Black Mountain College Project     

Architecture Section



Black Mountain and Asheville

Blue Ridge Campus

Lake Eden Campus

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From the steps of Black Mountain College in North Carolina one has a view of mountains and forests which makes one dream of Asia.”  Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, 1945

Blue Ridge Campus 1933-41

If Black Mountain College was to open in September 1933, a ready-made campus had to be located over the summer months. Robert Wunsch, a former member of the Rollins faculty who had taught in Asheville, recommended the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly buildings, located seventeen miles east of Asheville, North Carolina, and three miles south of the village of Black Mountain. The buildings were used by the YMCA in the summer but were vacant in the winter. Frederick Georgia, a former Rollins faculty member, had a summer home in Highlands in western North Carolina. In June, he and John Andrew Rice visited the site. Rice recalled: "Here was peace. Here was also central heating against the cold of winter, blankets, sheets, dishes, flatware, enough for a dozen colleges, all at a moderate rental." (Martin Duberman, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community (Dutton, 1972)). They were impressed both by the structures which were suited to the college’s needs and by the moderate climate and splendid mountain setting.

The property had been purchased in 1906 as a summer assembly grounds for the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). As the story is told, on October 6, 1906, Willis Duke Weatherford, executive secretary of the Blue Ridge Association, rented a horse and buggy and drove from Asheville to Black Mountain in search of an inspirational site for the YMCA. When he arrived at the present location, he climbed a tree and, viewing the mountains beyond, exclaimed, “Eureka, we have found it!” The property consisted of 1619 acres including a thirty acre farm.

In 1933 Willis Weatherford was struggling to hold on to the Blue Ridge property through the Great Depression, and a winter tenant was an appealing solution. He asked for $7,500 for the nine-month 1933-34 academic term. The college responded with an offer of $4,500. Weatherford agreed and a lease was signed on August 24, only a month before the college opened.

Unbeknownst to the college, at the time they signed the lease, foreclosure proceedings had been initiated against the Blue Ridge Assembly, and on October 2, 1933 at 12 o’clock noon on the steps of the Buncombe County Court House the property was auctioned and sold for $45,000 to a party the college felt was hostile to its existence. This sale negated the college’s lease. The purchase would become final in ten days unless someone reopened the bid with an offer of at least 5% more. The college, which could not raise the funds, was relieved when Weatherford was able to regain the property in the name of Blue Ridge College, Inc.

The main building, Robert E. Lee Hall, named for the Confederate general and designed by Louis Jallade (1876-1957), a New York architect who designed many buildings for the YMCA, was completed in 1912. The outstanding feature of the plantation-style, neoclassical wooden structure is eight three-story wooden columns which support a wide portico. From the porch one enters an expansive lobby with a large stone fireplace. When Black Mountain College was located at the site, the east end of the central lobby was separated from the main space by a credenza on the south side and, on the opposite side, by a banister. On either side of the lobby and on the top two floors were rows of dormitory-style rooms.

Lee Hall both reflected and reinforced the communal ideals of the founders. The spacious lobby with its large fireplace was used for classes, parties, community meetings, lectures and performances. The bulletin board where notices, ideas, lost and found items, programs for events, complaints, and other items of interest were posted was also located in the lobby, and it was there that students and faculty collected their mail. There were so many rooms that it was decided the first year that each student would have a study and that they would share rooms for sleeping. The concept of student studies was central to the educational experience, and when the college moved to its own property, the first building constructed was a Studies Building. College offices and a periodical reading room were located on the first floor. The weaving studio, printing press, and library were in the basement as was the United States Blue Ridge post office. Faculty without children also lived in Lee Hall; faculty with children, in nearby cottages.

The porch of Lee Hall with its splendid view north to the mountains was used for classes, dances, mountain viewing, social gatherings, and meetings. The roof of the first floor extension on the south side was a popular gathering place for sunbathing, study, and socializing.

Of the surrounding buildings, the college used only a few cottages, the dining hall, and the gymnasium on a regular basis, although at times other buildings were used for music practice. The dining hall, located behind Lee Hall, was joined by a covered walkway, a practice common at the time to protect the main building in case of a kitchen fire. The dining hall also was used for after dinner dances and as a performance space.

Black Mountain College was never able to obtain a secure lease, and Weatherford was not willing to sell. An added inconvenience was the necessity of packing all college belongings at the end of the spring term and storing them in the attic of Lee Hall for the summer and then unpacking them in the fall. Although the college kept an office on the site for the summer, faculty had to find other residences for the vacation months.

In 1937, as security against a sudden ouster, the college purchased the Lake Eden property, which had been developed as a summer camp and resort, north of the village of Black Mountain. The college moved there in June 1941.

2007: The YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly is a conference center owned by the YMCAs of the ten southeastern states. It is now an all-season meeting and conference center, and is part of Blue Ridge Assembly Historic District.

For the most part, the property remains much as it was in 1933 when Black Mountain College rented the buildings. The Dining Hall has been demolished and replaced by the Blue Ridge Center, located in front of Lee Hall, and the swimming pool has been removed. In Lee Hall both the credenza and railing setting apart sections of the central lobby have been removed. Wooden steps on the south side have been replaced by metal fire escapes

Photographs: North Carolina State Archives, Black Mountain College Papers.


The Black Mountain College Project gratefully acknowledges a grant from the Graham Foundation
for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts for a study of architecture at Black Mountain College.