North Carolina – Asheville: Three Men Who Left Their Mark

Asheville means something different to everyone you ask.  Many immediately think of the Biltmore mansion, others say its food, craft beer brewing, distilleries and music.  Some people mention the beautiful mountain scenery while outdoor enthusiasts wax on about local trails, tubing, fishing and hunting, and many are drawn to the city for its art, architecture, music and antiques.

Asheville is a colorful town in a magnificent setting with lots to offer and it is a wonderful place for a two- or three-day visit.  In the roots of this vibrant city, three men figure prominently in shaping what Asheville is today.  George W. Vanderbilt, II, Edwin Grove and Thomas Wolfe have each left an indelible impression.

But long before they arrived, the Cherokee used to meet and hunt at the confluence of the Swannanoa and French Broad Rivers.  When the explorer Hernando de Soto arrived in 1540, he found a good-sized established community and he and his men left behind enough strains of European diseases to kill most of the inhabitants.   It was not until after the Revolutionary War, that a significant number of newcomers began pouring into the area.  Most of them were former soldiers who came to settle the land grants they received in lieu of pay for their military service. 

As early as the 1830s, people began coming to these mountains to escape the blistering summer heat of the lowlands and to enjoy the fresh air and restorative mineral water cures.  During the antebellum era, resorts were built…they were primarily health spas offering restorative treatments for those suffering from bronchial problems or rheumatism.  These establishments also offered their guests gourmet food and diversions like carriage outings in the mountains.  Some of the resorts even had grand ballrooms with full orchestras.  For many of the gentry who lived in isolation on rural plantations, a trip to Asheville, no matter how challenging the route may have been, provided an opportunity to enjoy social interaction and high culture in the society of their peers. 

Civil War fighting did not reach Asheville until April 1865, just a month before General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox.  Most of the damage to the city came after the war was over.   Renegade troops came to plunder and burn the homes of some of the Confederate supporters. 

The arrival of the railroad in 1880 marked a pivotal time for Asheville since it opened the way for local industry to expand.  It also eased the journey for visitors who came to escape summer low country heat and enjoy the mountain scenery.  Others came because their doctors had prescribed its fresh mountain air and mineral waters to cure their ills.  Asheville even had the first tuberculosis sanitarium in the United States. 

George Washington Vanderbilt, II (1862-1914), came to Asheville for the first time in 1887.  He returned the next year to look at the area again and to accompany his mother on a visit to one of the fashionable resorts.  He was a shy, quiet man who had no interest in business…instead he had inherited his father’s passion for collecting books and art.  He was so taken by the beauty of the mountains and the refreshing climate that he began buying land so he could build a rural retreat far from the noise and demands of city life.  His retreat ultimately encompassed 125,000 acres and became America’s largest home, a 250-room French Chateau with 33 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces. 

When you visit, it is the lavish grounds that make your first impression.  Richard Morris Hunt designed the home while the landscape designer of New York City’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmstead (portrait below), did the surrounding grounds.  In this, his last and arguably his greatest accomplishment, Olmstead completely reshaped and sculpted acres of land around the home and designed the plantings that would create gardens, terraces, paths and a model forest on what was originally flat land with scraggly growths of trees. 

Olmsted’s touch is evident from the moment you enter the three-mile drive leading up to the home.  The drive meanders through a secluded forest and suddenly the trees open to reveal the magnificent chateau, surrounded by hundreds of acres of rolling forested woodlands.  

Surrounding the home itself is a profusion of gardens that bloom throughout the year colored with their seasonal plantings. 

Terraces and paths spill out beyond the gardens, inviting visitors to enjoy a leisurely stroll with pauses to take in the beauty of the scene and the moment. 

Greenhouses were built to propagate plants and to grow the flowers that would be used to create fresh floral displays throughout the home. 

Now for the spectacular house itself…construction on this amazing chateau started in 1889 and was completed in 1895.  Looking at the detail that was lavished on these carved figures…their fingers, toes, faces…or the dolphin in the copper drain pipe… knowing that they are only a hint of the master craftsmanship that is seem throughout the home, it is amazing that the Biltmore could have been built in only six years as it is more like a cathedral than a house.

