Westall, J. M. (1861-1943)
James M. Westall; James Manassas Westall
Buncombe County, North Carolina, USA
- Asheville, North Carolina
Styles & Forms:
Colonial Revival; Craftsman; Gothic Revival; Romanesque Revival; Tudor Revival
James Manassas Westall (September 11, 1861-January 1, 1943), a “pioneer builder” in Asheville, was a contractor who erected many of the city’s railroad boom era buildings before retiring to operate a building supply business. He was one of several men from the “first families” of western North Carolina who became leaders in the building trades as the region developed. He and his firm erected buildings in many different styles, sometimes from his own plans or other examples, and often from designs by the city’s leading architects such as Richard Sharp Smith and A. L. Melton.
According to his obituary, James M. Westall was born in the Swannanoa Township of Buncombe County to a family of “prominent pioneer families” in western North Carolina. Born on September 11, 1861, he was given his middle name for the first Battle of Manassas (Bull Run to the Yankees), a Confederate victory fought in Virginia on July 21, 1861. He was one of several children of Thomas C. and Martha Penland Westall, whose other children included Julia Westall Wolfe (the mother of author Thomas Wolfe) and W. H. Westall, who founded a building supply company in Asheville. In 1884 James Westall married Minnie White (d. 1934), and they too had a large family.
During Asheville’s stunning growth period from arrival of the Western North Carolina Railroad in the 1880s into the early 20th century, J. M. Westall was one of the city’s most prolific building contractors. He along with several other skilled and ambitious builders, together with celebrated architects of the era, were essential to creating the city’s remarkable late 19th century and early 20th century architecture.
Westall erected several buildings designed by Richard Sharp Smith, who had been superintending architect at George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate (see Richard Morris Hunt) and established a permanent practice in Asheville. At Biltmore Village, which Vanderbilt established at the railroad stop near Biltmore Estate, Westall built several cottages and other structures in the “Biltmore style” with rough-cast and half-timbered work from Smith’s designs and possibly those of Hunt and Hunt’s son, Richard H. Hunt.
Westall also constructed other Asheville houses designed by Smith or inspired by Smith’s style, including some residences on Merrimon Avenue and in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood, including the picturesque David Cottages from Smith’s plans. Moreover—so Smith claimed—Westall copied the architect’s designs in houses he built on his own without Smith’s authorization or credit to Smith. (Their dispute indicates one avenue by which the Smith-influenced picturesque style proliferated in the city.) Among Smith’s grandest houses attributed to builder Westall is the Carl V. Reynolds House in Colonial Revival style, with a bowed staircase landing which has been described as a hallmark of Westall’s work.
Westall built many other substantial edifices in Asheville, some of which were noted in his obituary. Of these, the Bingham Military Academy, the Paragon Building, and the City Auditorium are lost. Among his surviving buildings, especially notable examples include the Drhumor Building, a brick commercial building designed by architect A. L. Melton and adorned by vivid stonework by stonecutter Frederick B. Miles who had worked at Biltmore; and the large, towered Central Methodist Episcopal Church, planned by leading church architect Reuben H. Hunt of Tennessee, plus numerous residences.
In 1906, Westall founded a building supply firm, J. M. Westall and Company, which was one of the largest and longest-lived in the city, with a facility downtown and a lumberyard at the intersection of the Southern Railroad and Haywood Road. Throughout his long life, Westall also took a role in local civic and business affairs, including service on the board of alderman and vice mayor. He had a longstanding interest in promoting the scenic and healthful qualities of Western North Carolina. In 1910, he was joined in the building supply business by his son, James Frederick (“Jack”) Westall. Jack, described in 1912 as “one of the hustling young business men of the city,” operated the J. M. Westall Lumber Company for many years and became a leader in local politics. The firm continued in the family for many years.
Reports of Westall’s projects cite numerous buildings that have not yet been confirmed. Most of those built in the late 19th century probably have been lost. These references from newspaper articles and the Manufacturers’ Record include the following: a building for Carter (1885); building for Johnston (1885); building for Patton (1886); building for T. S. Morrison (1887); building for Edwin H. Herrick (1888?); Watson House, 1889, 56 French Broad; Capt. W. J. Cock House, 1889, 157 French Broad; Dr. T. C. Smith House, 1890, 184 E. Chestnut; Capt. F. D. Johnston, 1890, brick store, corner of Main and public square; Dr. F. T. Merriweather House, 1890, 44 Grove; Bingham Military Academy, 1891 (MR, 4/11/1891); MacNaughton House (1891); Bryan House (1891); Pearson Cottages (3), 1891, Spruce St.; School House, 1892; J. W. Sluder, 1892, French Broad; Hampton House, 1892, 81 Haywood St.; Building for Woolsey, 1893; G. A. Greer, 1893, 89 Chestnut St.; W. T. Weaver, 1893, Merrimon Ave.; William J. Cock House, 1896, 167 French Broad; J. A. Porter House, 1897, 85 Merrimon Ave.; T. S. Morrison, 1897, Pearson Dr.; building for Tench Coxe, 1898; building for W. F. Graham, 1899; First Presbyterian Church, Pastor’s Study, 1900, Church St.
