Built For the Ages
How Asheville's 50-Year Debt Paid Off In Architectural Treasures
Asheville is a city where architecture has stood still for several generations. Prior to the stock market crash of 1929, Asheville was a boomtown. It served as a home for the Vanderbilts, a resort for Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and other historic luminaries, and a mecca for rising young architects following in the footsteps of one of the masters, Richard Morris Hunt, who built the lavish Biltmore House in Asheville in 1895.
Beginning in 1930, Asheville’s economy took a turn for the worse. The Great Depression forced the closure of the area’s largest banks, and the city found itself in debt to the tune of $8 million dollars (the equivalent to $111 million today). Over the course of fifty years, city leaders remained committed to paying off the debt instead of building skyscrapers, a popular post-depression trend among other American cities.
This resulted in the preservation of the city's historic district. With approximately 170 buildings, it stands as one of the most comprehensive collections of early 20th century commercial architecture in North Carolina.
Asheville's Architectural Odd Couple
Downtown is home to the mountain city’s structural odd couple -- a flashy Art Deco-style city hall with its peaking mountain silhouette is juxtaposed with a sharply masculine Buncombe County Courthouse.
The two structures surprisingly were completed in the same year, 1928, and were to have been designed by the same man, Douglas Ellington. As work started on the city hall building, however, local officials decided its design was too extravagant and had someone else take over the county building project.
This architectural bride and groom at the city's center stand as metaphor for the contrasting influences of mountain culture and modern culture, which have existed in Asheville since the 1880s.
A Vanderbilt Builds America's Largest Home in Asheville
The area also attracted the rich and famous. None of its visitors left a greater impact upon Asheville than one of these influential men of the 1890s who decided to build his home here--George Washington Vanderbilt, whose Biltmore Estate and 250-room Biltmore House continue to be Asheville landmarks.
Vanderbilt commissioned noted architect Richard Morris Hunt to build the most luxurious private residence in America, and hired Frederick Law Olmsted to supervise the landscape architecture of the estate. Hunt, who modeled the French renaissance chateau after those of the 16th century in the Loire Valley in France, brought in numerous stone-carvers and woodcarvers from around the world to contribute their artwork to the interior and exterior of the house.
In 1895, after five years and a million man-hours of labor, Biltmore House was completed. Many of the talented workmen remained in Asheville and spread their influence throughout the city in architectural projects.
Grove Park Inn - Asheville's Grand Mountain Resort
Another wealthy man of grand vision who left his imprint on the architectural style of Asheville was Edwin Wiley Grove, a medicine manufacturer who came to Asheville in 1897 seeking relief from his bronchial difficulties.
Grove became enamored with a grand, yet rustic, mountain lodge he had seen at Yellowstone Park. He employed his son-in-law, who had no architectural experience, to construct an inn with a regional style, appropriate for a mountain setting.
The result was the still popular Omni Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa, a massive hotel made of native uncut granite boulders laid over a reinforced concrete frame. The materials from which the hotel was constructed were taken in large part from the mountain on which it stands. Huge boulders which form the walls of the hotel, some weighing up to five tons, were brought to the site by trains of 15 wagons carrying over 40 tons of stone each trip.
Thomas Wolfe Looks Homeward
Although Asheville's reputation as a resort for the wealthy was well known, its appeal for the middle class traveler seeking relief from summer heat was also widespread. The Thomas Wolfe Memorial Home is an example of the boarding houses that sprang up in Asheville to accommodate the visitor of more modest means.
The large 19-room Queen Anne style house had drafty, high-ceilinged rooms and a rambling, unplanned appearance. Built in the early 1880s, it is one of the oldest residences surviving in the downtown area, and is considered one of Asheville's most important and significant historical sites.
Asheville's Awe-Inspiring Churches
Asheville's great churches reflect the city's architectural heritage. Three in particular stand out among them all.
In Biltmore Village, the social and architectural focal point is All Souls Episcopal Church (1896). The extraordinarily complicated structure is designed in the shape of a Greek cross with a massive central tower. Richard Sharp Smith, a protégé of Biltmore House architect Richard Morris Hunt, designed All Souls and much of Biltmore Village.
An architect involved in the Biltmore House project was a Spanish designer named Rafael Guastavino, who was also responsible for the legacy of the Basilica of St. Lawrence Catholic Church (1909) in downtown Asheville. A structure employing two Spanish Baroque towers rising to a height of five stories. The church, considered a true architectural masterpiece, contains the largest unsupported tile dome in the United States, measuring 52 by 82 feet.
Still, it is the flamboyant Art Deco style Douglas Ellington brought to Asheville that remains most typical of the city. One of his most notable designs is the First Baptist Church (1925-26). An unusual early Italian renaissance form accented with Ellington's own Art Deco detailing, the church demands and receives admiration and attention.