McMichael, James M.

McMichael, James M.

Place of birth: 
Harrisburg, PA
Date of birth: 
Date of death: 

From the NC Architects website:

James M. McMichael (December 14, 1870-October 3, 1944), a prolific early twentieth century architect headquartered in Charlotte, became known as one of the principal church architects in the state and is best known for his domed, classically detailed, auditorium plan churches for Baptist and other Protestant congregations. He also planned other building types including theaters, lodges, courthouses, stores, hotels, and residences. Early in his career he was associated with leading Charlotte architects in the firms of Wheeler, McMichael, and Company (1901-1902) and McMichael and Hunter (1903-1904), but for most of his life he operated his own firm.

Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to James and Lavinia (Venia) McMichael, James M. McMichael had at least four siblings. On October 23, 1896, he married Sarah Florence Williamson in Chester, Pennsylvania, where the couple was living in 1900 and he identified himself as an architect. Little is known of his education or career before he moved to Charlotte in 1901, where he immediately associated with architect Oliver Duke Wheeler.

McMichael quickly established himself as a highly productive architect and a church specialist serving the fast-growing business city and other communities. During the years 1901-1910 alone, the Manufacturers' Record reported his association with thirty-nine buildings in eighteen counties across North Carolina, under his own name or with his partners; it is not clear how many of these were actually executed.

McMichael's debut in the Manufacturers' Record appeared in association with Wheeler, who was no stranger to the pages of that publication. The May 16, 1901, edition cited the firm as architects for the Scotland County Courthouse and Jail in Laurinburg. This courthouse followed a domed model already established for Wheeler's firm in the Iredell County Courthouse by young architect Louis E. Schwend, who died in 1900; it may have been Schwend's untimely demise that encouraged Wheeler to employ McMichael. The courthouse listing was soon followed on August 8, 1901 with the firm's commission for a Carnegie Library in Charlotte, a prominent neoclassical edifice with the dome and portico characteristic of such facilities. McMichael designed at least four more buildings in 1901 with Wheeler: a hotel for J.E. Morgan and a residence for Mr. James in Laurinburg; a building for the Methodist Orphanage in Raleigh; and a Baptist parsonage and Bethel AME Church in Charlotte. It is also possible that Wheeler and McMichael designed Edward Dilworth Latta's magnificent columned residence (1901-1902) in the new Dilworth suburb, but this has not been documented.

In 1903 McMichael and architect Leonard L. Hunter formed the firm of McMichael and Hunter, which lasted through 1904. During the firm's brief existence, McMichael and Hunter reported that they had designed in North Carolina at least two schools, two houses, a courthouse, a lodge, an office building, and seven churches, the latter of which ranged from Baptist to German Reformed denominations and were located in Charlotte, Wadesboro, High Point, Concord, and Waynesville. After 1904 McMichael established his own practice, which continued for many years. By 1915 or 1916 his practice was so busy that he took into his employ young architect Marion R. Marsh, who later became a leading Charlotte architect on his own.

McMichael along with most of his contemporaries generally favored a classically derived vocabulary. Like architect C. C. Hook of Charlotte and others, he executed many of his residential designs of the early years of the twentieth century in the white-columned Southern Colonial tradition, including the Cannon-Guille House (1906) in Salisbury, and the A. P. Pearsall House (1909) and the William Gibson House in Red Springs (1912), imposing houses erected for some of the wealthiest residents of their communities. His practice also encompassed commercial projects, such as the Royster Building in Shelby with a symmetrical, classically adorned fa├žade, and the Marianna Hotel in Marion, which combines a restrained Colonial Revival style with projecting bays unusual in McMichael's oeuvre. He applied a similarly classical vocabulary to Charlotte's 1907 Medical College Building, which displays a centered pavilion and robust classical details.

It was in his church designs that McMichael's preference for bold, classically inspired compositions took especially distinctive form. A Baptist himself and a member of First Baptist Church in Charlotte, he designed an especially large number of Baptist churches--John E. Wells's study of the Manufacturer's Record indicates that between 1907 and 1925 he designed at least eighteen Baptist churches in North Carolina-- but he also planned facilities for other denominations. Many churches of the early twentieth century continued the previous century's taste for Gothic Revival and Romanesque Revival styles, and McMichael did design a number of Gothic Revival churches, including First Baptist Church (1922-1924) in Concord in "English Gothic type," and Myers Park Presbyterian Church (1927) in stone for a prestigious Charlotte congregation. His most characteristic churches, however, took a different form, with a portico, cruciform plan, and central dome. Typically the portico shelters one or more entrances into a vestibule, which opens into an auditorium plan sanctuary, dramatized by a high domed ceiling and usually equipped with curving pews. Although in some respects his domed church designs shared compositional elements with the Wheeler courthouse model inauguarated by Louis Schwend, no definite chain of influence has been documented.

The First Baptist Church in Charlotte was the first and most unusual of McMichael's domed churches--a "Byzantine"-inspired design with circular forms, a central dome with cupola, and twin domed towers flanking a recessed portico. The Charlotte Observer stated upon its completion that the church was "so striking in its unusual elegance that it will always be viewed with interest by strangers and passers by" and commented favorably on the absence of a traditional steeple: the "useless and costly steeple is beginning to be a thing of the past."

Most of McMichael's churches in the domed format, however, differed from the Charlotte landmark by taking a more conservative form, typically with neoclassical detailing and a projecting portico with Tuscan, Ionic, or Corinthian columns. Among many examples are the Page Memorial Methodist Church (1913) in Aberdeen, East Avenue Tabernacle Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church (1914) in Charlotte, Edenton Baptist Church (1916-1920) in Edenton, and First Baptist Church (1922) in Lincolnton. A notice of the proposed Edenton Baptist Church in the Manufacturers' Record of March 30, 1916, described McMichael's characteristic design--"brick; 82x135 ft.; steam heat; electric light; rolling partitions; accordion doors; Mt. Airy granite trimmings; Indiana limestone columns with bases and caps; copper dome with ornamental cathedral glass; auditorium of art glass." McMichael occasionally departed from the domed format in classically detailed churches, as was the case for Charlotte's Little Rock A. M. E. Zion Church (1908-1911), where he employed twin towers to flank the main block, omitted the dome, and maintained the classical emphasis with a columned portico protecting three pairs of double doors. Other churches across the state showed variations on these themes to suit the preferences and budgets of the congregations. (At roughly the same time, architect Reuben H. Hunt and his associate Charles W. Carlton were designing somewhat similar churches, chiefly for Methodist congregations, which differed from McMichael's in certain features including the prevalence of a corner entrance.)

McMichael was survived by his widow and their three sons and five daughters. His obituary stated that he had designed over 900 churches in his 50-year career. No overall study of his work has been published. The building list here includes only a fraction of his works in North Carolina, chiefly those featured in publications and for which the status and location are known. New entries may be added as further research provides more information.


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