Methodist congregations, which differed from McMichael’s in certain features including the prevalence of a corner entrance.)
McMichael was survived by his widow and their three sons and five daughters. His obituary stated that he had designed over 900 churches in his 50-year career. No overall study of his work has been published. The building list here includes only a fraction of his works in North Carolina, chiefly those featured in publications and for which the status and location are known. New entries may be added as further research provides more information.
- Catherine W. Bishir, Charlotte V. Brown, Carl R. Lounsbury, and Ernest H. Wood III, Architects and Builders in North Carolina: A History of the Practice of Building (1990).
- Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina (1996).
- Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003).
- Catherine W. Bishir, Michael T. Southern, and Jennifer F. Martin, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Western North Carolina (1999).
- Charlotte City Directory (1891-1892).
- Historic Charlotte, Inc., “North Carolina Medical College,” Center City Walking Tour, http://www.historiccharlotte.org/ccwt5.shtml.
- Mary Norton Kratt, Charlotte, Spirit of the New South (1992).
- Mary Norton Kratt and Mary Manning Boyer, Remembering Charlotte: Postcards from a New South City, 1905-1950 (2000).
- Michele Lamprakos and Edwin Belk, “East Avenue Tabernacle Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church” (Charlotte, North Carolina), National Register of Historic Places nomination (2003).
- Manufacturers’ Record, various issues.
- Michelle Ann Michael, “The Rise of the Regional Architect in North Carolina as Seen Through the Manufacturers’ Record, 1890-1910,” M.H.P. thesis, University of Georgia (1994).
- Dan L. Morrill, Historic Charlotte: An Illustrated History of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County (2001).
- National Park Service, “Royster Building,” Shelby, North Carolina: A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary, http://http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/shelby/roy.htm.
- “Noted Church Architect Dies in Charlotte,” Charlotte Observer, Oct. 4, 1944.
- William T. Simmons and Lindsay L. Brooks, Charlotte and Mecklenburg County: A Pictorial History (1977).
- United States Census, 1870-1920.
- Dates:1909Location:Red Springs, Robeson CountyStreet Address:308 S. Main St., Red Springs, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina (1996).
- Dates:1906Location:Salisbury, Rowan CountyStreet Address:202 S. Fulton St., Salisbury, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:Davyd Foard Hood, The Architecture of Rowan County North Carolina: A Catalogue and History of Surviving 18th, 19th, and Early 20th Century Structures (1983).Note:The imposing neoclassical or "Southern colonial" house with Corinthian portico was built for Ella Williams Brown Cannon, the widow of David Franklin Cannon.
- Variant Name(s):Charlotte Public LibraryDates:1901-1903Location:Charlotte, Mecklenburg CountyStreet Address:310 N. Tryon St., Charlotte, NCStatus:No longer standingType:PublicImages Puslished In:Mary Norton Kratt and Mary Manning Boyer, Remembering Charlotte: Postcards from a New South City, 1905-1950 (2000).Note:A notice carried in the Roxboro Courier of November 6, 1901, reported that Lazenby Brothers of Statesville had the contract to build the $25,000 Carnegie library. It was to be "of the French renaissance style." The Manufacturers' Record of November 7, 1901, noted that "Lazenby Brothers of Statesville" had received a $25,000 contract to erect a proposed Carnegie Library in Charlotte, a prominent edifice designed by Wheeler, McMichael, and Company (the short-lived partnership of Oliver Wheeler and James M. McMichael). The accompanying postcard image shows the library on the right, and First Baptist Church on the left.
- Variant Name(s):East Avenue Tabernacle A. R. P. ChurchDates:1914Location:Charlotte, Mecklenburg CountyStreet Address:927 Elizabeth St., Charlotte, NCStatus:StandingType:Religious
- Dates:1916-1920Location:Edenton, Chowan CountyStreet Address:206 S. Granville St., Edenton, NCStatus:StandingType:ReligiousImages Puslished In:Thomas R. Butchko, Edenton, an Architectural Portrait: The Historic Architecture of Edenton, North Carolina (1992).Note:The Manufacturers' Record noted on January 27, 1916, that Edenton's Baptist congregation was "reported to have let contract to Mr. [W. J.] Matthews, Kinston, N.C., to erect building; cost $20,000; colonial style; brick and stone trimmings; metal roof; tile floors on porches; indirect lighting; rolling partitions," with Christopher Gadsden Sayre as architect. But matters soon changed, and on March 30, 1916, the same publication reported that the congregation had let a contract to the same builder to construct their church, which was to be "brick; 82x135 ft.; steam heat; electric light; rolling partitions; accordion doors; Mt. Airy granite trimmings; Indiana limestone columns with bases and caps; copper dome with ornamental cathedral glass; auditorium of art glass; J. M. McMichael, Archt., Charlotte, N.C." There was no mention of cost or the reason for the difference in the architects. The cornerstone had been laid on March 7, 1916. However, World War I delayed construction, and the church was dedicated on June 20, 1920, a highly representative example of McMichael's domed brick church edifices.
