Tom Eblen

As elaborate stone carvings emerged on old courthouse, so did a mystery

Fred Miles’ limestone sculptures on the old Fayette County Courthouse include these urns on the front steps, which recently have been cleaned and restored as part of a $30 million renovation.
Fred Miles’ limestone sculptures on the old Fayette County Courthouse include these urns on the front steps, which recently have been cleaned and restored as part of a $30 million renovation.

In writing about the old Fayette County Courthouse recently, I mentioned that cleaning and restoration of the elaborately carved limestone façade had revealed whimsical faces hidden high above Main Street by an unknown sculptor.

A couple of readers wrote me to say that the building’s remarkable sculptures had been attributed to an artist named Ignatius Maloney. He was an interesting guy — a 16-year-old, Irish-born orphan and self-taught sculptor.

But as I dug into his story, I discovered that he probably deserves little of the credit. The main courthouse sculptor was another man — a turn-of-the-century master, long forgotten in Lexington but famous for his work in North Carolina and Atlanta.

The attribution of the courthouse sculptures to Maloney seems to have been based on a May 25, 1899, story in the Lexington Daily Leader. It was one of several newspaper features written about the young man adopted from a Cincinnati orphanage by Susan Caden of Lexington.

Maloney became a regional celebrity after he carved, without any training, a stone bust of Admiral George Dewey, a military hero of the day. People were so impressed with the bust that they began raising money to send Maloney to art school.

Maloney’s fame might have helped him get work at the courthouse, where a Leader reporter found him on May 25, 1899, carving leaves at the entrance facing Cheapside. Maloney said he had been working there for two days.

“The designs were marked out with charcoal by Mr. Myers, the stone contractor, and it is easy to execute,” Maloney told the reporter, who misspelled his first name Ignatious. The reporter also apparently misspelled the name of his boss.

Frederick B. Miles — not Myers — is credited with “sculpture” on a marble plaque listing courthouse contractors that was attached to a lobby wall for decades.

I have been able to find remarkably little information about Miles, who went by Fred. He was said to have been an Englishman who came to Asheville, N.C., in the 1890s to work on George Vanderbilt’s spectacular Biltmore mansion, now one of the South’s top tourist attractions.

At some point, Miles formed a business partnership with Samuel Isaac Bean, a stone mason and cutter from Bean Station, Tenn., who also worked at Biltmore. The estate’s archives include an 1899 bill for stone work from the firm of Miles & Bean, said Laurel Henry, a Biltmore curator.

After 18 months at Biltmore, Miles was commissioned to sculpt a now-famous frieze on the Drhumor (pronounced “drummer”) building in downtown Asheville, the Asheville Daily Citizen reported on Aug. 16, 1895.

Bean (1867-1947) also had a hand in construction of the Drhumor, a four-story Romanesque Revival commercial building that was restored in 1996. Bean went on to become a major stone contractor in Asheville.

The frieze is carved with the British royal lion and images of men, women, angels, mermaids, shells and other creatures from mythology and nature. Miles is said to have modeled some of the sculptures’ faces on Asheville people.

Miles also did one of the most notable sculptures in Asheville’s historic Riverside Cemetery: A limestone angel atop the Buchanan family monument that rises above faces said to be likenesses of family members. He also designed a memorial there to Biltmore stone cutters who had died.

Other Miles work includes elaborate carvings above the entrance of the Masonic Temple in Wilmington, N.C., which he did immediately after his work in Lexington.

I worked in downtown Atlanta for a decade, and I often admired another Miles masterpiece without ever knowing the Lexington connection. He supervised the carving of elaborate ornamentation throughout the Candler Building, a luxurious 17-story office tower clad in white North Georgia marble. It was built between 1904 and 1905 by Coca-Cola magnate Asa G. Candler.

Miles then returned to Asheville to work on another landmark, the Basilica of St. Lawrence, a Roman Catholic church designed by Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino.

By 1916, Miles was teaching sculpture and modeling in Nashville at the Watkins Free Night School, now the Watkins College of Art, Design & Film. The January 1917 issue of Stone Cutters Journal has a photograph of him standing beside a piece of his sculpture.

What happened to young Ignatius Maloney? That, too, is a mystery. The last record I have found of him is the 1900 U.S. Census, where he is listed as a “sculptor (at school)” and an “inmate” of the St. Joseph Orphan Asylum in Cincinnati.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen