ArchitectureThe singular natural environment of the Highlands-Cashiers plateau, with its waterfalls, mountain vistas and vast forests, is enhanced by its charming villages and towns. These places, characterized by old buildings mixed with newer structures that usually pay homage to historical styles, have provided creature comforts to tourists and second-home owners for decades.

The plateau boasts a rich architectural heritage, with over 40 structures on the National Register of Historic Places and several multi-structure sites that have been designated Historic Districts on the National Register. Current architectural styles, for the most part, hearken back to the rustic forms, scale and materials of the early settlers and the buildings that followed for the past century.

Among the most prominent historical buildings on the mountain are the Greystone Inn and Lakeside Cottage on Lake Toxaway Though the Inn has only been in operation since 1985, the six-story original structure, built to resemble a Swiss mountain chalet, was completed in 1915. The original owners added a kitchen, freestanding library, stables and swimming pool to the property between 1915 and 1932. In 1984, the property was purchased by a business partnership to form the Greystone Inn, and after renovations were completed, the mansion and the Lakeside Cottage were added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Heading from Toxaway towards Cashiers, you’ll reach Camp Merrie-Woode, a girls’ camp situated on Fairfield Lake. The camp was founded in 1919 and is a Historic District on the National Register. Its original Adirondack-style buildings survive intact in a stunning natural setting, but the camp is off-limits to visitors while in session. Another Historic District, the High Hampton Inn and Resort, is nearby, on Hwy. 107 just south of Cashiers. Its main, three-story structure, with a massive four-sided stone fireplace and chestnut bark siding, was built in 1932, along with several of the surrounding harmonizing cottages. High Hampton evokes a bygone era of long family summer vacations, with its big, quaint restaurant serving up three hearty meals a day (don’t forget to follow the dress code!), extensive recreational offerings, and nostalgic air of shabby gentility. Directly across the street from High Hampton is the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, built in the late 1890s by Confederate-General-turned-U.S.-Senator-turned-South-Carolina-Governor Wade Hampton III. The original Carpenter Gothic chapel is on the National Register.

The Cashiers Historical Society completed Phase I of a Historic Site Survey in 2011, identifying 49 buildings over 50 years old within a one-mile radius of the Cashiers Crossroads. (Phase II, currently underway, will identify all such buildings within an approximate 15-mile radius from the Crossroads and thus will encompass Sapphire and Glenville.) A Driving Tour Map of survey sites is available to the public at the CHS headquarters, located in Cashiers’ original one-room schoolhouse building at 766 Hwy. 107 South. The Historical Society also operates two of Cashiers’ most significant historic structures as house museums: the elegant, Greek revival-style Zachary-Tolbert House and a rustic, two-story, wood-frame cottage, Zachary-Waddell House. The Zachary-Tolbert House retains all of its original Plain-Style furnishings and is considered a rare historical treasure.

Buildings on the National Register in downtown Highlands that are open to the public include the original chapel of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation 1896:, with its lovely stained-glass windows; and the sanctuary building of First Presbyterian Church of Highlands, with its jerkinhead gable roof, steeple and belfy, and painted-pipe organ designed to look and sound like an organ from 1885, the year the church was built. The churches are both active congregations and play host to frequent free concerts. They are located catty-corner from each other on Main and 5th Streets.

Three hotels in downtown Highlands are on the National Register. The central house of Old Edwards Inn 1878: stands opposite the Highlands Inn 1880: at Main and Fourth. The 4 ½ Street Inn at 55 4 ½ Street ca. 1910: is particularly lovely.
The whole neighborhood of Satulah is one of Highlands’ Historic Districts on the National Register. It has some of Highlands’ oldest summer houses, many dating back to the late 1890’s and early 1900s. The oldest remaining residence in Highlands, Prince House (built 1877), was purchased by Highlands Historical Society in 1999 and now serves as a "living history museum” in the Highlands Historic Village at 524 N. 4th Street

The most iconic figure in the mountain’s architectural history is undoubtedly Joe Webb, the subject of Reuben Cox’s The Work of Joe Webb: Appalachian Master of Rural Architecture (U. of Georgia Press: 2009). At least thirty-six houses in Highlands are known to have been built by Webb between the early 1920s and 1940. His houses are famous locally for their modernist style elements, slab-sided construction, stack-stone fireplaces and chimneys, and pine ceilings with tongue-and-groove construction, but perhaps most of all for their extensive use of chestnut. The American chestnut tree was meeting its demise by an Asian fungus at the exact time Webb was building his rustic mountain retreats for Highlands’ new class of well-heeled summer residents. Chestnut, which once made up one-quarter of all trees in southern Appalachian forests, was long favored as a building material due to its natural lightness and durability. But as dead old-growth trees suddenly littered the forest floor, it became especially abundant and cheap. Luckily, the wood is slow to decay, which allowed it to be used extensively in building and furniture-making during that time period. Webb used chestnut bark siding (which naturally repelled insects and survives intact on only a couple houses), chestnut built-ins, beautiful wormy chestnut paneling, and exterior walls built from hatchet-formed chestnut logs.

Webb’s grandfather had built one of the first homes on the mountain, known as Billy Cabin, and Webb, in turn, created a new kind of cabin for the mountain. Cox writes: "Any Appalachian mountaineer born before the turn of the last century would have been born in, or have lived in, or have helped build, a log cabin. Webb’s ability to view the familiar and transparent design of the mountain cabin and reimagine it for a new clientele of rusticators is no less than remarkable.”

Today, homebuyers in Highlands, Cashiers, and elsewhere on the mountain seek out houses that blend into, rather than upstage, the unique natural environment that lured them to this area. And so builders generally favor a style that harmonizes with the environment. Most new homes echo the rustic forms and materials of early vacation cottages, but with modern comforts such as chefs’ kitchens, large closets and extra bathrooms. Log homes remain popular today; some are even designed and built with antique logs, beams and boards reclaimed from old houses and barns. Generally though, most homes are conventional wood frame construction, but often with rustic materials on the exterior: rough sawn board-and-batten, cedar shingles, poplar bark, antique reclaimed wood siding or a facsimile thereof, and a generous amount of mountain stone. On the interior, one often sees massive heavy timber ceilings in the main living area, evoking an Alpine lodge. Builders also incorporate heavy wood beams as an aesthetic, if not structural, interior element. Roofs are usually steeply sloped with many gables and clad in rough sawn cedar shakes, shingles, copper or sometimes slate. There is almost always at least one massive stone chimney penetrating the roof line. Color choices tend to reflect the landscape: grays, taupe, greens and browns, with accents of muted reds, oranges and yellows. Even in homes (and public buildings) that are modern in form, architects generally gravitate towards rustic materials and natural colors.

The Bascom visual arts center in Highlands is perhaps the mountain’s most prominent example of contemporary architecture in this vein. Opened in May 2009, its six-acre campus includes a 27,500 sq. ft. main building with a large outdoor terrace, a 2,500-square-foot barn rebuilt as a pottery studio, a historic covered bridge relocated from New Hampshire, and a nature-and-sculpture Trail. The main building, by DeWolf Architecture and Lord Aeck & Sargent Architecture, contains state-of-the-art gallery spaces, staff offices and classrooms. It was designed around a 19th-century Pennsylvania barn frame and makes extensive use of reclaimed wood posts, beams and siding from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia, along with modern materials like steel and glass. Its floors are made up of big boards of old-growth white pine salvaged from several historic barns in the southern Appalachians. The building, while thoroughly modern in its functionality and very large in size, is respectful to the history of its site—a scenic farm—and appears home in its bucolic setting, thanks to the architects’ expert use of rustic and reclaimed materials.

The Bascom’s campus aside, there is very little flat land in the mountains. So most building sites are sloped, some steeper than others. Extensive hardscape work is often necessary to gain level access, hence the huge stacked-boulder retaining walls seen so often at mountain homes. The steeper-sloping sites also sometimes require quite high foundation walls to support the structure above.

Since many sites enjoy seemingly endless mountain views, numerous decks and balconies, sometimes on multiple levels, are common. Cool summers and fresh mountain air beckon us to be outdoors, so well-designed homes have a variety of outdoor spaces. Covered porches, sometimes screened and often with their own fireplaces are desirable, as are stone terraces and wood decks.

The most important outdoor space at many mountain homes, though, is the garden. Gardening is a popular pastime for homeowners on the plateau, many of whom hail from hotter climates that make traditional perennial gardening impossible. We take advantage of the temperate, rainy climate here to cultivate gardens with old-fashioned English garden favorites like lilacs, peonies and hollyhocks. Paths through wooded areas might be enhanced with shade-loving hostas or ferns. Around lakes, at stream-sides and in boggy areas, we can plant moisture-loving ornamentals like yellow flag iris and Turtlehead. On rocky slopes, we build terraces and take advantage of local nurseries’ impressive offerings of rock plants like sedum, ice plant and moss phlox.

The High Hampton Inn is famous for its huge dahlia garden, and dahlias are something of a mountain tradition, with the Highlands Historical Society hosting an annual dahlia festival in the early autumn. In the summertime, busloads of residents and visitors alike explore dazzling local gardens at the Joy Garden tour in Cashiers and at the Bascom Art Center’s annual garden tour in Highlands, part of its Mountains in Bloom Festival every July. Gardens have long been an important complement to local architecture on the mountain, contributing significantly to local character. Because of this, having a green thumb (or hiring someone who does) seems to be part and parcel of being a good local businessperson on the mountain, as evidenced by the profusion of landscaped signs, windowboxes, hanging baskets, and small outdoor garden areas outside hotels, restaurants, shops and other local businesses.

The architectural character of each village and town on the plateau is evolving. Local residents, Planning Boards, and non-governmental organizations such as Historical Societies and Chambers of Commerce have all recognized the importance of preserving the folksy, low-key character that makes the area special. The Town of Highlands has a Unified Development Ordinance that preserves the village character of commercial areas and promotes housing that harmonizes with the natural environment. A regional public/private project called Mountain Landscapes Initiative (MLI) inspired the formation of the Cashiers Village Council in 2008, which now includes 10 member groups and focuses on town-scale initiatives, including Pathways, Streetscape Beautification, Traffic Relief, Water and Sewer, Housing Diversity and Vernacular Design.