Updated January 16, 2017
Leah Arcouet Chiles was the wife of Jake Chiles, developer of the residential area known as Kenilworth Park. Leah took over active management of the Kenilworth Development Company after her husbands death in 1925. She was elected mayor of Kenilworth in 1928 and was prominent in civic and artistic affairs. Here Mrs. Chiles presents a corsage to Mrs. J.F.A. Cecil (formerly Cornelia Vanderbilt) at the opening of the first annual Kenilworth Art Exhibition, held at the Kenilworth Inn in 1928. L to R: Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil, Roscoe A. Marvel, J.F.A. Cecil, Leah Chiles, and Mrs. Arrington, President of the N. C. Arts Association.
Adapted from the Nov. 13 2015 Asheville Citizen-Times.
Leah Chiles born March 4 1885, was the daughter of Casemier Arcouet (and his wife Marie) a French sculptor and artist who created works in Central Park and helped make the Statue of Liberty’s hands. She was quite a “firecracker.” She inherited his studio on his death when she was 15 years old.
She continued her family’s artistic legacy in her adopted hometown as a concert pianist and artist. She also ran her own business and was heavily involved in her husband’s businesses.
Chiles operated an art store on Pack Square. She also helped organize a star-studded gala at the Kenilworth Art Exhibition in 1928. High society from around the world flocked to Kenilworth to see masters like Renoir, Cezanne and Picasso — and to be seen.
She also had a reputation as a literal trailblazer: In 1916, she took a train to New York City to buy an Oldsmobile. Alone. She carried her own gasoline. For six days, she dodged mudslides on the steep and slippery roads.
Leah married Jake Chiles in 1914. Here is a copy of the invitation to wedding of Leah and Jake Chiles.
Leah was an active partner in the family business. She established herself as a real estate agent, designed homes that the company built in Kenilworth and was a shameless promoter of Asheville as seen in this newspaper photo.
In 1925, Jake Chiles died suddenly from a heart attack, and Leah became head of the household — and in 1928, the town.
She was mayor in 1929, when the country’s economy crashed, and Kenilworth also fell on hard times. She lost her holdings and the family, like many others reduced its standard of living. her son notes how one day they had a maid and cook and he was driven to school by a chauffeur and the next he was walking to a public school. Still Leah kept up the promotion of Kenilworth and the float she created for the Rhododendrom Festival in 1928 was first prize.
The City of Asheville tapped Kenilworth and other surrounding communities, for annexation to stabilize their financial position. It had one of the greatest levels of bond debt in the nation. Kenilworth, by comparison had some of the least debt in the nation. Chiles did not think Asheville had the right to annex Kenilworth without the approval of its residents. Her bold refusal, declared in the log cabin municipal building, raised eyebrows and made headlines. The town board agreed to the vote, and the residents decided on June 30, 1929, to join Asheville. Some articles state it was nearly unanimous and others say it was by one vote.
Above, Leah Chiles with her mother and two sons in the only known photo of her at Chiles House.
Above, an undated photo of Leah Chiles with her two sons in front of the Kenilworth log cabin municipal building.
Above, Leah Chiles and her children in front of a Christmas tree in an undated photo.
Above, Leah Chiles in a Kenilworth art gallery in an undated photo. She also worked at an art store. She was part of The Three Mountaineers business until just before her death.
Leah’s son, John, tells the story of his mother buying a Hupmobile from Conway Kain, the local car dealer who also published the Asheville Citizen-Times. When she complained about trouble she was having with her car, Kain responded by saying that a Mayor’s place is behind a desk, not under a car!
Here’s a link to the May 27, 1953 Obituary of Leah Chiles in the Asheville Citizen-Times: