B. F. Smith Fireproof Construction Company (1897-1914)
Alexandria, Virginia, USA
- Alexandria, Virginia
Styles & Forms:
Neoclassical; Romanesque Revival
The B. F. Smith Fireproof Construction Company was established in Alexandria, Virginia in 1897. As noted in Margaret T. Baker’s Virginia’s Historic Courthouses (1995), its founder Bartholomew Smith named the firm to appeal to the widespread interest in having fireproof public buildings, especially county clerks’ and registers of deeds’ offices and courthouses. Loss of public records to fire was a serious and longstanding problem. Smith’s effective self-promotion combined with the economy and general adequacy of his buildings brought his company growing success in a period when many communities were building new civic facilities. With the business headquartered in Washington, D. C., Smith gained scores of commissions for building courthouses, clerks’ offices, and jails and installing vaults throughout Virginia and in neighboring states, including several in North Carolina. Many of the firm’s courthouses were of similar character, being unpretentious, rectilinear brick structures with modest and eclectic detailing that often included arched windows and corbeled brickwork detail in a simplified Romanesque Revival style—a contrast with the larger, more elaborate and costly Queen Anne and Neoclassical courthouse design favored by wealthier counties. As Baker notes, Smith sometimes served as “architect” for his projects as well as contractor.
According to architectural historian Carl Lounsbury, Smith was a Union veteran who appeared in Virginia court records ca. 1894-1896 as a representative of the St. Louis Art Metal Company before establishing his own firm. The Washington Times of September 7, 1897, reported that a charter had been granted to the B. F. Smith Fireproof Construction Company of Alexandria, Virginia, with a capital stock of $100,000 (or $300,000, not quite legible). It was a family business, with B. F. Smith as president, F. J. Smith as vice president, George G. Smith as secretary, and L. F., Hattie B., B. F., and George B. Smith, all of Washington, as directors.
The B. F. Smith firm’s buildings in North Carolina date from the late 1890s into the early 1910s, and most were in small county seat towns. Among the popular “fireproof” features—not unique to this firm, of course—were doors and windows framed in masonry, not wood, surrounds and extensive use of metal fittings, plus fireproof vaults.
Judging from articles in newspapers.com, some of the firm’s earliest projects were in northeastern North Carolina. It appears that B. F. Smith made forays into the region to stir up concern for fireproof buildings and thus raise interest in employing his newly chartered firm. In 1897, the Elizabeth City North Carolinian of December 15 carried an account by a writer who had recently made the acquaintance of Smith, president of the B. F. Smith Fireproof Construction Company, who reported that he had contracted to build the Currituck County Courthouse in the village of Currituck, and displayed the plans, which showed a “modern, up-to-date edifice.” (The courthouse was expanded in that year, incorporating an earlier building.) Smith, who had just completed “improvements” at the courthouses in Edenton and Hertford, and he stated that “at a small cost, he can remedy the defective acoustic condition of our Court House here” (in Elizabeth City). The county commissioners had the project “under consideration.”
In 1898, the Plymouth Roanoke Beacon of May 27 explained Washington County public officials’ perspective regarding the need for the Smith company’s services. Grand jurors had examined the offices of the county register of deeds and clerk of the superior court and reported to the superior court that “the Records of said offices would be unsafe in case of fire,” and the county needed a “fire-proof record building for the preservation and safe keeping of the public records, papers, documents, &c., of said county.” The county grand jury voted to build a fire-proof “record building” and to contract with the B. F. Smith Fireproof Construction Company for that purpose, for which the county would pay $4,000. Whether Smith or another member of the firm had visited Plymouth to encourage such a project is not known.
Between 1900 and 1902, the Manufacturers’ Record carried notices of nine Smith projects in North Carolina, including installation of jail cells and record vaults and record rooms in existing county buildings as well as construction of new fireproof county buildings such as the Alexander County Courthouse in Taylorsville (1900) and the Northampton County Clerk’s Office II in Jackson (1900). Newspapers carried accounts of such projects as the addition of two wings to hold fireproof vaults for the Edgecombe County Courthouse in Tarboro (Tarboro Southerner, September 28, 1899); fireproof vaults in the Lenoir County Courthouse in Kinston and a new Onslow County Courthouse in Jacksonville (Kinston Daily Free Press, April 30, 1904); the new Rockingham County Courthouse, reported in the Reidsville Webster’s Weekly of April 4, 1907, which mentioned that the Smith firm had installed fireproof vaults in the previous courthouse, which had burned recently; and the Robeson County Courthouse in Lumberton, for which Frank Pierce Milburn and the B. F. Smith Fireproof Construction Company were both identified as the architects on a tablet near the front door (The Robesonian, January 4, 1909). Milburn had served as architect for the Rockingham County courthouse and Smith as contractor.
Of the Smith company’s many buildings in North Carolina, several have been destroyed and others significantly altered. Especially intact and representative are the Tyrrell County Courthouse, the Rockingham County Courthouse, and a rare surviving example of the firm’s separate clerks’ offices in the state, the Northampton County Clerk’s Office II in Jackson, a brick structure that resembles a bungalow, located between the county’s antebellum clerk’s office and courthouse.
Little is documented of the firm’s day-to-day operations, but the company employed local and regional builders and artisans to manage some projects, such as Captain Price Furpless who managed the Onslow County Courthouse project (Kinston Daily Free Press, April 30, 1904) and carpenter T. F. Causey of Greensboro (Greensboro Patriot, May 13, 1908), who was assigned to the courthouse project in Lumberton.
It appears that sometimes the Smith firm stretched its resources too thin. In 1904, according to the Washington Morning Post of November 27, 1904, Ashe County, N. C., planned to bring suit against the company. It was stated that the “manager of the Washington concern” had signed a contract to build a new courthouse in Jefferson but was “in ignorance” that the town was 30 miles from the nearest railroad; as soon as he made the discovery he cancelled the contract. Because of the transportation problem, the cost of the courthouse would be $2,000 more than the original contract, and the county was bringing suit for that amount. Other counties brought suits because of problems with the Smith company’s courthouses, notably Dare County (News and Observer, November 18, 1908) and McDowell County (McDowell Democrat, June 17, 1909), the latter a complex case where the issues were described in detail during lengthy litigation.
Reports of the company’s activities continued to appear in newspaper accounts into the early 1910s. In 1913 the firm found itself in financial trouble, and 1914, the Washington Post of April 8 reported that three of the firm’s creditors submitted a “creditors’ petition” asking that the Smith company be “adjudged a bankrupt.” The factors, possibly including the lawsuits, leading to this situation are not entirely clear. What became of B. F. Smith and his associates after this remains to be learned. The name is so common as to make it difficult to track Smith in public records.
For a brief period, however, the company made a significant mark on the civic architecture of small communities in North Carolina and Virginia. In many cases, civic leaders were replacing old frame buildings, while others were rebuilding after fires destroyed earlier structures. Although many of the Smith vintage of utilitarian, affordable, fireproof buildings have been lost—supplanted by more pretentious and expensive public buildings in neoclassical modes and later modernist buildings, a few still serve as a reminder that B. F. Smith’s “fireproof” buildings enabled many rural counties to build economically and substantially at a key period in public architecture.
- Dates:1907-1908Location:Yanceyville, Caswell CountyStreet Address:Courthouse Square, Yanceyville, NCStatus:StandingType:PublicNote:The former jail, a 2-story brick structure, retains its original cell block and manufactured jail fittings, some produced by the Stewart Jail Works of Cincinnati noted on an emblem on the building. Constructed for $6,800, it was, like many jails of its era and before, built to house the jailer and his family on the first floor and prisoners on the second floor. The thick brick walls feature decorative corbeling and a variety of arched and rectangular openings. Obvious security measures include the barred windows, a sturdy wooden entrance, and a heavy, steel door at the rear corner leading to the stair to the cell block. See http://ncccha.blogspot.com/2006/06/caswell-county-jail.html.
