From Biltmore mansion to Lexington. The man behind those mysterious courthouse faces.
Since the old Fayette County Courthouse reopened as Courthouse Square, most people have focused on the beautifully restored dome and the sleek, new interior that houses a restaurant, bourbon bar, visitors center, offices and event space.
But look closely at the building’s limestone façade, scrubbed clean of more than a century of grime. It is decorated with ornate carvings done by one of the South’s greatest architectural sculptors, F.B. Miles.
Around doors and windows, among griffins and gargoyles and elaborate scroll work, there are impish faces of men expressing all sorts of emotions. Over the courthouse’s back entrance on Short Street, 12 faces are said to represent jury members.
Some faces are hidden so high that only birds ever see them. A partial face, carved on a wall inside the dome, would never be seen by anyone except the men who climbed ladders to wind the clock before it was electrified.
On urns and lampposts on the grand front staircase are carvings of eagles, lions and bearded ancient judges. There is “FC” for Fayette County and “AD 1899” for the main year of the courthouse’s construction. As you walk into the courthouse, the urns proclaim “law” and “justice”; as you leave, the other side says “liberty” and “peace.”
Miles’ role in this huge display of public art was forgotten until two years ago. The Lexington History Museum’s website incorrectly attributed the sculptures to Ignatious Maloney, a 16-year-old apprentice.
But old photos, taken before the courthouse’s destructive 1960 renovation, showed a marble plaque listing the building’s contractors. Among them: “F.B. Miles, Sculpture, Lexington.”
Since I first wrote about Miles two years ago, I have discovered much more about him and his work. I had help from North Carolina historians Robbie Jones and Catherine Bishir, a Lexington native, and Winchester genealogist Roberta Newell.
Frederick Bullen Miles was born Dec. 26, 1860 in Shaftesbury, Dorset, England. He was the ninth of 10 children of master builder Thomas Bullen Miles, who specialized in churches. Fred worked for his father, apprenticed to sculptor R.A. Stevens in Worcester and studied sculpting at the School of Art in South Kensington.
He married Maud Squinnell in 1884 and by 1891 was working as an “architectural carver” and mason in London. In 1892, Miles moved his family to Asheville, where he was one of many artisans hired to create George Vanderbilt’s palatial mansion.
While in Asheville, Miles also carved a well-known frieze at the Drhumor Building, a four-story Romanesque Revival landmark that was restored in 1996. The frieze is carved with the British royal lion and images of men, women, angels, mermaids, shells and other creatures from nature and mythology. Miles is said to have based some of the sculptures’ faces on Asheville people.
Miles went into business for a time with Samuel I. Bean, a fellow Biltmore stone artisan from Tennessee. While in Asheville, Miles was commissioned to carve several grave monuments, including a famous one there, the Buchanan Angel at Riverside Cemetery.
In 1897, Miles began offering a class in modeling and carving at an art school. Two years later, he went to Augusta, Ga., where he worked on carvings for the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart and what is now Paine College, a historically black Methodist college.
Miles became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1898 and moved Lexington to work on the fifth Fayette County Courthouse. Its predecessor burned the year before when a man climbing up an inside ladder to wind the clock dropped a match, setting the wooden dome on fire.
While in Lexington, Miles, his wife and two daughters lived in a house at 106 W. Second St., which is now offices. He found time to sculpt a bust of County Judge Frank A. Bullock, which the building’s contractors presented as a surprise to his mother in May 1899. Miles also did a bust of Henry Clay that was displayed around town. (Both are now in storage at the new courthouse.)
After Miles finished the courthouse, he was commissioned to carve a sandstone door arch for the Masonic Temple in Wilmington, N.C. In 1901, he moved to Atlanta, where he had a studio and worked for Atlanta Marble Co.
His first big project in Atlanta was the Carnegie Library, whose demolished in 1977 created much controversy in the city.. Some of Miles’ library façade was salvaged for a decorative arch for the Carnegie Education Pavilion, built in 1997. But much of his work ended up in a city dump.
Miles’ other big Atlanta project was perhaps his greatest work. When completed in 1906, the Candler Building, a 17-story office tower, was Atlanta’s tallest skyscraper. It was commissioned by Coca-Cola magnate Asa G. Candler, and for it Miles created carved Georgia marble statuary inside and out. The Candler Building is being renovated into a luxury hotel.
After the Candler building was finished, Miles returned to Asheville to create a granite statue of an angel for the Basilica of St. Lawrence in 1907. The family moved to Nashville, Tenn., about 1912, where he worked as a commercial sculptor and taught night classes at what is now the Watkins College of Art, from 1913 to 1918.
Maud Miles died in 1913. By 1917, Fred Miles was working as a sculptor in Nashville for W. W. Leland and Co., a New York-based maker of statues and monuments. He became ill in 1920 and moved to Florida to live with a daughter. He returned to Nashville the next year, where he died on Oct. 4, 1921.
Miles was buried in Nashville’s Spring Hill Cemetery. But nearly a century after his death, his Lexington monument is attracting new generations of fans.