The S & W Cafeteria chain was organized in 1920 by Frank O. Sherrill and Fred R. Webber. The two had served together as mess sergeants during World War I. The chain, specializing in low-cost, southern style cooking eventually spread across the South. The original cafeterias were usually located in busy downtown areas, often located near theater and shopping districts.
Asheville’s original S & W Cafeteria opened in 1922 and was located on the ground floor of the Grand Opera Building at 41-43 Patton Avenue. With the city’s building boom in full swing and with the cafeteria’s ever expanding cliental, Douglas Ellington was commissioned to design the new S & W Cafeteria at 56 Patton Avenue near present-day Pritchard Park.
It was Ellington’s last major commission in Asheville. Still under construction when the stock market crashed in 1929, the owners elected to forge ahead and finish the building. It operated at that location until 1947, when it relocated to the Asheville Mall.
A jewel box of a building, Ellington’s S & W Cafeteria is considered by many to be North Carolina’s finest example of Art Deco architecture. With poly-chrome cream, blue, green, black, and gilt terracotta and including stylized inserts of food and Native American motifs, he concocted an effusive fantasy of the style’s whimsical side.
Note: the main entrance is not located at the center of the building. Rather, Ellington designed the entry was to face directly on to Haywood Street.
A number of attempts have been made to reopen the S & W Cafeteria.
In 2007, Steve Moberg purchased, renovated, and reopened it as the Steak & Wine Restaurant. Despite outcry from local preservationists, six condos were constructed within the original third floor and four condos were added to the roof as part of the renovation. The added condos on the roof are so recessed from the front of the building and so unobtrusive in design that they have little impact on the architectural integrity of Ellington’s original design.
In 2023, the old cafeteria is home to a food hall and taproom.
As was the case with many talented artists, Ellington did not think in terms of working within a particular style. Beethoven did not think of himself as a member of the “Viennese Classical School.” Bach did not realize that his music would be labeled “Baroque” years after his death. John Milton borrowed from several traditions to make his later works and Monet didn’t like being labeled an “Impressionist.”
Ellington’s Asheville buildings are a synthesis of styles. Elements of Art Deco can certainly be found in all of his buildings of the period. However, there are also traces of Renaissance styles, as well as Oriental, Native American, and Beaux Arts influences. And, perhaps most importantly, there are features which are pure Ellington. These arose from his education, his life of feeling, and his designing and artistic experiences. But there is something else. It is something that is far more difficult (perhaps impossible) to quantify. It is the crossing of “wires in the brain” and the connections of feelings that enable some to see what is invisible to most – it is the thing we call genius.
As quickly as success had come, just as quickly it all came to an end. The Great Depression of the early 1930’s halted Asheville’s building boom, and by 1932 Ellington found it necessary to move to Washington, DC, to obtain work with the federal government. In Washington, he worked extensively on the design of a new town, Greenbelt, Maryland.