- Dates:1889-1910Location:Asheville, Buncombe CountyStreet Address:Asheville vicinity, NCStatus:StandingType:Commercial
ResidentialImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir, Michael T. Southern, and Jennifer F. Martin, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Western North Carolina (1999).
Douglas Swaim, ed., Cabins and Castles: The History and Architecture of Buncombe County, North Carolina (1981).Note:George Vanderbilt planned a manorial village outside the gates of the Biltmore Estate and had Frederick Law Olmsted lay it out. Richard Morris Hunt designed some of the original buildings, including the Railroad Depot, Estate Office, and All Souls Church. Most of these featured brickwork combined with stucco or "pebbledash," and some had half-timbering. They continued the "estate style" of the farm buildings at Biltmore. After the older Hunt's death, Richard Howland Hunt and Richard Sharp Smith continued to design the buildings that composed the picturesque village, most of which survives to the present. A similar style was used by Smith at the YMI Building in Asheville for the estate's black workers, sponsored by Vanderbilt. Among the buildings in Biltmore Village that have been credited to the contracting firm of J. M. Westall are the following: Cottage H, Cottage L. Cottage Z (Swann St.), Barber Shop, Swannanoa Lodge and Office (Biltmore Ticket Office), Biltmore Schoolhouse.
- Contributors:J. M. Westall, attributed builderVariant Name(s):Albemarle InnDates:1909Location:Asheville, Buncombe CountyStreet Address:86 Edgemont Rd., Asheville, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:The large, Colonial Revival style house has been credited to Westall, though it postdates his transition from contracting to manufacturing.
- Variant Name(s):Central United Methodist ChurchDates:1900-1905; 1924 [addition]Location:Asheville, Buncombe CountyStreet Address:27 Church St., Asheville, NCStatus:StandingType: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.
- Dates:1897-1899Location:Asheville, Buncombe CountyStreet Address:138, 144, 156, and 160 E. Chestnut St., Asheville, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:It is believed that Smith designed and Westall built these picturesque rental houses in hybrid Craftsman styles. Not long after this, Smith was involved in a dispute with Westall, whom he accused of having copied his building style without giving due credit.
- Dates:1895-1896Location:Asheville, Buncombe CountyStreet Address:Patton Ave. at Church St., Asheville, NCStatus:StandingType:CommercialImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
Catherine W. Bishir, Michael T. Southern, and Jennifer F. Martin, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Western North Carolina (1999).Note:See Asheville Citizen-Times, November 21, 1895; June 24, 1896. The building originally had a tower atop the corner bay. That feature was removed in the 20th century, and the entrance was shifted to Patton Avenue and given a large arched frame. Frederick B. Miles's splendid stone carving reportedly included visages of local citizens as well as mythological and classical motifs. The building is one of the principal surviving examples of downtown Asheville's late 19th century growth era.
- Dates:1896Location:Asheville, Buncombe CountyStreet Address:166 E. Chestnut St., Asheville, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:The 2-story, shingled and roughcast stuccoed residence was one of architect Smith's first commissions after he completed work for Vanderbilt. It set the tone for his many other commissions, including those built by Westall's firm.
- Dates:1890Location:Asheville, Buncombe CountyStreet Address:92 Woodfin St., Asheville, NCStatus:No longer standingType:ResidentialNote:Built for W. O. Wolfe, this was the house where his son Thomas Wolfe was born. In 1906, the 6-year-old boy moved with his mother, Julia, to the boarding house on Spruce Street which she operated and where he grew up and used as a setting for his novels. The house on Spruce Street is preserved and open to the public as a State Historic Site.
- Dates:1902-1903Location:Asheville, Buncombe CountyStreet Address:Haywood St., Asheville, NCStatus:No longer standingType:RecreationalNote:The Manufacturers' Record (Aug. 29, 1901) reported that R. S. Smith had drawn plans for a YMCA Building, which was to be built by Westall.