North Carolina – Asheville: The City’s Colorful Revival

Asheville’s growth in the 1920s was exponential.  Paths that had been used to bring hogs, cattle and produce to market were improved and turned into roads.  The age of the automobile had arrived and that allowed more visitors to pour into the city.  Asheville was booming.  

In 1901, George W. Pack donated the land where the old courthouse stood to create a park and today Pack Square is a reminder of the old trading path that led through what is now the heart of Asheville.  Bronze pigs and turkeys follow a well-worn footpath while traffic and pedestrians move past and high-rise buildings shade the sculptures from the afternoon sun.

Nearby is the distinctive Art Deco City Hall that opened in 1920.  At that point, Asheville was alive with new construction and it was the biggest and busiest place in all of western North Carolina. 

Asheville had been nicknamed “Land of the Sky” and thousands of visitors were driving over the new roads to come and experience what the city had to offer.  Post-World War I prosperity meant people had more money and the shift from an agrarian-based economy to a highly industrialized workforce meant that people had jobs that gave them extra spending money and allowed for free time to take vacations…a new concept for the rapidly emerging middle class. 

Families came to enjoy the cool mountain air and the outdoor recreation during the summer months when school was out, and all year long Asheville’s resorts and hotels hosted conventions and large groups.  The city also offered entertainment for all of its visitors; there were operas and orchestra concerts in the Asheville Auditorium as well as a variety of vaudeville acts, movies and music venues.

Some of the vacationers came to Asheville for spiritual self-improvement.  The country’s culture had changed and the Puritan ethics of hard work, discipline and sobriety had been modified over the years.  The 1920s ushered in the Jazz Age and a society moving rapidly toward secularism.  Asheville was the perfect location for members of the Southern Baptist Convention and other church groups to meet and hold large rallies to fight this moral decline and bring people back into the fold. 

Although many tend to associate religious revivals with the South, their history in the United States dates back to the Great Awakening in 1734 when a young pastor named Jonathan Edward began a campaign in Northampton, Massachusetts to reignite and convert souls to Christianity.  In the mid-1800s, the Presbyterian Reverend James McGready began his zealous preaching in Logan County, Kentucky, and that led to the Second Great Revival.  Meanwhile in New York City in September 1857 Jeremiah Lanphier began leading weekly prayer sessions for businessmen.  Attendance grew quickly and the sessions became daily events.  After the Bank Panic of that year, their popularity escalated and spread, and religious revivals sprang up in cities across the country.  (A Brief History of Spiritual Revival and Awakening in America, churchleaders.com). 

Different church groups established permanent campgrounds over the years like Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and Old Orchard Beach in Maine, and outside the circle of tents enterprising folk added attractions to lure the visitors to spend their time and money in between sermons.  Asheville was no exception.  Her historic hotels, resorts and churches had already been hosting large groups for years…so it wasn’t surprising when the First Baptist Church hired Douglas Ellington (architect responsible for the Asheville City Hall) to design a new church complex with a sanctuary capable of seating 2,000 people and additional meeting space for another 3,000 participants (National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary, nps.gov).  

But then the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression changed everything.  The nation was brought to its knees…not only in prayer.  The resorts, businesses, churches and even the city of Asheville itself had borrowed heavily to fuel the building boom and its rapid expansion.  Asheville area’s level of debt exceeded almost any other city in the United States and suddenly their revenue streams were shut off and there were no prospects of recovery.  Everything froze and the city sank into stagnation. 

As bleak as the picture looked, there were three seeds planted during this time that ultimately saved Asheville and contributed to the city being such a beautiful and vital place to explore today.

First, the city council took the lead and made the difficult and uncommon decision that the city would pay off all of its debts.  Their fiscal responsibility meant that the city functioned at an austerity level for the next fifty years and only the most essential repairs or projects were undertaken.  As a result of this, Ashville has one of the largest intact collections of Art Deco architecture in the country (second only to Miami).  By the time the local economy began to improve the preservationist movement was coming alive and the beautiful old buildings were being claimed for historic status and saved from “urban renewal projects” and the wrecking ball.

