Wooten, Mitchell (1905-1940)
Adolphus Mitchell Wooten; Mitch Wooten
- Kinston, NC
Styles & Forms:
Colonial Revival; Modernist; Art Moderne
Adolphus Mitchell (“Mitch”) Wooten (June 30, 1905-November 30, 1940) of Kinston, North Carolina, is primarily remembered for Colonial Revival-style commissions he executed for eastern North Carolina’s tobacco elite and for his role in bringing Art Moderne style architecture to his hometown. Working with builders Oscar L. Shackelford of Kinston and T. A. Loving of Goldsboro, between 1934 and 1963 the firm of A. Mitchell Wooten and Associates produced many residences, government buildings, and public housing complexes distinguished by visible or implied classically-derived motifs. Wooten is also significant for attracting talented architects to his firm, including his fellow Georgia Tech alumni and colleagues from his New York years. Among his associates were his partner John J. Rowland (1903-1976) and native Kinstonian, William (“Bill”) Coleman (1911-1976), for whom Wooten was a mentor, and who established a successful architectural practice in eastern North Carolina.
Mitchell Wooten grew up in Kinston, in Mitchelltown, a turn-of-the-20th-century streetcar suburb developed by and named after his paternal grandfather, Adolphus Mitchell. After high school, Wooten attended the Virginia Military Institute but was expelled on January 30, 1924, for poor grades and mischievous exploits. On the strength of his drawing skills, Wooten entered Georgia School of Technology’s Architecture School in the fall of 1924, where he endeared himself to his new classmates as “a most invaluable member of the Architecture Department” who “works hard when he has time” (The Blue Print. Georgia School of Technology, 1926).
After his 1926 graduation, Wooten moved to New York City, where he worked as a draftsman until the 1929 stock market crash. One of his employers was Arthur C. Holden, whose architectural firm was at 232 Madison Avenue; under Holden, Wooten drafted plans and elevations for houses in New York’s suburbs. Following the crash, according to family stories, Wooten and his fellow draftsmen, unemployed by the halt of building construction, made the daily rounds at architectural firms and relief agencies to pick up any work possible; the unsuccessful would disperse to sketch city landmarks for their portfolios. Wooten also attended the New York School for Social Research, focusing his courses on designs for schools and multi-unit residential complexes. Mitchell Wooten and his wife returned to Kinston in the autumn of 1933 and began his architectural practice immediately upon his return. During his brief career from 1934 and 1940, Wooten designed over one hundred buildings in the eastern North Carolina towns of Kinston, Greenville, Weldon, and Rocky Mount.
Wooten’s earliest Kinston commissions—Colonial Revival style residences for tobacco brokers and warehousemen—pointed to a local Depression era paradox of prosperity. As discussed in Anthony Badger’s Prosperity Road: The New Deal, Tobacco, and North Carolin_a (1980), and Ben F. Lemert’s _The Tobacco Manufacturing Industry in North Carolina (1939), the 1932 Agricultural Adjustment Act and the 1933 Kerr-Smith Act, which sought to bolster the local tobacco economy, proved a boon to Kinston and other Coastal Plain tobacco towns. The resulting strong prices for tobacco made for a buoyant local economy in the mid-1930s; by 1934, North Carolina’s “bright leaf” crop was valued at over 118 million dollars, versus its 1932 value of 35 million. As a result, eastern North Carolina tobacco towns such as Kinston gained a remarkable number of substantial buildings despite the Great Depression.
Tobacco brokers and regional executives for national tobacco companies, who initially constituted the core of Wooten’s clientele, displayed their wealth with fashionable new homes, most of which were built in West Kinston’s Perry Park and Harvey Circle neighborhoods. Wooten’s early designs for these clients created traditional Colonial and Georgian Revival-style dwellings whose interiors offered modern floor plans and light-filled spaces on a par with the town’s finer 1920s dwellings. The Craven Brooks House (1007 Harvey Circle) and the Leonard Oettinger House (1005 Harvey Circle), both constructed between 1936 and 1938, epitomized his firm’s Colonial Revival and Georgian Revival style—brick with elaborate central entrances, generous double-hung shuttered windows, and flanking one-story wings. They are set back from the street by manicured lawns and framed by trees and other greenery, in keeping with landscaping features emphasized in Wooten’s drawings.
By 1940 Mitchell Wooten’s residential architecture had expanded from Colonial Revival houses to include a few residences where Art-Moderne and International Style design meshed with traditional forms. Wooten integrated features of both styles in arrangements that made optimal use of natural lighting, novel floor plans, and the interplay of exterior and interior space. Two key examples of Wooten’s later work are the Jack Rountree House (1000 Harvey Circle) and his own home (1003 West Road) in the Harvey Circle neighborhood. Both houses feature streamlined, classically-derived decoration and asymmetrical floor plans that made gardens and courtyards a focal point from the interior.
Wooten also proved to be adept at bridging tradition and modernity in the functional plans of his residences. The ascendancy of the automobile and electric appliances, from washing machines to refrigerators, were changing domestic design, and his residential designs easily accommodated the new conveniences, meshing with the interiors’ overall form and details. At the same time, his house plans also provided for domestic servants’ accommodations, familiar in elite white residents’ homes in the racially-segregated world of the 20th-century American South. His plans showed “servants rooms” and bathroom facilities with plainer finish than the rest of the house, tucked away into the back of the building or placed above a garage. In many cases, these servants’ rooms have been converted to new uses, leaving surviving blueprints and tracings as testimony to the daily life of domestic workers (nearly all of whom were African American in eastern North Carolina) during much of the 20th century.
