2/16/2011 - Asheville: Second Home Mecca
by Marla Hardee Milling
Asheville, North Carolina is all about living... own a dream vacation house here or come for good. Let Asheville be your second home.
By Marla Hardee Milling
Asheville continues to morph itself into one of the trendiest cities in the Southeast. The lofty Western North Carolina mountains, with their world-class natural beauty and four distinct seasons are luring thousands of retiring baby boomers and younger, affluent city dwellers to what so me have dubbed "The Paris of the South."
How do you define a town that constantly changes?
Plenty of people try, summing up Asheville, N.C. with such catch phrases and comparisons as "Paris of the South," "Santa Fe of the East" and "New Age Mecca." Even, "Top-rated place to retire" and "Land of the Sky."
As a lifelong Asheville resident, I've been aware of the labels used to define my hometown's unique individuality. I can even see rays of truth in many of them. But none works as a stand-alone description. It's when you combine them all that you get a sense of the real city.
The Early Ground-Breakers
Asheville has long been a destination for the rich and famous. George Vanderbilt was so taken with the beauty of the region that he bought a huge chunk of land in and around Asheville. In the late 1800s, he built his 250-room mansion and filled it with priceless art, sculptures, tapestries and elegant décor and surrounded it with lavish gardens and landscaping.
Later, E.W. Grove moved to Asheville from St. Louis for health reasons; the city had proved to be a wonderful destination for those seeking relief from breathing ailments, including tuberculosis. Grove marked the landscape with his money, creating the Grove Park Inn, which was built in 1913 and has catered to famous guests since its beginning, and the Grove Arcade, completed in 1929 and touted as "the finest structure in the South."
Until the stock market crash of 1929, Asheville was a boomtown. Then, saddled with a huge debt, the city could not afford downtown urban renewal. This financial burden led to the preservation of Asheville's architecture and today, it would be hard to imagine Asheville without its art deco City Building designed by Douglas Ellington, who also created the domed First Baptist Church and the old S & W Cafeteria building. Other buildings add to Asheville's architectural wealth with gargoyles or faces carved into building eaves.
If you visit downtown Asheville today, it's easy to see the Paris connection with the multitude of art galleries and sidewalk cafés; the Santa Fe connection with the unique stores and restaurants that you won't see anywhere else and working artists in studios in the river district. The New Age reference comes through acupuncture schools, organic groceries and shops that cater to those looking for tarot cards, crystals and feng shui cures.
Without question, Asheville is also a lovely place to raise a family or to retire, with a moderate climate, four beautiful seasons, a low crime rate and stunning scenery. It's a town that offers something for everyone, from tattoo parlors to antique stores; sushi bars to used bookstores; upscale salons for the perfectly coifed to acceptance of those with dreadlocks.
It's a town that Self magazine proclaimed America's "Happiest City," and one which Rolling Stone Magazine dubbed "America's New Freak Capital." Money Magazine has called Asheville one of the "Best Places to Retire," and AARP cites it as one of the "Best Places to Reinvent Your Life." It's also a town with a strong literary history, serving as the hometown of authors Thomas Wolfe, Gail Godwin, Wilma Dykeman and John Ehle, as well as a place of inspiration for O. Henry, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pat Conroy, to name a few.
As these slogans suggest, Asheville is a melting pot, a location that offers small-town charm, friendliness and acceptance of alternative lifestyles, along with cultural offerings, art, architecture and diversity in stores, shops, and cafés.
What is amazing for those of us who have lived through various stages of Asheville's renaissance is the degree of transformation that's taken place.
As a child during the '60s, I spent many Saturdays shopping in downtown Asheville with my mother and two aunts. I have fond memories of browsing through the elegant department stores located on Haywood Street and Battery Park Avenue. Ivey's was situated in a corner building that now houses the Haywood Park Hotel, and Bon Marche and Winner's were set a little further up Haywood Street. I quickly learned the rules: The higher the number on the elevator, the higher the price of clothes. You'd find bargains in the basement, moderate prices on the first and second floors, and more expensive items on the upper levels.
Around the corner on Battery Park Avenue, we shopped at John Carroll, an upscale boutique, and J.C. Penney, where a little woman sat in the store's alcove for years selling carnations. Fain's, a discount store with great prices and wonderful linens, stood on Biltmore Avenue where Mast General Store is now open for business. And there were other smaller shops sprinkled around town.
We'd literally shop 'til we were about to drop, then head for a bite to eat at the S & W Cafeteria, located in a stunning art deco build ing, the lunch counter at Woolworth's on Haywood Street or Brown's Restaurant on Battery Park. I also spent countless hours reading in Pack Memorial Library, visiting my aunts in the federal building where they worked for the U.S. Forest Service, getting my teeth checked in the Flat Iron Building, and enjoying summer Saturday evenings on the courthouse lawn watching cloggers and listening to old-time music at the Shindig on the Green.
Downtown Asheville pulsed with activity as people buzzed in and out of stores and restaurants, amid awe-inspiring architecture and the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountain skyline. But when I was in the sixth grade, construction crews built the Asheville Mall off Tunnel Road and the downtown area began its decline.
Beginning Another Boom
In 1979, as a high school senior, I had my first taste of working in downtown Asheville. I drew my paycheck from the Buncombe County Board of Education, then located in the Buncombe County Courthouse, and spent lunch hours combing through bargains at Bon Marche's going-out-of-business sale.