Once the construction was done, and even before all the landscaping was in place, Vanderbilt left for Europe where he began shopping for art, antiques and furnishings to fill the rooms in his enormous new home. 

In the course of his European travels, he met, fell in love with and married Edith Stuyvesant Gerry.  Edith came from a prominent New York family, and by quietly getting married in Paris, they neatly sidestepped the big social wedding that would have been mandatory back home.

The newlyweds were anxious to return to Asheville and booked passage on the maiden voyage of the Titanic, but at the last moment they bought tickets on another ship.  This was not just lucky for them, but many others ended up benefitting from the life George and Edith were to create in Asheville. 

In the building of the chateau and the estate, many local workers found labor and armies of workers were brought in from other parts of the country and Europe.  Skilled craftsmen from Europe carved the stone, shaped and finished the wood and new construction concepts and techniques were learned and shared.  Even after the home was complete many workers stayed on as other projects grew around the Biltmore and in Asheville itself.

Both George and Edith felt strongly about helping the local population.  Vanderbilt’s sister Lila and her husband were creating Shelburne Farm in Vermont and they were focused on new techniques for raising dairy and beef animals.  Vanderbilt was impressed with their operation and decided to take on a similar pursuit at the Biltmore.  In 1890, a horse barn and dairy were added to the grounds.  A working farm was created to help make the estate self-sustaining and to test innovations in dairy and farming practices.  Vanderbilt shared his findings with local growers, and he also established the first school of forest management.  Edith took a strong interest in the living condition of local families and visited their homes, bringing food and medicine when it was needed.  She also taught sewing and health care classes for the women.  In 1901George and Edith created Biltmore Industries as a way to teach people the skills they needed to make items they could sell like woven goods and needlework as well as baskets and small pieces of furniture.

Sadly and suddenly, George Vanderbilt died in 1914, but in spite of this tragedy, Edith and her daughter Cornelia remained at their Biltmore home.  One of the first things Edith did was to donate many acres of land to help establish the Pisgah National Forest.  She took over the management of the estate and was able to hold on to the property through the devastating days of the Depression when even the Vanderbilts suffered severe financial setbacks.  Acreage had to be sold over the years so the estate now measures only 8,000 acres, significantly reduced from its originally 125,000 acres, but the vistas are no less grand thanks to the neighboring Pisgah Forest.  The estate is still privately owned by Cornelia Vanderbilt’s children and grandchildren.  It is open to tour and many elements (such as lodging, dining and a winery) have been added to make a visit to the Biltmore a vacation destination.  The vision George and Edith shared is still playing out in Asheville and its environs today.

In 1896 medicine maker, Edwin Wiley Grove (1850-1927) came to Asheville hoping that the restorative mountain air would help relieve his bronchial condition.  “Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic” had made him a wealthy man and a well known figure especially in the South. 

Grove had started his business career quietly enough in 1874 as a clerk in a pharmacy in Paris, Tennessee.  He became a partner in the business and in 1880 became its sole owner.  He liked to experiment and create new cures, and in 1885 he brought out Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic, a quinine-based liquid that brought relief from malaria, a disease known as “the scourge of the South.”  Sales of this product were further increased when the British Army began to purchase his tonic for their troops stationed in far reaching places around the commonwealth. 

By the turn of the century, Grove had moved the business to St. Louis because he needed much larger production and distribution facilities.  Grove was not just a creator of pharmaceutical products, he was also a master of advertising and promotion.  The combination brought so much growth that they opened branch offices in Toronto, London, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and Buenos Aires.  The company also became the largest consumer of quinine in the world.  Some of his other successful products were his Videx, an aspirin and magnesium oxide compound “for the relief of simple headaches and neuralgias, minor muscular aches and pains.”   Grove’s Laxative Bromo Quinine tablets were an early and popular treatment for the common cold.  Unlike many of the cure-alls on the market at that time, Grove’s products contained little to no alcohol because he was a firm prohibitionist.

