McBee, Silas (1853-1924)
- Lincolnton, NC; Tennessee; New York City
Styles & Forms:
Silas McBee (November 14, 1853- September 3, 1924), an Episcopal church architect, craftsman, educator, and editor of religious newspapers, was born in Lincolnton to Vardry Alexander McBee (1818-1904), a politician, textile and railroad investor, and clerk of Lincoln County Superior Court, and Mary Elizabeth Sumner McBee (1829- 1907). Silas, who was named in honor of his father’s brother, attended school at the Lincolnton Academy in Lincolnton and went on to graduate in 1876 from the University of the South in Sewannee, Tennessee (a school often cited simply as Sewannee). After graduation, he maintained strong connections with his alma mater: he served on the university board of trustees in 1878-1886 and 1887-1907 and as the university’s commissioner of endowment from 1891 to 1893. In 1919 the university conferred upon him an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree.
McBee married Mary Estelle Sutton in Grundy County, Tennessee on June 12 1877. After her death in 1891, he married Louise Jagger Post on December 20, 1900 at All Saints Episcopal Church in Great Neck, Long Island, New York.
McBee returned to Lincolnton by 1880 and boarded at the Burton Hotel in downtown Lincolnton while working as a merchant. He served as the principal of the Fairmont School for Girls in Monteagle, Tennessee from 1883 to 1887, and there he became the architect, chief carpenter, and stonemason for Fairmont School’s Chapel of the Holy Comforter. This was evidently the beginning of his involvement in church architecture. McBee apparently had no formal training in architecture, nor is he known to have apprenticed or worked under a credentialed architect. Whether he studied architecture through the mail or another method is unknown. As far as can be determined, he was essentially self-taught. In the era before architectural licensing, professional definitions were fluid.
During the 1880s, McBee traveled extensively in Europe studying cathedral architecture, and, upon his return to the United States, he delivered lectures throughout the country on the subject. There is little documentation on his travels, but he noted on his 1920 passport, “I have made about ten trips to Europe from two to four months each for travel and my professional work.”
From 1896 to 1912, McBee served as the editor of the Episcopalian publication The Churchman, for which he wrote numerous articles, and in 1912 he founded The Constructive Quarterly in New York, which he edited until 1923.
Showing a strong preference for the Gothic Revival style and high church liturgical fittings, McBee is best known for his religious buildings in both the northeast and southeast. In some cases, he provided architectural designs for churches, while in others he designed (and often executed) only the liturgical fittings such as altars, altar pieces, and rood screens. Such elements, especially the rood screens dividing the chancel from the body of the church, were features indicative of the “high church” adherence to medieval church motifs. McBee was a somewhat exceptional figure among North Carolina Episcopalians, who generally favored the “low church” simplicity of services and fittings.
Among McBee’s early projects was the Chapel of the Holy Comforter at Monteagle, Tennessee, built of native sandstone in 1886, for which he carved the altar, credence table, and bishop’s chair. A June 10, 1886 article in The Tennessean praised McBee’s exquisite handiwork on the elaborately carved oak altar and blue limestone baptismal font, which were designed by his wife. Also in Tennessee, McBee as part of Nixon and McBee Architects of Atlanta designed Walsh-Ellett Hall at the University of the South.
In North Carolina, McBee designed some church buildings and created only the fittings in others. In some cases, his role is not entirely clear. In 1886, he drew the plans for the main body of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Lincolnton and he supervised the building’s construction. He also carved the church’s altar, reredos, credence table, and rood screen. The stained-glass windows were designed by Booth of London and produced by Lamb and Company, also of London; McBee had connections to these firms and likely undoubtedly facilitated the procurement of the glass. In 1892-1893, McBee executed the fittings for Calvary Episcopal Church in Wadesboro, and he may have provided designs for the church as well. The Churchman of March 18, 1895, cited McBee’s “handiwork” in the fittings, but said nothing of the architect of the brick and brownstone edifice. In 1895 he carved the rood screen for St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Oxford, North Carolina, and, again, may have designed the building. For St. John’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, he designed a parish house, which no longer stands. He designed the memorial altar and reredos in St. James Church in Wilmington over the burial of Bishop Thomas Atkinson. Especially notable, he designed St. Augustine’s College Chapel in Raleigh and documented his work in the August 3, 1895 edition of The Churchman: he reported that the cornerstone of the Chapel of St. Augustine’s school had been laid and “The designs are by Mr. Silas McBee of North Carolina and New York”, and in an article in 1898 he indicated again he had designed it.