That summer, the city launched a festival in hopes of bringing people back downtown. The first year, the festival spanned just the length of Haywood Street and brought out a modest crowd, but the energy was set and Bele Chere became a yearly tradition. Now, it is the largest free outdoor street festival in the Southeast, attracting more than 350,000 people each July.
In the early 1980s, I stayed close to home and studied at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. At that time there were few reasons to venture downtown, especially after dark when most of the sparse stores and businesses were closed. Then, after graduation in 1984, I began my second stint working downtown, this time at The Asheville Citizen-Times on O'Henry Avenue. The sight of the Grove Arcade next door depressed me, its architecture still impressive but its usage grown stale with government offices inside. I felt a deep sadness for my town and yearned for the time it would throb again with crowds, stores and restaurants.
A New Visionary
John Cram, owner of the prestigious New Morning Gallery in Biltmore Village, had a hunch about the potential for downtown revitalization. He bought property along Biltmore Avenue and on New Year's Eve 1990 opened Blue Spiral 1 fine arts gallery.
"It wa s a ghost town when I opened," says Cram. "Now it's packed full. Arts always pave the way for downtown development."
Today, Blue Spiral 1 anchors one of the busiest, most successful areas of town. It's surrounded by restaurants, stores, galleries and Cram's Fine Arts Theatre next door. Any given weekend, throngs of people parade up and down Biltmore Avenue, stopping in the shops, eateries and the nearby Orange Peel nightclub.
By the Numbers:
All About Asheville
Population Asheville City: 69,425
Cost of Living Index
Climate Average Temperature:
Property Taxes per $100 value Asheville City:
North Carolina Income Tax
Average Housing Costs 2003:
34 public parks and play areas
14 public & semi-private golf courses
Asheville Civic Center
Asheville Community Theater
Minor league baseball, the Asheville Tourists
23 tennis facilities
Montford Outdoor Theater
3 private residential full-service country clubs
2 private swim and tennis clubs
Semi-pro hockey, Asheville Smoke
Attracting All Kinds
Asheville is a place that welcomes a wide variety of people and attitudes.
"There's a mix of so many different types of people bringing so many points of view and skill sets and talents to the community," says Asheville resident Bill Massey. "It's not a community that looks alike or thinks alike - and that's a strength."
Massey is one of a growing number of people finding residence in the downtown area. About a year ago, he bought a luxury condominium at the newly renovated Grove Arcade. It's the hot trend, that of upscale condominiums springing up in desirable locations all over downtown Asheville.
"I chose the arcade because I wanted to live in the urban center of Asheville," says Massey. "There's never a lack of ways to occupy your time, and yet that all occurs in an environment that seems very relaxed, friendly and accepting of different ages, ethnicities and interests."
Old Things New Again
Massey needs to only step outside his door to immerse himself in Asheville's atmosphere. The Grove Arcade is a hotbed of activity, home to three floors of residences above two floors of retail and office space. It's a must-see attraction for tourists and locals alike as they appreciate the Arcade's rebirth two years ago.
E.W. Grove fashioned plans in the 1920s to build what he called "the most elegant building in America." In 1929, two years after Grove's death, the Grove Arcade opened as a public market and served as a center of commercial life for 13 years. The federal government claimed the use of the building during World War II and continued to occupy it after the war as National Climatic Data Center headquarters.
The public didn't forget the arcade's intended use, and pushed for years to restore the architectural treasure. In 1997, the City of Asheville received title to the arcade under the National Monument Act. It reopened as a vibrant public market in fall 2002.
"I'm a huge fan of the way the downtown area of the city is developing," says Massey, "...honoring the past, yet having a clear eye to the future."
True to Its Beginnings
I've discovered a unique way to explore Asheville's mountain roots involves taking a journey on the Urban Trail - a 1.7-mile open-air museum that winds around the downtown area pointing out significant people, buildings and history in Asheville's past. The trail begins at the spot where a bronze pig and piglet stand at the base of the Vance Monument near the heart of downtown and leads past the boyhood home of one of Asheville's most famous residents, author Thomas Wolfe.
His mother Julia opened the doors of The Old Kentucky Home to boarders during Wolfe's youth, a period he chronicled in his novel, "Look Homeward, Angel." An arsonist almost destroyed the home a few years ago, but it was salvaged, restored and reopened for tours in May.
If Wolfe were alive today, it would be interesting to see what label he would affix to his hometown. Maybe he would see it changed yet still holding some qualities he knew as a boy. Maybe he would simply continue to call Asheville by the alter ego he gave it in his novels - Altamont. The name really doesn't matter as long as the city sustains its positive growth and energy, both for visitors and residents.
The Asheville I loved as a child has changed in many ways and yet still has the familiar flavor of small-town charm, an appeal that's held my attention throughout my life. And even in changing, it's still a place of excitement and fun. Often when my husband and I strap our two children into our van, the kids say, "Let's go downtown."
For them, Asheville offers a wealth of possibilities, from exploring the exhibits at The Health Adventure at Pack Place to kicking up their heels at Shindig on the Green or eating at one of our favorite spots, The Noodle Shop on Biltmore Avenue.
As I reminisce about the Asheville of the past and consider the changes it's endured to become the Asheville of today, the label I give my hometown has stayed constant through the years. No matter where I travel, where my path takes me or how many changes my town endures, Asheville will remain one thing: Home. My beloved home .