As more people begin to put their toes in the water to travel this fall, National Trust Tours brought twenty-five hearty souls to western North Carolina last week.
Asheville has attracted visitors for thousands of years, drawn by the region’s natural beauty and abundant resources. Over the past two centuries the city’s attractions have expanded to include world-class architecture and the superb craftsmanship of both fine and folk art.
As the educational expert for our exploration of this small gem of a city, I suggested our travelers look for three key elements as they toured: stories, vision, and action. Why? Great communities don’t stay that way by chance. Those that survive connect people with place, know where they want to go, and work tirelessly to make it happen.
Stories are at the heart of great communities
Former New York Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp said that,
“the essential feature of a landmark is not its design, but the place it holds in a city’s memory.”
The stories we tell of those memories add to the continuum of past, present, and future, intertwining people and place.
Great communities work to tell stories that help us understand a broader history, and Asheville’s begins with its Indigenous People. Asheville occupies the land of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, one of eight historic tribes in North Carolina.
Great communities are curious about their full history, identify other stories that we are not hearing, and work to broaden ownership and control of the narratives of those histories. Stories around places like the “The Young Men’s Institute,” one of the oldest, most unique and beautiful Black cultural centers in the United States. The building, funded by George Vanderbilt to establish an institution for the Black construction workers employed at Biltmore Estate, was the multi-use center that churches, schools and civic organizations used for gatherings in the segregated South. The current director is from a family that has used the facility and its programs for years.
On the tour, our guests also heard soap opera-like stories of the love-hate relationship of E.W. Grove and his son-in-law Fred Seely. Grove was the financial backer and builder of the innovative Grove Arcade shopping plaza in downtown as well as for the remarkable Arts-and-Crafts inspired Grove Park Inn on the edge of town. Seely played a big role in designing and operating the Inn in its early years. Their falling out came over an age-old issue: who gets credit and who takes control.
As we toured downtown, we heard stories of the people who built the city’s remarkable collection of buildings, learning that the legendary S&W Cafeteria in a beautiful Art Deco masterpiece was founded by two World War I mess sergeants…putting human faces rebounding from war and destruction to fresh stone, brick, and terra cotta.
It was clear from the stories and the buildings that Asheville “danced to the tune of flocking tourists and new growth” in the 1920s.
By the Roaring 20s, the community already had a heritage of splendid architecture thanks to Richard Morris Hunt, Frederick Law Olmsted, Richard Sharp Smith and Raphael Guastavino ― all grand masters associated with development of the Biltmore Estate.
There are stories of risk takers in Asheville, who brought with them creativity and a sense of architectural adventure. Creativity such as George Vanderbilt’s decision to raise cattle at Biltmore to produce the manure needed to fertilize the replanting of the thousands of acres of forests. Architectural adventure as found in Raphael Guastavino’s magnificent Basilica of St. Lawrence.
And architectural adventure as found in the surprising First Baptist Church, designed by architect Douglas Ellington. It is a four-story, domed, polygonal brick building with Art Deco design influences.
Finally, there is the story of the Depression, where the city inherited the highest per capita debt burden in the nation. Such terrible news offered a corollary that turned into a godsend. Asheville determined it would pay back every cent, so it literally couldn’t afford to tear down any of its jewel-like building inventory.
That’s also key to Asheville’s story and its understanding of itself. We are resilient, they tell the visitor, and look what we have as a result.
All great communities have stories that they use to tie past, present, and future together. But stories without a vision for the future are just dusty memories.
Vision is about knowing where you want to go
Great communities were often built on a vision, and they are always saved for our generation because a group of dedicated citizens had a vision for the future. During out stay, we heard about the visions of those who created the architecture and landscapes that make Asheville such a treasured and unique place.
But we also heard that it took the vision of preservationists in the 1960s and 70s in Asheville to save key parts of the city from the wrecking ball. Community members ― with a different vision for the future ― fought against the instinct for demolition and fought for preservation. Inappropriate development spurred formation of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County. Today, PSABC headquarters its professional staff in the sales office for historic Grove Park.
We heard stories about the impacts of demolition that led to the vision for preservation. For instance, on Sept. 27, 1979, the Asheville Housing Authority received a brief letter from Mrs. E.W. White of Atlanta.
“My parents, Mr. and Mrs. Willie E. White of 218 South Beaumont Street, Asheville, N.C., have lived at this address almost fifty years. Although they are both in their seventies, they were none-the-less uprooted from their home and required to move by the Asheville Housing Authority. I can’t begin to tell you what this does to individuals who have built memories and accumulations around their residence for almost fifty years.”
Urban renewal hit Asheville hard. The East End neighborhood was a community “crucial for black survival and upward mobility. … The presence of local midwives and undertakers meant that neighborhood residents could patronize black-run businesses literally from the cradle to the grave.”
But years of redlining had limited investment in the East End, and it was easy for the community leaders to declare the area a blighted slum that needed to be removed. Valley Street, “the historic root of the neighborhood, was gone, redirected and renamed. … Pathways that connected lives and destinations were paved over to make municipal garages and administration buildings.”
Today, the Preservation Society is helping residents in Asheville reclaim their past and their community. They have a vision that takes what is left from the historic neighborhood and knits in similarly scaled-buildings to help bring past, present, and future together.
Vision is about shaping the communities we want, instead of accepting what others conceive for us.
Action means great communities work to make their vision a reality
Great communities knit together stories of people and place, develop a vision for the type of community they want to be, and then never, ever give up when faced with challenges, using the tools available.
Early on, PSABC leveraged the donation of a deteriorated house, stabilized it before selling to a new steward, and used the proceeds to establish their historic preservation revolving fund. The fund preserved Richmond Hill, and the proceeds from its sale helped finance the purchase of the Manor Inn, which we saw on our tour of Albemarle Park.
Despite years of activism, Asheville faces challenges. The lack of city-supported protection tools leads to indiscriminate demolition. Lack of design review leads to development that is out-of-scale and incompatible with the community. And the lack of affordable housing leads to a situation where historic buildings are inappropriately blamed for the shortage.
Activism never ends, and we’re now seeing all three of these issues in Asheville’s Charlotte Street controversy, where the society is fighting plans by a development company to demolish 12 historic homes and replace them with 181 residential units, and 50,000 square feet of retail. The impacts of this project on the historic character of the neighborhood, local infrastructure, the environment and the community are countless. And because they have a vision, the Preservation Society has come up with alternatives that save the historic houses, add density to the neighborhood, maintains existing affordable housing, and creates green space.
There is a pattern in Asheville of young people and the creative class, knowledge workers, start-ups, and small businesses showing a preference for historic neighborhoods. A national analyses found that 34 percent of all homes, 44 percent of houses built between 1912 and 1960, and 59 percent of homes built before 1912 are bought by millennials. This is driven by the three C’s: the character of the neighborhoods, the cost of the housing, and the convenience.
It was a joy to spend the week in Asheville and see local preservationists doing the work to keep their community great by telling stories to knit the generations together, building a vision for the type of community that embraces its past as part of its future, and committing to a never-ending activism for a better future.
More to come…
Image: Biltmore House (top) and all photos except for historic YMI image by DJB.