Evidently there were tensions between McBee and the distinguished Gothic Revival architect Ralph Adams Cram. In The Churchman of January 22, 1898, which McBee edited, an article entitled “Two Unusual Churches,” referred to Cram’s recent article in the Architectural Review, which was critical of the “vain glory” of some church interiors featured in journals, particularly in The Churchman. In response, McBee pointed to and illustrated two simply designed churches, St. Paul’s in rural Lincoln County and St. Augustine’s Chapel in Raleigh, implying that he had designed these. He explained that St. Augustine’s Chapel had been “erected entirely by untrained colored masons,” and that, “the architect wisely planned a building of the simplest construction, as the illustration shows.” It was built of hammered, rough granite, which was visible inside and out. He also described the origins of St. Paul’s in Lincoln County, where a simple wooden church was built for a small congregation with local assistance. He wound up his commentary by saying, “We commend these examples of church building to the notice of Churchmen, and to the notice of critics like Mr. Cram, as being thoroughly purged of the elements of irreligion and vain glory, and as furnishing the expression of honesty and sincerity of purpose.”
Beyond North Carolina, McBee was associated with numerous church projects including those in Houston and Galveston, Texas; Lake Charles, Louisiana; Monteagle, Tennessee; Spartanburg, Waynesboro, and Florence, S. C.; and elsewhere. He died on September 3, 1924 at Ashley Hall, a girls’ school started by his daughter, Dr. Vardrine McBee, in Charleston, South Carolina. He is buried in the University of the South Cemetery.
- Contributors:Silas McBee, possible architectDates:
1892-1893Location:Wadesboro, Anson CountyStreet Address:
308 E. Wade St.Status:
McBee was reported in The Churchman of March 1893 as having crafted the altar, retable, and credence for the church. Whether he provided designs for the church is not clear. See Norvin Cornelius Duncan, Pictorial History of the Episcopal Church in North Carolina, 1701-1964 (1965). https://archive.org/details/pictorialhistory00dunc_0.
- Variant Name(s):
St. Augustine University ChapelDates:
1895-1898Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:
1315 Oakwood Ave.Status:
The August 3, 1895, edition of McBee’s publication, The Churchman, reported that the cornerstone of the chapel of St. Augustine’s school had been laid on Monday, July 15. “The designs are by Mr. Silas McBee of North Carolina and New York.” The chapel was to be of stone, part of it taken from the grounds of the school. Fundraising had begun. The News and Observer of February 27, 1896, reported that “The handsome new stone chapel at St. Augustine’s school is nearing completion.” Further details of the chapel’s construction were included in the January 22, 1898 Churchman, which noted that the building “was erected entirely by untrained colored masons” and built of granite quarried on the school grounds and from Greystone in Henderson North Carolina. The photograph shown here illustrates McBee’s design as initially built. In the early 20th century, the chapel was altered in harmonious fashion by the addition of the north transept (1904), removal of the tower (1917), and at about the latter date, construction of a gabled porch with a belfry tower—resulting in the present configuration of the chapel. Information courtesy of Mary Ruffin Hanbury.
- Contributors:Christopher H. Dall, principal carpenter (1839-1840); Henry C. Dudley, architect (1871); John S. Norris, supervising architect (1839-1840); Thomas U. Walter, architect (1839-1840); Wood Brothers, brickmasons (1839-1840); John C. Wood, principal brickmason (1839-1840); Silas McBee, carvings for the main altar and reredos (1892)Dates:
1839-1840; 1871; 1885Location:Wilmington, New Hanover CountyStreet Address:
1 S. 3rd St., Wilmington, NCStatus:
ReligiousImages Published In:
Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina (1996).
Frances Benjamin Johnston and Thomas Tileston Waterman, The Early Architecture of North Carolina (1941).
Tony P. Wrenn, Wilmington, North Carolina: An Architectural and Historical Portrait (1984).
1896Location:Fayetteville, Cumberland CountyStreet Address:
No longer standingType:
The cornerstone for the first parish house was laid on July 9, 1896. The building was razed in 1965 to make way for a new parish house. See “The Episcopal Parish House,” Fayetteville Observer (March 25, 1896). http://www.stjohnsnc.org/history
1886Location:Lincolnton, Lincoln CountyStreet Address:
315 N. Cedar St.Status:
ReligiousImages Published In:
Marvin Brown and Maurice C. York. Our Enduring Past: A Survey of 235 Years of Life and Architecture in Lincoln County, North Carolina, 1986Note:
For the handsome church in his hometown, McBee drew the plans and oversaw the construction, and he also carved the altar, reredos, credence table, and the elaborate rood screen, which is pictured Marvin Brown and Maurice C. York. Our Enduring Past: A Survey of 235 Years of Life and Architecture in Lincoln County, North Carolina, 1986. The church was evidently a major reworking of an antebellum frame structure.
- Contributors:Silas McBee, attributed architectDates:
1895Location:Oxford, Granville CountyStreet Address:
St. Stephen’s Episcopal ChurchStatus:
ReligiousImages Published In:
Marvin A. Brown, Heritage and Homesteads: The Architecture of Granville County (1988)Note:
McBee has been described as designing St. Stephen’s church as well as executing the rood screen and other fittings. See Marvin A. Brown,_ Heritage and Homesteads: The Architecture of Granville County_ (1988); and Drucilla H. York, Church of the Saviour and Cemetery [Jackson NC] National Register of Historic Places Nomination (2000).