Public buildings designed by A. Mitchell Wooten and Associates included an administrative two-story annex to the 1859 Northampton County Courthouse at Jackson, NC, in 1938 and the 1939 Jones County Courthouse, located in Trenton, which replaced an 1865 frame building. Wooten initially conceived of the Jones County Courthouse as an Art Moderne edifice, but the county preferred a Colonial Revival brick building. Wooten’s best known work, the Art Moderne style Lenoir County Courthouse is the centerpiece of his home community of Kinston. in 1939. He envisioned the Lenoir County Courthouse to incorporate a plaza and City Hall complex, but due to lack of money, those features were not realized. Nonetheless, Wooten’s design for the courthouse produced a monumental edifice that combines modernist and classically derived elements in a four-story building of concrete construction reinforced by structural steel, with panels of cut limestone and a recessed three-story portico across its six-bay façade.
Among the other public buildings designed by Wooten were facilities for the Caswell Center, an institution for handicapped children in Kinston, and public housing in Kinston and New Bern. Constructed in the wake of the 1937 United States Housing Act and the establishment of housing authorities in eastern North Carolina’s urban communities, these four complexes—Simon Bright Homes and Mitchell Wooten Courts (posthumously named) in Kinston, and Trent Court and Craven Terrace in New Bern—feature nearly identical Art Moderne-style brick veneered two-story buildings with cantilevered shelters and hip roofs. The plans for their landscaped open spaces specifically included children’s playgrounds as well. The signature feature most locals recognize at these complexes are cast-concrete relief panels over each paired doorway, depicting children riding hobby horses, pushing hoops, and other variations of play.
Many of A. Mitchell Wooten and Associates’ buildings have survived in Kinston. Although Wooten and his associates also worked in Weldon, Rocky Mount, and Greenville, NC, it is not known how many of his buildings in those towns still exist.
One of Wooten’s legacies is the team of architects and draftsmen he assembled between 1933 and 1940 for his North Queen Street office. J. Scott Thomas, a native of Rocky Mount, NC, was a fellow Georgia Tech alumnus who also worked in New York at the same time as Wooten. Another architect associated with Georgia Tech was John “Jack” Rowland, who had been an associate professor there before being hired by Wooten; Rowland, whose background included the University of Illinois and Yale University, would guide the firm after Wooten’s death. Between 1934 and 1936, another Kinstonian, William Coleman, worked as Wooten’s principal draftsman, including during his summers off from Georgia Tech. Coleman’s career, which ended with his death in 1976, encompassed local residences, schools, and churches. Other architects and draftsmen associated with the firm were George A. Snyder and Paul Curtis Hardy.
After Wooten’s death in 1940, his firm continued under John Rowland, producing the stylishly contemporary renditions of Colonial Revival Wooten had espoused, along with more modern architecture for public buildings. When A. Mitchell Wooten and Associates’ office closed in 1963 after Rowland’s death, local citizen Sam Brody salvaged Wooten, Rowland, and Coleman’s blueprints and sketches from a trash bin, giving them to local contractor, William Harvey (1926-2004). Harvey maintained the drawings, finding inspiration from them for his own projects, thus perpetuating Mitchell Wooten’s work and influence into the late twentieth century.
Anthony Badger, Prosperity Road: The New Deal, Tobacco, and North Carolina. ( 1980).
The Blue Print (Georgia School of Technology, 1926). Courtesy Ruth C. Hale, Archives and Records Management Department, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA.
Verna Wooten Ewell, Charlottesville, Virginia [formerly of Kinston, NC]. Interview with author, November 1994.
Kinston Daily Free Press, August 17, 1939 (“Kinston Tobacco Market” Edition).
Ben F. Lemert, The Tobacco Manufacturing Industry in North Carolina (1939).
Penne Smith, “A. Mitchell Wooten, Architect, of Kinston, North Carolina.” Master’s Thesis, The University of Delaware, Art History Department, 1999.
Mitchell Wooten and Associates, Commissioned Works Tracings from Company Blueprints, 1934-1940. William S. Harvey Collection, Kinston, NC (negatives from selected tracings in possession of author).
Mitchell Wooten, Private Papers. Collection Verna Wooten Ewell, Charlottesville, VA
1939Location:Kinston, Lenoir CountyStreet Address:
1003 West Rd.Status:
Mitchell Wooten described the one-story, brick house he designed for his family as “Nassau Colonial,” possibly alluding to its interpretation of a patio bungalow and views of the courtyard. The plan of the asymmetrically massed dwelling is oriented around a central flagstone and brick courtyard.
1937Location:Kinston, Lenoir CountyStreet Address:
1001 Harvey CircleStatus:
Constructed for Mitchell Wooten’s maternal uncle, the house combines elements of the Prairie Style and the bungalow, with the first story of brick and the upper story covered in vertical boarding. Typical of Wooten’s work, the informal plan emphasizes natural light and views of the landscaped setting.