If These Walls Could Talk:
A History of the Smith-McDowell House
Saddled on a ridge between two hills south of Asheville, ringed by picturesque mountains and overlooking the confluence of two great rivers, Buck House was constructed around 1840, over twenty years before the Civil War. During a time when most people lived in wood frame houses, the imposing structure was composed of brick, a rarity in early 19th century Asheville. Today it is known as the Smith-McDowell House, the oldest surviving house in Asheville and the oldest brick structure in Buncombe County, North Carolina.
The mansion sits upon a plot of land, originally 308 acres in area, acquired by Colonel Daniel Smith in 1796 from William Stewart “for and in consideration of One hundred pounds lawful money…” Among the earliest settlers in the region, Colonel Smith’s second child is said to have been the first white baby born west of the Blue Ridge in North Carolina. It was this son, James McConnell Smith, who would later wed Mary “Polly” Patton, daughter of Colonel John and Ann Patton, and build a business and real estate empire, including the impressive brick mansion, Buck House. In 1833, James Smith built and operated a state-licensed toll bridge over the French Broad River that connected the Buncombe Turnpike with areas to the west of the river. The Turnpike was part of the Drovers Road that linked Greeneville, TN, and western North Carolina farmers to markets in South Carolina and Georgia. Smith’s Bridge brought in money that he then used to expand the general mercantile business that he ran with his son-in-law, William Wallace McDowell . He became one of North Carolina’s most influential and leading businessmen, owning the general store, a wagoner, a blacksmith, a tannery, a lumber yard, vast farm land, and the Buck Hotel. At one time, Smith owned more than 30,000 acres across Buncombe County.
When James Smith died in 1856, his son, John Patton Smith inherited Buck House. Upon John’s death merely one year later, at the young age of 34, his sister Sara Smith McDowell and her husband, James Smith’s former business partner William Wallace McDowell, purchased the house and 350 acres for $10,000. On the eve of the Civil War, McDowell organized the Buncombe Riflemen, the first group of Confederate volunteers from Western North Carolina. They fought at the battle of Big Bethel in Virginia. McDowell fell ill and was forced to return home and work in an administrative capacity for a time. He eventually returned to the battle field, achieving the rank of Major in the Sixtieth North Carolina Regiment under the command of his brother, Colonel Joseph McDowell. At one point during the War, when the house was visited by Union troops, Sara McDowell hid the family silver from the soldiers by burying it in the side yard.
When the Civil War ended, the McDowell family faced economic reversals. Buck House, along with 16 acres, was sold to Alexander Garrett in 1881. Garrett was an Irish immigrant who had made his fortune in America. He came to Asheville from St. Louis, Missouri, in hope that the mountain air would cure his daughter-in-law’s tuberculosis. Garrett updated the home, connecting the summer kitchen to the main house. He also founded Victoria, the wealthy community surrounding the house, becoming its mayor and building the Victoria Inn. Garrett later sold the Smith-McDowell House to his son, Robert, for $1.00.
Robert sold the Smith-McDowell House to Dr. and Mrs. Charles Van Bergen in 1898. Two years later, in 1900, Van Bergen commissioned the Olmsted Brothers to create a landscape plan for the property while adding a new carriage house that, according to one account, was designed by Richard Morris Hunt. Hunt died in 1895, therefore it is likely that the carriage house was designed by Richard Sharpe Smith, supervising architect for the Biltmore Estate. (The formal garden area and the carriage house are pictured here circa 1913). Subsequent owners of the house were Henrietta Bates McKee (friend of the Vanderbilts and President Roosevelt), millionaire businessman Brewster Chapman, and Herman Gudger (a friend of Chapman’s from a local Asheville family whose brother Francis was General Manager of DuPont during WWI and Vice-President of film-famed Goldwyn Corporation). Chapman hired Richard Sharp Smith to update the house in 1915, adding new flooring, a slate roof, and changing much of the interior woodwork.
In 1951, the Catholic Diocese purchased the house for a boy’s school dormitory. By 1974, the school had closed, and the Church became interested in selling the property. The then-dilapidated house and grounds were purchased by Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, and that same year, the Western North Carolina Historical Association negotiated a lease to restore the house as a museum and heritage center. By 1976, the Historical Association had pulled together enough funds to begin restorations and renovations, and the house was opened to the public in 1982. Today, the restored Smith-McDowell House functions as the headquarters of the Western North Carolina Historical Association, a historic house museum, an exhibit space, and a center for youth history education. It is included on the National Register of Historic Places and is the finest surviving example of brick antebellum architecture in Western North Carolina.