- Dates:1922-1924Location:Concord, Cabarrus CountyStreet Address:49 Spring St. NW, Concord, NCStatus:StandingType:ReligiousImages Puslished In:Peter R. Kaplan, The Historic Architecture of Cabarrus County, North Carolina (2004).Note:The Manufacturers' Record indicated that McMichael was architect for the "English Gothic" church, which incorporates a square auditorium plan sanctuary.
- Dates:1908Location:Lexington, Davidson CountyStreet Address:W. 3rd Ave., Lexington, NCStatus:AlteredType:ReligiousNote:The Manufacturers' Record of July 9, 1908, reported McMichael as architect of the First Baptist Church in Lexington. The postcard view may have been made from his drawing.
- Dates:1922Location:Lincolnton, Lincoln CountyStreet Address:403 E. Main St., Lincolnton, NCStatus:StandingType:ReligiousImages Puslished In:Marvin A. Brown, Our Enduring Past: An Architectural History of Lincoln County (1986).
- Variant Name(s):Spirit SquareDates:1908Location:Charlotte, Mecklenburg CountyStreet Address:318 N. Tryon St., Charlotte, NCStatus:StandingType:ReligiousImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003).Note:The Manufacturers' Record of September 19, 1907, reported that the congregation had plans by McMichael for a "Byzantine style" edifice of buff and gray brick, with a central dome 44 feet in diameter topped by a cupola rising 88 feet from ground level, and two towers, each with a dome 15 feet in diameter. The auditorium was to measure 65 by 70 feet and seat 1,200 people. The building maintains its prominence at the heart of Charlotte and has been adapted for new uses.
- Dates:1907-1912Location:Rocky Mount, Nash CountyStreet Address:200 S. Church St., Rocky Mount, NCStatus:No longer standingType:ReligiousNote:The large brick church featured an Ionic portico and robust classical detailing but did not have a dome.
- Dates:1919-1922Location:Elizabeth City, Pasquotank CountyStreet Address:205 S. Road St., Elizabeth City, NCStatus:StandingType:ReligiousImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina (1996).
Thomas R. Butchko, On the Shores of the Pasquotank: The Architectural Heritage of Elizabeth City and Pasquotank County, North Carolina (1989).Note:The red brick church epitomizes McMichael's signature format with portico and dome; his plans are in the possession of the church.
- Variant Name(s):Afro-American Cultural CenterDates:1908-1911Location:Charlotte, Mecklenburg CountyStreet Address:E. 7th St. at N. Myers St., Charlotte, NCStatus:StandingType:ReligiousNote:The brick church with twin towers and Ionic portico is one of the last vestiges of the important black neighborhood and institutions that once occupied this part of the city.
- Dates:1925-1926Location:Salisbury, Rowan CountyStreet Address:200 block s. Innes St., Salisbury, NCStatus:StandingType:ReligiousImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003).Note:The imposing Gothic Revival church is a landmark of downtown Salisbury; it was built for a venerable congregation that was described in the 1920s as the largest of its denomination in the state. In 2014 church leaders discovered in their records a blueprint of the church by J. M. McMichael. The Charlotte architect, known as a prolific designer of churches, also planned other buildings in Salisbury.
- Dates:1902Location:Wilkesboro, Wilkes CountyStreet Address:E. Main St. at N. Bridge St., Wilkesboro, NCStatus:StandingType:PublicImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir, Michael T. Southern, and Jennifer F. Martin, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Western North Carolina (1999).Note:In a time-honored practice, the Wilkes County building committee visited courthouses in Laurinburg and Statesville (both by Wheeler's firm) and selected that design model, the architect, and even the same builder, L.W. Cooper and Company of Charlotte.