McKibbin, G. W. (1860-1927)
Groce Walton McKibbin; G. W. McKibben; G. W. McKibbon; G. W. McKibban
Oxford, Alabama, USA
- Oxford, Alabama
- Atlanta, Georgia
- Asheville, North Carolina
Styles & Forms:
Arts and Crafts; Rustic
G. W. McKibbin (November 21, 1860-August 6, 1927), a peripatetic and somewhat elusive architect and engineer who worked in Asheville and Atlanta, played his most important role in North Carolina architecture as the architect-engineer of the famed Grove Park Inn in Asheville. The design of the inn has been generally attributed solely to Fred L. Seely, the son-in-law of the inn’s owner, but recent research has documented McKibbin’s role in the project and his hitherto little-known career. Variations in his surname spelling (McKibben, McKibbon, and McKibban) and his first name or initials together with his frequent moves make it difficult to track his career.
Born Groce Walton McKibbin in Oxford, Calhoun County, Alabama, he was one of seven children of James McKibbin (1832-1896), a native of Philadelphia, Penn., and Nancy Wright, an Alabama native. The U. S. Census of 1880 showed G. W. living with his parents and siblings in Calhoun County, Alabama, and he and his older brother Lucius were working in their father’s machine shop. The father had been listed in earlier censuses as a carpenter. Groce Walton McKibbin generally used the initials G. W., which some assumed stood for George Washington McKibbin, thus leading some researchers astray. His legal name appears on his death certificate and his tombstone, for which the information was supplied by his brother Lucius H. McKibbin (1858-1931) who also started out as a builder and migrated to use the term “architect.”
Due to the loss of the U. S. manuscript population census of 1890 and the absence of other sources, there is a gap in the record of G. W. McKibbin’s career until his appearance in the Atlanta city directory of 1892 as a carpenter with the Woodward Lumber Company. Two of his brothers appear to have moved to Atlanta and worked there in the 1890s, perhaps luring him to the city. He did not appear in that city’s directories again until 1899, when he was shown as an architect, with no firm identified. Like many of his contemporaries, he had no known formal architectural training but gained practical experience in building and frequently identified himself as an architect.
Although G. W. McKibbin is not found in the 1900 census or the 1900 Atlanta city directory, subsequent Atlanta directories record his presence and changing professional identity. In 1902 he was a draftsman with Atlanta architect Willis F. Denny, whose firm designed some landmark structures during this period, including Rhodes Hall (1904). Denny’s firm was the training ground for a number of architects who went on to have prominent careers, including the illustrious Georgia architect J. Neel Reid. In 1905, McKibbin was a draftsman in the same building as Denny’s office, possibly still working with the firm at the time of Denny’s death that year. In 1906 McKibbin was listed as a building contractor on his own, but in 1907 he again styled himself architect and shared an office suite with Frank P. Heifner. (Heifner was a major contractor and builder, especially of county courthouses, and was a pallbearer for Denny. Born in 1858 in Alabama and living in Oxford, Alabama, in 1880 as a farmer and there as late as 1890, Heifner may have influenced McKibbin’s move to Atlanta.) McKibbin appeared again in 1908 as an architect in Atlanta, but the 1909 directory stated “Removed to Jacksonville.” No information has been found about his activities there.
In 1911 McKibbin appeared in the city directory of Memphis, Tennessee, as manager of the Memphis branch of the Southern Ferro-Concrete Company, his earliest known association with that firm. How he formed the connection with the Atlanta-based company is unknown, but it marked a turning point in his life, for it was during his association with Southern Ferro-Concrete that McKibbin became involved with the Grove Park Inn and Asheville in 1912.
The Southern Ferro-Concrete Company was formed in 1905 by prominent Atlanta businessman Charles Loridans, who was considered a pioneer in “re-inforced concrete construction, not only in the South, but throughout the entire country.” A 1920 biographical sketch of Loridans listed the Grove Park Inn among his company’s projects. (In 1935 the company became Beers Construction Company, which in 2002 became Skanska, a major construction firm.)
The Grove Park Inn was a venture of Edwin Wiley Grove (1850-1927), a pharmaceuticals manufacturer from St. Louis who became an important Asheville developer. Grove was also active in Atlanta, where in the first years of the 20th century he established the Atlanta suburbs of Grove Park (later renamed to Fortified Hills) and Atkins Park. His son-in-law, Fred L. Seely (1871-1942), whom he met when both were engaged in pharmaceuticals, became involved in the development of Atkins Park.
