This year the North Carolina Room is featuring a series of programs on the 1980’s – a time that helped define what Asheville was to become. But, 100 years prior to that, Asheville was in the midst of an earlier Renaissance. The train had arrived in 1880 and Asheville became a true destination and was thoroughly enjoying its new found popularity. On what may have been a crisp January evening in 1886, four young men returned from seeing the Mikado at the Asheville Opera House. With music and lyrics by Gilbert and Sullivan, the Mikado opened in London in March of 1885. It was an immediate success and by the end of 1885 some 150 companies in Europe and America were producing the opera. Less than a year after its London debut it had arrived in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
The Mikado, and all things, Japanese became a craze. Although we sometimes think of the 1920’s as the height of the interest in Japan – with women wearing kimonos and playing Mahjongg – it was actually a much earlier fad. In the late 19th century Americans and Europeans were captivated by the customs and arts of the Japanese. Aestheticism, which leaned heavily upon the Orient for design motifs, was all the rage in furniture and home wares. Once the Arts and Crafts Movement had taken hold in the early 20th century many artists became enamored with the Japanese woodblock print.
Our four young men, J. Taylor Amiss, Fred Jacobs, Edwin Gatchell and Roger Davis were fascinated by the Mikado and on their return to the flat of Amiss and Jacobs, which was located above Lyon’s drug store, they discussed the production.
At some point in the evening’s conversations one of them suggested turning the flat into a Mikado room. In an article published in Dixie, an illustrated magazine from Atlanta is this quote: “Boys, why don’t you make of this a Mikado room? They all heartily fell in with the idea saying: Just the thing, by Jove! By all means have a Mikado room.”
With alacrity and creativity the young men, led by Roger Davis the artist of the group (whose nickname was Crayon), began their project. When asked if it was necessary that everything in the room need be of Japanese design Crayon replied “By no means, it is mainly in the decorations that we must adhere as closely as may be to the Orient. We shall leave the furniture…; but everything we add should be as characteristic of Japan as possible.” He continued “I would suggest you have the floor painted in imitation walnut and oak marquetry, have the ceiling tinted and the walls papered. I would have a paper of neutral tint, and the ceiling a light blue.”
Not having much money they gathered material they felt gave the sense of the Far East from local sources adding paper lanterns and parasols, brackets, scarves, easels, picture frames, and fringing. The Mikado room became a reality and the darling of Asheville and beyond. Once completed the young men gave recitals and dinner parties and enjoyed showing their space to visitors. Several local and further distant newspapers picked up the story calling it “The Southern Mikado Room.”
The young men moved on with their lives and the Mikado room became a distant memory. J. Amiss Taylor married in the summer of 1886 and we can thank his wife who put together a scrapbook on the room. The North Carolina Collection now has documentation on this small and charming piece of Asheville history.
Post by Lynne Poirier-Wilson