During his 1896 visit to Asheville, Grove was taken with the beauty and dynamic growth of the city.  In 1910 he bought land on Sunset Mountain and in 1913 built the Grove Park Inn with the help of his son-in-law Fred Seely who was especially interested in the architectural design of the period.  This grand resort’s design was inspired by Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone. 

Hand-cut granite boulders were quarried higher up on the Sunset Mountain then hauled down to the building site and assembled there into the still-grand structure that has been visited by U.S. Presidents, leaders of industry and many celebrities over the years.  The “Rogues Gallery,” just off the lobby, features photos of some of the inn’s famous guests such as Thomas Edison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Ford, Will Rogers and Eleanor Roosevelt.

It is no wonder that visitors continue to fill the Grove Park Inn.  While many come to enjoy the luxurious resort amenities, the mountainside setting affords restful views of the French Broad River Valley and the surrounding forest. 

The enormous scale of the inn’s lobby becomes apparent when you consider that the twin stone fireplaces at the ends of the room are each almost forty feet across.   

The Grove Park Inn is famed for its Arts and Crafts décor and more than a thousand pieces of Roycroft furniture were bought for use throughout the facility.  Many of these pieces can still be seen in use today and a National Arts and Crafts conference is held at the inn annually.

But Grove didn’t stop building when the inn was finished.  In 1920 he bought the original Battery Park Hotel, which had been built in 1886 and was located in the heart of Asheville on the city’s highest hill.  Slightly down the slope of the hill and also facing Pack Park, stands the Art Deco-style City Hall that opened in 1920.  The original Battery Park Hotel was an elegant sprawling structure that was rapidly becoming outdated and impractical in its setting, so Grove had it torn down and built the new fourteen- story 220-room Battery Park Hotel in its place.  The new hotel opened in 1924 and helped accommodate the thousands of tourists and businessmen who were pouring into Asheville every year. 

Just blocks away from the hotel he also created the Grove Arcade, which occupies a full city block and opened in 1929, two years after Edwin Grove died.  This magnificent building with light streaming in through skylights high above was (and still is) the home to many fine shops and services on the first floor and offices on the levels above.  It is a joy to walk in this setting and enjoy curving open staircases, the lacy ironwork and the many architectural details that contribute to this elegant and graceful space.         

During WWII in 1943, the Federal Government took over the entire building and issued orders that all the tenants (74 shops and 127 offices) vacate in a month.  AS one of many security measures the exterior was bricked over and the building was filled with offices that supported the war efforts.  After the war this space became the home for the National Climatic Data Center and the brooding exterior remained, hiding the beautiful façade until local preservationists began to rally to save this significant landmark.  Finally their efforts paid off and after extensive renovation the sun-filled atrium was reopened in 2002.  Today, the arcade is again filled with shops, restaurants, offices and luxury residences. 

Amid all this growth and bustle, Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) was born into a somewhat unusual family setting.  After divorcing his first wife, William Wolfe moved to Asheville with his second wife, hoping the mountain air would help her health.  After she died, he married Julia Elizabeth Westall, a local bookseller.  The senior Wolfe was a successful artistic stonecutter who specialized in gravestones. He even displayed one of his finest pieces, a stone-cut angel, in the window of his business.  She would come to play a starring role in the title of his son’s most famous work.

Although he was able to provide for his wife and children, Julia was much more ambitious than her husband and she began investing in real estate, which was fast-moving and lucrative during the early 20th century boom days of Asheville.  He was tolerant of her professional ambitions until she purchased a boarding house and announced that she was going to move into the property and run it herself.  With that William drew the line and said that he would never set foot in the place.  Julia packed up her youngest son, Tom, and moved into the nearby boarding house that was named “Old Kentucky Home” (photo on the left…the family home is no longer standing).

Suddenly, six-year-old Tom was living with his mother amid an ever-changing cast of characters and visiting his father and siblings who were back in the family home less than half a mile away.  His mother was a tireless worker and was so keen to make a profit that every part of the house was configured for paying guests.  She even turned an upstairs hallway into a windowless sleeping room with four doors allowing passage through it. 

