Perhaps you’ve heard that Asheville has the largest collection of art deco buildings in the Southeast, second only to Miami Beach. In conversations on the topic, one name comes up over and over again. Best known locally for designing the S&W Cafeteria, Asheville City Building, and Asheville High School, Douglas Ellington (1886–1960) made his mark here in the 1920s. Yet, there’s one particularly fascinating residential project of his from 1949 of which few are aware.
In the 1940s, Douglas’ friend Rose Brown, an artist, told him, “I’m going to challenge you to build me a home in cinderblock that I will like.” Douglas accepted and decided to glean his vision from the idea of an Irish monastery. (Imagine tall ceilings and arches.)
To inspire Rose in design choices she would make for the house, he loaned her The Book of Kells, a medieval artifact and illuminated manuscript that contains the four Gospels in Latin. Although the date and place of origin are up for scholarly debate, experts say that book was most likely produced in the late eighth century on the Isle of Iona in Scotland and later moved to Kells, Ireland, sometime in the ninth century after a Viking raid.
Rose named the home Kells Castle. References to The Book of Kells are evidenced by several images she painted directly on the walls of the house. In one entryway, for instance, she depicted the four apostles.
“I walked in here and I knew her immediately,” says Rebecca Crosson, who purchased the house with husband Rick in 2014. They are the fourth owners of the home. A fellow artist, Rebecca was a kindred spirit in many of the design choices. She understood, for example, why the house was situated so strangely on the lot. While some believed it had something to do with astrology, Rebecca disagrees. “They put it this way because the skylight pulls in northern light and northern light is what artists paint from.” The skylight is situated directly over the artist’s studio that Rebecca now uses.
Over the years, the frescos faded. Rebecca is excited to reinvigorate these images. She is also planning a special series of paintings based on The Book of Kells. “This is my job—to honor her,” she says.
When Rebecca and Rick decided to relocate to Asheville from the Philadelphia area, Rick found the listing for Kells Castle online. At the time, their son Andrew and his wife Julie lived in West Asheville. Rick was hoping to find a house big enough that the two families could live together in a multigenerational-style home.
A decade ago, designer Patti Glazer was hired by the former owners to add an addition to the home, which would include several bedrooms and a tower accessible by a spiral staircase that connects the floors. It was decided that Andrew, Julie, and their two children would move in to the addition while Rick and Rebecca lived in the original portion of the house.
“I never had it in my mind to go out and buy a cinderblock house,” says Rick with a laugh. But he admits, “The house drew us in so many ways.” He fell in love with the majesty of The Great Hall and the outdoor space. “There’s a lot of magic and culture in here,” says Rebecca.
When planning renovations on the historic home, it was very important to the Crossons that they retain the house’s charm and Rose’s artistic touch. They reached out to Patti as well as William Wescott of the Preservation Society of Asheville for help. “We wanted to keep the roof, which is unique flat terracotta, but it hadn’t been maintained very well so we had to know what we were getting into,” says Rick.
Sandra Dykes is interior designer on the project. She says she had fun working with the antiques the Crossons brought with them. And when purchasing new furnishings, it was made certain they were reflective of the period.
The Crossons love having the whole family under one roof. With two separate sides and kitchens, they alternate cooking for family meals. “That’s part of the fun of the house,” says Rick. “You can leave it open or you can close it off so it feels like two houses.”