The second seed was the arrival of the CCCs to build the Blue Ridge Skyway and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which spans forests in both Tennessee and North Carolina.  These projects provided jobs for many unemployed young men and created legacy projects that would further enhanced Asheville’s reputation as a tourist destination. 

The third seed was planted by Frances L. Goodrich (1856-1944), the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and granddaughter of the famed dictionary author Noah Webster.  After she graduated from Yale’s School of Fine Arts, Goodrich relocated to Riceville, North Carolina.  In this small town nine miles outside Asheville, she began her missionary work.  When a local friend gifted her with a forty-year-old Double Bowknot woven coverlet, the gift inspired Goodrich work with local women to help them revive traditional weaving techniques. 

In 1897, Goodrich moved to a remote area in Madison County, NC, called Allen’s Old Stand.  Drovers had been coming through this small crossroads for years when they moved their cattle, pigs and other livestock to market in Asheville. 

When Goodrich worked with local women, she encouraged them to make smaller, marketable items like table runners and pillow covers …meanwhile she established religious centers that served simultaneously as schools for the children.  These centers also promoted improved farming practices in the area.  It was here that Goodrich developed Allenstand Cottage Industries.  She encouraged the division of labor so more people would be involved and she also began bringing handmade products and craft demonstrations to Presbyterian Church meetings in Asheville. 

In 1930, she and a group of like-minded leaders established the Southern Highland Craft Guild. What started as Goodrich’s mission outreach has become a leading force in the craft movement across this country.  Guild members’ work is on display and for sale at the Folk Art Center at Milepost #382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway as well as in the Guild’s gallery in the Biltmore Village, at their Tunnel Road location and in the Moses Cone Manor in Blowing Rock, North Carolina.   

Woodworking, paper, glass, pottery, and metal pieces created by Guild members are on display in the second floor galleries…

…as are exceptional pieces of fiber art: quilts large and small, woven pieces, and embroidery.

Also on the second floor are pieces from the Guild’s permanent collection, which was started when Goodrich donated her personal collection of handcrafted items to the organization.  It has now grown to more than 5,700 items ranging from AD 1000 to the present day.  On display are a variety of works from traditional handmade mountain dolls to pieces fashioned from natural materials like these blue jays competing for a seed.  There are also excellent examples of Frank Caracci’s highly detailed and entertaining wood sculptures. 

In the Guild Craft Shop on the first floor a dazzling array of member’s works are available for purchase.

In addition to displaying and selling the member’s work, the Guild also provides educational programs and events throughout the year.  The Robert W. Gray Library is available for those interested in research, and the Guild organizes two major craft fairs in Asheville each year (July and October) that bring buyers and collectors from across the country and around the world.

Goodrich’s efforts contributed significantly to the rebirth of Asheville after the city had been so severely affected by the Depression.  The city’s re-growth began to emerge with the opening of small art and music venues, independent bookstores and restaurants.    

By the 1970s, Asheville managed to pay off her debts, unlike almost any other city in the country.  Although the previous years had been difficult, the city’s unique culture benefitted from the seeds that were planted during its hard times.  The beautiful Art Deco buildings set the scene for a charming walk-around architectural experience and are now perfect homes for shops and galleries filled with a wide range of unique products made by local artists.  The concept of local “arts” has expanded over the years and has grown to include music, dance, and theater which are expressed on stage and in the streets and parks.  

As part of this expansion, Pack Square Park has grown from its original size (the site of the former courthouse) to the six and a half acres it is today.  George W. Pack would not recognize the square block of land he donated to the city back in 1901 because it is now a lovely green space in the heart of the city with the 1920 Art Deco City Hall anchoring the lower corner of the park.  In the warmer months, fountains flow and the area is filled with locals and visitors enjoying the concerts, festivals and other art venues that fill this space while specialty shops, galleries and restaurants rim the park.     

Across the street from the original square, is a bronze angel standing in from of the Asheville Art Museum.  The angel is a tribute to Thomas Wolfe and his epic novel Look Homeward Angel.  In addition to being the site of the former Asheville Library (opened 1926), this is the place where Wolfe’s father, William O. Wolfe, had his monument shop.  Julia Wolfe (Tom’s mother) sold the land after her husband’s death and Asheville’s first skyscraper was built on this block in 1924.  This photo shows the fifteen story structure looming over the neighboring buildings.   

[NOTE: For any passionate historians or dedicated fans of Wolfe’s writing, the original stone carved angel that was on display in the window of his father’s monument shop now resides on a grave in the Hendersonville Cemetery, about a half-hour drive away.]

The angel and the other sculptures outside the art museum are just a sampling of the ever expanding collection of art on Asheville’s streets.

Buskers are a common sight and there is even a sculptural tribute to these street musicians and entertainers.  Their songs range from old mountain tunes to contemporary works.   

One of my favorite pieces is this enormous old flatiron.  On our last visit I volunteered to take photos for two visiting girls while they stood next to the sculpture.  It was not until we got home and I started writing that I realized that the sculpture stands across the street from Asheville’s historic Flatiron Building (1927).  Luckily the artist’s tongue-in-cheek humor wasn’t entirely lost on me.   

Art is on display everywhere.  In addition to all the artists’ studios and galleries, there are three historic arcades where artists display their works: the Kress Emporium with over 100 artists; the Grove Arcade (which I wrote about in my last blog entry “North Carolina – Asheville: Three Men Who Left Their Mark”); and the historic F.W. Woolworth Building with nearly 20,000 square feet of display space.  

Many of the restaurants and store fronts have adapted to this culture, making the streets of Ashville colorful and entertaining places to walk.  In the photo below, be sure to notice the bowling balls embedded in the wall in front of the Mellow Mushroom Restaurant. 

As we have been visiting Asheville over the last ten years or so, the city has become quirkier and more colorful, but that also means that some of our favorite antique shops have been pushed out by rising rents and changing interests.  Lexington Park Antiques (65 W. Walnut St.) is now the only antique venue left in the heart of the city.  When we talked with the proprietors they said that classic antiques still sell, but their vendors have added a lot more retro and vintage items. 

Many of the other antique shops are located near the confluence of the French Broad and the Swannanoa Rivers, where the first settlers made their homes.  This area is also not far from the Biltmore complex.  Riverview Stadium (191 Lyman St) is tucked between art galleries on a stretch along the Swannanoa River.

Continuing along the river you come to Altamont Vintage Collectables & Antiques (120 Swannanoa River Road)

Even if you are not shopping for antiques, you do not want to miss a visit to the Antique Tobacco Barn (75 Swannonoa River Road).  This vast old building is a fascinating piece of history.  Just imagine the enormous space hung with large stalk-cut tobacco bundles and the industrial size fans moving the air to help dry the crop.  Be sure to look up above the handing racks to see the leaf-shaped numbers that identify the rows and lots of tobacco.

Nearby Sweeten Creek Antiques (115 Sweeten Creek Road) has a lot of vintage merchandise.  

One shop we never miss is Village Antiques (755 Biltmore Avenue) with its beautiful settings of furniture, art and more. 

Asheville wears her age well.  Instead of becoming a stodgy old city, this is a place that celebrates its history.  That history combined with the seeds that were planted during challenging times have grown into a vibrant and colorful culture, making Asheville a fun and entertaining place to explore.

2 thoughts on “North Carolina – Asheville: The City’s Colorful Revival

  1. Ashville kept the old charm; not like Naperville with the tear-downs
    and new and new stores and and a Grand hotel on the Riverwalk.
    Enjoyed the blog. Mom

    Like

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