In his book, Built for the Ages: A History of the Grove Park Inn , Bruce E. Johnson traces the complex saga of the planning of the inn. After deciding to build a hotel on Sunset Mountain overlooking Asheville, Grove corresponded in 1911 with Seely, then in Atlanta, about various ideas for the inn. He was attracted by the great rustic inns of the west, especially Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone with its dramatic use of natural wood, logs, shingles, and stonework. After receiving design proposals from architects near and far, early in 1912 Grove rejected them all. He decided on a rustic design by architect Henry Ives Cobb, who wrote to him on April 5 from New York to suggest building in stone, using natural boulders from nearby mountainsides, with a red tiled roof. Seely became more engaged in the project in April 1912, when Grove authorized him along with Atlanta builder Oscar Mills to construct the hotel “under your direction.” After a disagreement over Cobb’s architectural fees in May, Seely notified Cobb that Grove no longer needed his services. Meanwhile, Seely had drawn up his own sketch of the inn (a photograph of which survives), which likely included some aspects of Cobb’s design, and which met with Grove’s approval. As Johnson notes, Grove wrote to Seely that they would “both get more pleasure out of [the] hotel by building it our own way without interference of any architect.” Johnson explains that by mid-June Seely and Grove had selected “J. W. McKibbin” of Atlanta as the “architectural engineer responsible for transforming their ideas into blueprints and Mills as the construction superintendent. Seely, McKibbin, and Mills spent the month of June developing plans for the hotel.” Seely later became manager of the hotel under a longterm-lease and also superintended development of the nearby Grove Park suburb for Grove. (Information in this paragraph comes from Johnson, Built for the Ages; last quotes, p. 33.)
With the general concept established, G. W. McKibbin and the Southern Ferro-Concrete Company carried the process forward. It is not known whether Grove or Seely knew McKibbin or Loridans from Atlanta, though it seems likely. The Manufacturers’ Record for July 18, 1912, listed the Grove Park Inn project being proposed with McKibbin (spelling garbled as usual) as the architectural engineer, and the issue for August 22 listed the contract as being awarded to the Southern Ferro-Concrete Company of Atlanta. Although Seely’s drawing showed the essential vision of the inn, realization of the idea required plans and specifications as well as practical construction knowledge. McKibbin’s name appeared on the architectural plans dated October 9, 1912 for the Grove Park Inn, with his home noted as Atlanta, Georgia. (The drawings are held by the Pack Library in Asheville.) In 1913 McKibbin appeared in the Asheville City Directory as architect for the inn. He established a strong relationship with Seely and evidently traveled between Atlanta and Asheville during the project.
Together with the many black and white stonemasons and other artisans, Seely, Mills, McKibbin, and the Southern Ferro-Concrete company created a masterpiece of stone and concrete. As Cobb had suggested, the boulders of the exterior walls were left rough, some with moss still attached, and laid in a fashion to resemble unmortared stonework. The undulating roof was made of poured, reinforced concrete and covered with red clay tiles. Completed with remarkable speed by mid-summer, 1913, the resulting structure is a tour de force of the artistry as well as the strength and fireproof qualities of concrete.
After the inn was completed, McKibbin maintained his association with the concrete company for a few years. In 1915, the Manufacturers’ Record showed him as the architect for an insurance building being built on Walton Street in Atlanta by the Southern Ferro-Concrete Company, while other sources show him in Asheville in that year. In the Atlanta city directory of 1916 he appeared as George W. McKibbin, superintendent of the Southern Ferro-Concrete Company.
He also continued to move frequently. On January 7, 1920, the U. S. Census recorded him as “Walter G. McKibban” in New Orleans (details on his parents’ places of birth match those of G. W. McKibbin). The entry stated he was married, although no wife was listed, and that he was working in a bank as a commission salesman. Later in 1920 he was in Asheville, and over the ensuing years he was in and out of Asheville and Atlanta, always ready to come to Asheville.
McKibbin had continued to stay in touch with Fred Seely, as depicted in their surviving correspondence from 1920 to 1924. Writing recommendations and letters of introduction for McKibbin, Seely tried to help McKibbin stay employed and to get him jobs to enable him to move to Asheville permanently. Besides the Grove Park Inn, however, the only other surviving work definitely attributed to McKibbin in North Carolina is Seely’s own residence, known as Overlook or Seely’s Castle, on Sunset Mountain, which was cited as McKibbin’s work in his obituary. Seely is often described as having been “his own architect” for the romantic rough stone edifice (built between 1914 and 1917 according to Johnson, p. 44). It seems likely that as in the case of the Grove Park Inn, Seely developed the concept and McKibbin provided the professional expertise and drawings.
During their correspondence of 1920-1924, Seely and McKibbin discussed various other projects. In March 1920 McKibbin sent Seely drawings for additions to the Grove Park Inn, but Grove delayed making a decision on the project. In July Seely encouraged McKibbin to come to Asheville and reported on July 29 that he hoped to interest the director of the Asheville Normal School in hiring him for the school’s new dormitories; on July 29, 1920, Seely wrote to McKibbin, “I have had several conferences with the President [of the Normal School] and have taken him over our Homespun buildings once or twice. He is entirely convinced that this is the way to build and is trying now to get rid of the architect they have employed.” The “Homespun buildings” were likely the structures near the Grove Park Inn which housed a well-known handicrafts enterprise originally called Biltmore Estates Industries. Seely purchased the business from Edith Vanderbilt in 1917, expanded the complex to house additional workers and shops; he renamed it Biltmore Industries, but it was popularly known as the Homespun Shops. Whether Seely’s reference indicated a role by McKibbin in the “Homespun buildings” erected for Seely is unknown. McKibbin proceeded to Asheville in August 1920, but it is not known whether he got the Normal School job.