- Contributors:B. F. Smith Fireproof Construction Company, builders (1897)Dates:Pre-1869; 1897; 1952Location:Currituck, Currituck CountyStreet Address:Courthouse SquareStatus:StandingType:PublicNote:The Elizabeth City North Carolinian of December 15, 1897, carried an account of meeting B. F. Smith, who showed the plans for building the Currituck County Courthouse as a "modern, up-to-date edifice." The courthouse was expanded in that year, incorporating an earlier building. This appears to be the earliest project by the firm in North Carolina.
- Dates:1903Location:Manteo, Dare CountyStreet Address:Queen Elizabeth Street, Manteo, NCStatus:AlteredType:PublicNote:The 2-story brick courthouse originally resembled the nearby Tyrrell County Courthouse but has been somewhat altered including removal of the front roof dormer and addition of a porch. Not long after the building was erected, the county found defects in it and brought suit against the firm as reported in the News and Observer, November 18, 1908.
- Dates:1902Location:Marion, McDowell CountyStreet Address:Courthouse Square, Marion, NCStatus:No longer standingType:PublicNote:The contract for the McDowell County Courthouse was let to the B. F. Smith Company in 1902, according to the Asheville Weekly Citizen, January 24, 1902, with a completion deadline of July 15. The Statesville Record of January 24, 1902, reported that the project was to enlarge an existing courthouse. According to the McDowell Democrat of June 17, 1909, initially the "rebuilding" of the courthouse, completed in June 1902, appeared to be "a first class and workmanlike job, as called for in the contract." But before long, rain began to come through the roof, "little grains of sand" began to fall from the walls and ceilings, the "concrete" floor and columns proved defective, and other problems emerged. In 1903 the county brought suit against Smith, and a long legal battle ensued that was finally settled in superior court in 1909, with a finding against Smith that fixed the damages at $1,800.
- Dates:1900Location:Jackson, Northampton CountyStreet Address:Courthouse Square, Jackson, NCStatus:StandingType:PublicNote:The domestic scaled brick building, which resembles a bungalow with a front porch, stands between the antebellum clerk's office (see Thomas Bragg and Abraham Spencer) and the imposing temple-form antebellum courthouse. It, like its predecessor, is an unusual survival of an important building type erected to house county offices and records. The small white building to the left of the courthouse is the clerk's office built by the B. F. Smith company.
- Dates:1904-1905Location:Jacksonville, Onslow CountyStreet Address:625 Court St., Jacksonville, NCStatus:AlteredType:PublicNote:The 2-story brick building erected by the B. F. Smith Fireproof Construction Company has been radically altered and expanded over the years, including renovations in 1949 and 2000. The postcard view shows it before those alterations.
- Dates:1908Location:Lumberton, Robeson CountyStreet Address:Chestnut St., Lumberton, NCStatus:No longer standingType:PublicImages Puslished In:Diane E. Lea and Claudia P. Roberts (Brown), An Architectural and Historical Survey: Central Lumberton, North Carolina (1980).Note:The Robesonian of January 4, 1909, pictured a stout brick courthouse with porticoes and a large cupola. The article cited both the Smith company and Frank Milburn as architects, as identified on a plaque on the building. The nature and extent of their association remains to be explored, but from the appearance of the courthouse, Milburn had a strong role in its design.
- Dates:1907Location:Wentworth, Rockingham CountyStreet Address:1086 NC 65, Wentworth, NCStatus:StandingType:PublicNote:The 3-story brick building is built of pressed brick, including the columns at the entrance. The Reidsville Webster's Weekly of April 4, 1907, cited the Smith firm and mentioned that the company had installed fireproof vaults in the previous courthouse, which burned in 1906. The 3-story building is larger than most of the courthouses credited to Smith's firm and likely reflects Milburn's role as architect.
- Dates:1903Location:Columbia, Tyrrell CountyStreet Address:SW corner of Main St. and Broad St., Columbia, NCStatus:StandingType:PublicImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina (1996).Note:The most intact of the Smith company's four similar courthouses in eastern North Carolina, the 2-story, red brick building has a square plan, arched openings, and a front, central wall dormer.