We tend to think of the architecture of the South in terms of the grand plantations with their stately homes or the forlorn cabin off in the mountains, or maybe even in more general and vague rural terms. While much of the South’s architecture is indeed rural, and important as such to American architectural history, the South also has urban cores and the need for urban architecture. If the rural bearing and legacy of the South did contribute something key to the development of these urban regions, it was that these cities for the most part grew in their need for decidedly urban architecture later in the game than their counterparts in the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions.
The advantage of this was that Southern cities could watch trends elsewhere in the nation and adopt those as they became proven and established. As cities such as Columbia, Charlotte, Birmingham, Tallahassee, and Roanoke grew in the early twentieth century, they could look to the trends of Chicago School of architecture and other movements underway not only across the nation but also in Europe. It was a very exciting time for architecture, and architects were keen to represent modern, forward-looking views of hope and a reliance on engineered materials and technologies in their work. They believed that technological innovations would not only improve architecture in terms of cost, convenience, and utility but also would improve society in general with better, safer jobs and products to make life easier.
Louis Smithey was born in 1890 in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, and studied architecture and civil engineering at Randolph-Macon College and also at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute. In 1920 he founded his own firm in Roanoke after working in several other firms as a draftsman and in 1922 added a partner, Mr. Tardy. The partnership was short-lived, and within less than a decade Smithey was again practicing on his own. In 1935, however, he added a new partner, Henry B. Boynton, to his firm. Boynton had a lot in common with Smithey: he had also studied both architecture and engineering and also was educated at Virginia Tech in engineering.
As the firm of Smithey and Boynton, these two gentlemen would become arguably the most important architects of their era in Virginia west of Richmond and responsible for a great deal of the residential, commercial, sacred, and most of the institutional architecture of the region between 1935 and the 1960’s. Both partners were admitted to practice in the Commonwealth of Virginia as both architects and licensed engineers, a situation that allowed the firm to see the majority of its engineering needs met in-house and thus allowed large-scale projects that are engineering-intensive, such as public schools, to be won by the firm and completed with impressive speed while not sacrificing attention to detail.
Given the in-house ability to take on large projects in an encompassing manner and the interest in engineering and applying new technologies of the time, Smithey and Boynton soon began soliciting jobs from regional school boards to design new high and elementary schools. The pre-war years of the 1930’s were a time of significant change for western Virginia. This mostly rural region was shifting from quaint one- or two-room schoolhouses to modern schools designed to receive pupils from a considerable geographic range as schools from smaller communities were consolidated. Few such schools existed, and even those that had been designed at the forefront of this movement in the 1910’s were by the middle of the 1930’s requiring updating or replacement.
The economic situation was also unique: money was tight due to the Great Depression, yet the Works Progress Administration and other national programs were funneling in money to improve state and local infrastructure. Also, this was the time of the early twentieth century ideal of technology’s improvements in everyday life: a school could now have central heat, electricity, and indoor plumbing—all things we now take for granted but lacking in most rural schoolhouses of the time.
Smithey and Boynton were very familiar with the Chicago School of architecture, a style originating at the turn of the century that placed high emphasis on use of new structural technologies and sense of scale to produce affordable yet imposing commercial and institutional buildings. Louis Sullivan’s Carson, Pirie, Scott, and Company Building could be called a perfect example of this style in its pure form, but Chicago-School-inspired architecture spread throughout America, often incorporating regional and usage-driven modifications as it went.
Other international trends such as Art Deco and Art Nouveau, plus the rise of modernism in general, were dictating the design of institutional buildings away from the long tenure of classic columns and distinct porticos intermingled with a lingering influence of Federal and Adams style details. The new modernism allowed for technology to guide architecture, over ornamental detail, keeping the forward-looking, streamlined curves and metal-and-glass brick of Art Deco, and in the 1930’s producing the International Style which dominated institutional architecture over the course of the twentieth century. It allowed the prosperity and optimism of a nation looking beyond the Great Depression to be manifest, and where better than in schools where it could encourage the next generation?
Smithey and Boynton had worked plenty in the vocabulary of more traditional architecture—Louis Smithey’s 1937 design for Arold’i Jewelers of Covington brings some Commercial Modern touches into a building shouldered up to a bank and thus retaining the stately authority of marble and a sense of scale, which acknowledges the bank’s superior status in the streetscape. For their schools, though, they dove head-first into the International Style. For one, the general lack of ornament made the style more suited for cost-effective buildings—a major concern in the Great Depression and with school boards in rural counties. However, even in the schools there occasionally was room for elaboration and creativity.
In Covington, where the firm’s work was already appreciated for the Arold’i store, a bank building, and a Smithey-and-Tardy-designed National Guard Armory, Louis Smithey was able to convince the school board to go for a new high school in a grand Art Deco aesthetic. Getting the funding for the project—far over what the school board had budgeted—became Smithey’s personal mission as well. The well-connected architect was eventually able to convince Clifton A. Woodrum, a US senator from Virginia, to help him obtain WPA funding for the school.
Despite this, cost was still a prime concern, and Smithey’s papers from the project illustrate the pains of keeping the project from sinking into the red. It was, however, in the end, worth the effort: Covington High School remains in use today in 2016 with very few alterations or improvements save things like the addition of computers and the modernization of some science labs. The bathrooms retain their original sinks, and even the original Detroit Blower Company furnace has faithfully kept the school warm many a snowy winter.
Placed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register in 2008 due to its architectural merit, the school is a perfect example of Smithey and Boynton architecture due to the level of detail furnished to it and also because it has been retained without significant renovations or alterations to the original design. Some of the other Smithey and Boynton schools, such as Dublin High School (now Dublin Middle School) in Dublin, Virginia, lack the ornate details and finer materials of Covington High, but all are united in their quality of design and construction, a fact that has allowed many of these 1930’s-era schools able to continue in service to this very day. Moreover, they brought modernism to the public architecture of western Virginia, while bringing schools into the contemporary age.
Smithey and Boynton kept meticulous records and of course practiced at a period in history where nearly all correspondence was paper-based. Given that both partners studied at Virginia Tech and the firm also designed some buildings for Tech, the archives of the firm now reside in the special collections of Virginia Tech’s Newman Library. The project files for the schools and other projects reveal not only the famous attention-to-detail of the firm, but a fascinating look into how things like paint finishes, plumbing fixtures, and carpeting were all selected and sourced by architects at the time. This era was the real advent of the mass-production and extensive distribution of such items and the gateway for buildings in smaller communities to be able to obtain fixtures as varied and of the same quality as those in major cities.
This ability was not lost on Louis Smithey, who went to great lengths to obtain the best yet least expensive fixtures and would in some instances design and commission what he desired outright—such as an impressive Art Deco hanging light fixture in Covington High designed by Smithey. It was just another way in which the firm demonstrated a strong commitment to “getting things right” and to providing their region with the highest quality in design, producing buildings that not only have lasted for decades of use but also set the tone for modernity in western Virginia.
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