Arts Heritage

Rams in the Sky and Leda and the Swan

Asheville's the Public Service Building

The Public Service Building, built in 1929, was originally Carolina Power & Light. Photos by Joye Ardyn Durham

By John Turk

Known today as the Self-Help Building, the Public Services Building, located at 89–93 Patton Avenue, is one of Asheville’s iconic structures. However, because it is not featured in any of the city’s walking or bus tours, it is less well known than the buildings that surround Pack Square or congregate around the Grove Arcade.

A product of the city’s building boom of the 1920s, it is a marvelous example of Neo- Spanish architecture. Its first two floors are embellished with depictions of mythological characters including hares (sacred to Aphrodite and Eros because of their high libido), winged lions and references to Leda and the Swan. A flock of ram grotesques watches over from above.

The building was designed by the firm of Beacham and LeGrand. James Douthit Beacham (1891–1956) and Leon LeGrand (1894–1963) created the Greenville, South Carolina firm in 1921. While most of their work was in South Carolina, they completed several projects in the Asheville area.

Built for Carolina Power and Light, the Public Services Building was completed in 1929. In that year it won an American Institute of Architects Honor Award. The firm also designed the Conabeer Chrysler Building (1928) at 162–164 Coxe Avenue.

The 1925 Liberty Building at 135 South Main Street (now the Chamber of Commerce Building) in Greenville, South Carolina, shares many of the same features of the Public Services Building. While its style is more Classical Revival in nature, its overall shape—base, shaft and capital—and its use of animal motifs is quite similar.

The builder, Luther Launcelot Merchant (1876– 1966), was responsible for many of Asheville’s important early 20th century buildings. Born in Brooks, Indiana, he moved with his family to Henderson County, North Carolina, around 1885. He served in the Spanish-American War and then began working as a carpenter in Asheville.

In 1911, he launched Merchant Construction Co. with his brother, Oscar. This firm built the Jackson Building, the Citizen-Times Building and the Beth HaTephila Temple. They also built a number of finely detailed homes including the Andrew Gennett House at 195 Kimberly Avenue. With Asheville architect Henry Gaines, they expanded and remodeled the 1875 Italianate villa named Fernihurst located on the A-B Tech campus.

The building of a city in the mountains makes available many marvelous settings. Approach the Jackson Building from below and witness its soaring height. The same can be said of the Masonic Temple or St. Lawrence Basilica or Douglas Ellington’s magnificent Asheville High School. It is easy to understand why some compare Asheville to an Italian hill town.

The Public Service Building benefits from its location at the top of Coxe Avenue. When you approach the building from the south, it commands the summit of a long incline. In 1991 the Public Services Building was lovingly renovated and restored, and its name was officially changed to the Self-Help Building.

John Turk, Professor Emeritus, Youngstown State University, leads city walking and bus tours with history-at-hand.com and Asheville by Foot. He can be reached at jrturk@ysu.edu.

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