Tracing the roots of WNC’s signature styleWritten by Bibeka Shrestha
Love it or hate it, mountain vernacular architecture has stubbornly planted its roots in Western North Carolina and shows no signs of abandoning the area.
The style that favors steep pitched roofs, native stonework, timber frame gables and earth-tone colors has manifested itself in homes, schools, police and fire departments, and even chains like Wal-Mart and Wendy’s.
Part of the popularity is fueled simply by aesthetic preference, but in some cases, developers were goaded into adopting the style by towns striving for architectural unity.
Local governments are certainly not exempting themselves from the trend. Testaments to their penchant for the style include Waynesville’s new fire station and town hall, the Lake Junaluska Welcome Center, Jackson County’s new senior center and Cherokee’s new $140 million school.
Like chalets dominate our notion of Switzerland, and sand-colored stucco defines the Southwest, mountain vernacular architecture has grown to become a quintessential look for Western North Carolina.
Though architects agree the style hearkens back to WNC’s early days, they clash on what exactly led to its extensive revival.
Where’d it come from?
Plain old common sense gave shape to the mountain-style architecture that cropped up here more than a century ago.
Pitched roofs channeled off rain and snow, while timber beams were hewed from the woods around them and stones were churned up and tossed aside when plowing fields.
“Native stone is what people from past generations would go out and pick up,” said Randy Cunningham, an architect with Waynesville-based Mountain Design.
“They had it. It was at hand. It was free,” said Mib Medford, who sits on the Waynesville community appearance commission. “Availability is what brought it on.”
Mountain-style architecture is probably an original colonial invention, according to Sylva-based architect O’Dell Thompson. It’s neither inspired by Native American techniques nor European architectural traditions, which uses stone a lot more heavily, Thompson said.
Whatever the reason for its initial adoption by WNC settlers, the style has won over a crowd of architects, business owners and residents over the last 20 years.
Now, it’s become nearly impossible to go anywhere without running into stacked stones inspired by the foundations of old farmhouses or timber frames that recall exposed rafters in barns.
“It’s running rampant, that kind of look. It’s everywhere,” said Scott Donald, an architect with Padgett & Freeman Architects who has designed many mountain-style buildings in Cherokee.
Local architects have multiple theories for why that is.
Luis Quevedo at Waynesville-based LQ Design Options, stressed that there was no sudden explosion of mountain-style architecture here. It evolved over time.
Quevedo said it could have been influenced by architecture in the Rocky Mountain region.
“There’s a lot of influence that comes from out West,” said Quevedo, adding that the contemporary version of the style has been popular in the West for a lot longer.
The main difference between the two regions, he said, is that the Southern Appalachian region often incorporates a native barn look.
Thompson agreed, stating that WNC’s mountain architecture isn’t fundamentally different from the kind found in states like Colorado, Idaho, and Montana, which took their cue from the Alps. But the Smoky Mountain brand of mountain architecture is simpler and more understated than all of the above, said Thompson.
According to Donald, the credit for the mountain look historically lies with the East, not the other way around.
“We’d already set the standards here in the East before it went West,” said Donald.
Donald said it’s possible that people who flocked to national parks during vacations caught inspiration from the lodges there. They returned, wanting to craft a similar look for their own homes.
In Thompson’s view, outsiders moving into the area about 20 years ago were primarily responsible for reviving the rustic look.
“When people started discovering the mountains as a place to retire to, they started wanting homes that felt like they belonged,” said Thompson.
Though many architects are fans of mountain-style architecture, not all agree with its proliferation. For example, Donald doesn’t find the style appropriate for the Haywood County jail or Wal-Mart.
“If you just slap a gable onto the front of a Wal-Mart, I don’t think that’s appropriate,” said Donald. “If you’re going to do it, do it. Don’t just do a piece of it. It suggests something it’s not.”
Architects say there’s definitely a right way and a wrong way to create the look.
Quevedo is not exactly a fan of what he calls the “cookie-cutter log homes” he sees in Maggie Valley. He said he prefers a more authentic rustic style.
The green connection
Part of the driving force behind that rustic style is the green movement, which encourages using local, sustainable products wherever possible. Many are drawn to the idea of harvesting natural materials to create a mountain look.
Quevedo said he has often used native stone, heavy timber, and even logs as columns or handrails.
Architects can create a very basic mountain look or take it to the extreme, by using tree bark for siding, for example.
“You think of tree bark, that’s what protects the tree for hundreds of years, why not put it on the side of the house?” said Donald.
Natural materials, or at least the natural look, are inseparable from mountain-style architecture, which Donald calls the complete opposite of the “smooth high-tech commercial look.”
Some who opt for the style hunt down and recycle parts from old buildings, for example, to lend a more authentic, traditional appearance for their new construction. Architects have been especially inspired by barn wood.
Local companies have sprung up to cater to their tastes, specializing in buying old barns and extracting materials to use as flooring, siding, railings and columns in new homes, Quevedo said.
Ironically, a lot of stone used to recreate an indigenous look comes from outside the region, according to Cunningham.
No matter the appeal, there are undeniable downsides to using recycled material. Maintenance and cost are two major sticking points.
“Recycled wood and recycled materials are not cheap,” said Quevedo. “You end up spending top dollar sometimes.”
Those who choose to use recycled wood must make sure it is treated properly, and even after everything has been installed, the time to do routine maintenance will come around a lot quicker than if new materials had been used.
Developers must take great care to make sure the building is waterproof, while dwellers must replace mortar between the rocks every 30 to 40 years, Donald said.
Though the actual buildings obviously won’t last forever, most architects seem to shoot for a look that never grows old. Again and again, they said they were concerned with creating something that wasn’t solely “trendy.”
“In my opinion, when you lock into a style, then you’ve locked into something that will go out of style,” said Thompson. “It’s more important for it to be timeless.”