In true boarding house fashion, the rooms were serviceable and decorated with mismatched pieces of furniture.   The boarders did not always know who would be occupying the next bed and the hallway bedroom Julia devised was not the only room that had guests walking through it to reach another sleeping chamber.  Privacy was at a minimum…but available at a price. 

Julia’s own bed was in a pantry-size space off the kitchen.  Tom did not have a bed or a room of his own and slept in whatever bed or sofa was available when night fell. 

The boarding house parlor and sun porch were nicely appointed and places where residents socialized.  In the warmer months rocking chairs were arranged on the generous front porch and the shade of the trees made the yard an inviting place to relax as well. 

The dining room was a pleasant and comfortable setting as well and Julia did not stint on the food she served, but Tom was not allowed to eat there.  He had his own small dining nook in a hallway where he took meals while he listened to the guests conversations.  He grew up oddly alone and adrift in the midst of a setting with hundreds of people transiting at close hand.  It is not hard to imagine their stories being implanted into that impressionable young mind. 

When he was sixteen, Tom left Asheville to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he studied playwriting.  He graduated in 1920 (the same year the new Art Deco City Hall opened back in Asheville) and went on to Harvard where he continued studying playwriting and earned his master’s degree.  By 1924 he was teaching English at New York University and continuing to work on his plays, but due to their extreme length he had little success in getting them staged.  

Around this time, he realized that his writing style was better suited for fiction and in 1926 he began work on an autobiographical novel that would ultimately, after much editing of its 1,100 pages, become Look Homeward Angel.  The novel was published in 1929, just eleven days before the Stock Market Crash. 

After the publication, it was years before Tom returned to Asheville, which he had named Altamont in the novel and the Old Kentucky Home was renamed “Dixieland.”  Although he had assigned new names to his characters, it was easy for his family and locals to know who he was writing about and many people were angered by his portrayals.  The book was even banned in the Asheville library.  In spite of the lean economic times, the novel was a success and sold well in the U.S. as well as in Europe…at age 29, Tom Wolfe was an established writer. 

His fame came so early that the Old Kentucky Home boarding house was still a family business when Look Homeward Angel was published.  People began visiting just to see where the author had been raised and suddenly Asheville had another attraction for its visitors.  By the time Tom returned to Asheville eight years later, he was welcomed back, but in a funny twist, some prominent local people were now “put out” that they had not been included in his best-seller.

For the rest of his short life, Tom continued to write and travel extensively across the United States with frequent visits to Europe.  In July of 1938, he was in Seattle, Washington, when he became ill and was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  He was sent to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where he was operated on but it was too late to save him and he died just days short of his thirty-eighth birthdays.  

Whether or not you ever decide to read one of Wolfe’s works, I would strongly recommend a visit to his home that is now a state historical site where visitors see everything as it was when he was still alive.  There is also an excellent museum with artifacts and photos from the different eras of his life and a short film with old footage documenting his travels and activities.  The center also has a research library and hosts writing conferences and other related activities. 

Looking at Asheville today, it is plain to see how William Vanderbilt, Edwin Grove and Thomas Wolfe each contributed significantly to what the city has become today.  Without their influence, Asheville would have probably continued to grow and become a popular recreational site, but their contributions encouraged the development of art, architecture and culture that makes the city such a wonderfully diverse place to visit and explore.  My next posting will show more of the current feel of the streets of this city.

6 thoughts on “North Carolina – Asheville: Three Men Who Left Their Mark

  1. Great Blog Toni, Wonderful History of Ashville…Anyone who reads this blog will definitely wish
    t o visit the area. Looking forward to your next one. Mom


  2. Even though I have visited Asheville, even attending the annual Arts & Crafts Conference at Grove Park, I somehow missed the connection to Thomas Wolfe. And there in lies another example of why I enjoy your travel blog. Love Thelma’s pic in the garden at Biltmore!


  3. Nice post. I learn something totally new and challenging on blogs I stumbleupon every day. It will always be exciting to read through articles from other writers and practice something from other sites.


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