As he reported to Seely in 1922, in November 1921 McKibbin left Asheville for Southern Pines, N.C., where he designed and superintended construction on “several” buildings for Dr. J. W. Dickie’s sanatorium, which was known as Pinecrest Manor (Pine-Crest Manor). He then returned to Atlanta, worked in Georgia briefly, and was back in Asheville in the summer of 1923. The 1923 Atlanta city directory—the last in which he appeared—showed him listed as an architect living with his wife’s mother. In 1923 Seely was negotiating with McKibbin to plan and supervise alterations to his house, Overlook, including the library wing and bedroom wing built at that time. McKibbin came to Asheville for the project, but by January 1924 he was in Tampa, Florida, when Seely wrote to him to discuss his coming to Asheville to plan a bank for a Mr. Davis. (This was probably Wallace Davis, president of the Central Bank and Trust Company, the city’s largest financial institution, which failed with the Crash.)
In 1924 McKibbin made Asheville his permanent residence at last and by September had purchased stationery headed “G. W. McKibbin, Architect, Asheville, N. C.” The Asheville city directories for 1925-1927 showed him and his wife Ellen (Latham) living there, the first two years as an architect, the last as a draftsman. By the end of his years, McKibbin clearly identified himself as an architect, and after his 1927 death from cancer, his brother Lucius listed his occupation as architect on his death certificate. As the local newspaper noted, McKibbin died as a resident of Asheville but was buried back home in Oxford, Alabama. After his death, Ellen, born ca. 1877, returned to Atlanta and never remarried; she died there in 1958 and was buried at Oakland Cemetery in that city.
Although his role in the creation of the Grove Park Inn faded from local memory later in the 20th century, McKibbin’s contributions to the architectural landscape of his adopted city were acknowledged in his obituaries in two Asheville newspapers. One cited McKibbin as “for many years a prominent builder of Asheville, [who] had much to do with the planning and building of the Grove Park Inn, and the mountain castle of Fred. L. Seely.” The other stated that he had come to Asheville from Oxford, and “Though he was not a registered architect, he had much to do with the planning of Grove Park Inn and of F. L. Seely’s home on Sunset Mountain. Later he supervised the actual work on the two structures.” The latter obituary was reprinted almost verbatim in Alabama’s Anniston Star.
Notes: In 1928 McKibbin was posthumously called an architect in a North Carolina Supreme Court case, Pickler v. Pinecrest Manor, 195 N.C. 614 in which his name was mentioned in conjunction with a lawsuit over eight cottages erected for the sanatorium near Southern Pines, which McKibbin worked on in 1921-1922. McKibbin’s death certificate gave November 21, 1860 as his birthdate, but gave his age as 65 yrs, 8 mos. and 15 days, as of August 6, 1927, which suggests a birthdate in November, 1861. His tombstone has his birth year as 1860. McKibbin evidently did not marry until around 1920 when he was listed as living with Ellen’s mother in Atlanta.
- Anniston Star, Aug. 9, 1927.
- Asheville Citizen, Aug. 9, 1927.
- Asheville Times, Aug. 7, 1927.
- “Atkins Park, Fulton County, Georgia,” National Register of Historic Places nomination.
- Atlanta City Directories (1890-1927).
- Architectural Drawings for Grove Park Inn, North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, North Carolina.
- Clark Howell, ed., The Book of Georgia, A Work for Press Reference (1920).
- Bruce E. Johnson, Built for the Ages: A History of the Grove Park Inn (2004).
- Bruce E. Johnson, “Built Without an Architect: Architectural Inspirations for the Grove Park Inn,” in Robert S. Brunk, ed., May We All Remember Well: A Journal of the History and Cultures of Western North Carolina (1997).
- McKibbin Family Group Record, http://www.familysearch.org.
- Death Certificate for Groce Walton McKibbin, http://www.familysearch.org.
- “Overlook (Seely’s Castle),” National Register of Historic Places nomination.
- Seely-McKibbin Correspondence, 1920-1924 from Letterbook owned and donated by Bruce E. Johnson, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, North Carolina.
- Dates:1912-1913; 1921 (additions planned)Location:Asheville, Buncombe CountyStreet Address:Macon Ave.Status: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).
Bruce E. Johnson, Built for the Ages: A History of the Grove Park Inn (2004).
Bruce E. Johnson, "Built Without an Architect: Architectural Inspirations for the Grove Park Inn," in Robert S. Brunk, ed., May We All Remember Well: A Journal of the History and Cultures of Western North Carolina (1997).Note:John T. Corbin was one of many stonemasons involved in constructing the massive inn of local boulders.
- Contributors:G. W. McKibbin, architect and engineer; Fred Seely, designerVariant Name(s):Seely's Castle; Fred L. Seely HouseDates:1914-1917; 1923-1924Location:Asheville, Buncombe CountyStreet Address:Town Mountain Rd.Status:StandingType:ResidentialNote:Although Fred Seely had the concept for his residence on Sunset Mountain, he employed G. W. McKibbin to translate it into reality, including both the original building as cited in his obituary and the 1923-1924 described in the two men's correspondence. The massive residence takes the form of a romantic castle executed in native stone.