7/17/2013 - How Asheville went from 'leper colony' to tourist haven
by Jason Sandford
Superior article in USA Today by our friend Jason Sandford of the Asheville Citizen Times and Ashvegas.com
It could have gone either way for Asheville at the dawn of the 20th century.
Would the city's future be one for tourists? Or would it be for tuberculosis patients?
The little mountain town was already known as a health retreat for those suffering from respiratory ailments, as well as a haven for tourists seeking natural wonders.
Asheville's landscape was dotted with boarding houses and sanatoriums that catered to those suffering from "consumption" in 1900. Some civic leaders at the time pushed to build a national center for tuberculosis treatment.
But even before he pulled up his St. Louis stakes and moved to Asheville to build his grand hotel, the Grove Park Inn, wealthy pharmaceutical-maker Edwin Wiley Grove began working to turn city leaders away from that idea and toward better serving tourists.
"Grove was one of the individuals who recognized what a mistake that would be, that Asheville could literally become a leper colony for tuberculosis," said Bruce Johnson, author of two books about the history of Grove Park Inn, which opened 100 years ago this month.
"You could say it was self-serving," Johnson of Grove's advice, "but this was before he built the Grove Park Inn," which was built in just less than one year, opening in July 1913.
It was a pivotal decision, one of several that has inextricably linked the grand old inn to the city and its residents over the past 100 years.
Grove Park Inn's massive stone and granite boulders were hewn from its very surroundings. It's Great Hall has served as much as a public space for locals as it has a holding room for visitors.
And the inn's importance as an economic engine has only grown in a town that depends heavily upon tourists.
"Because it's made of the native stone and its other elements, it speaks to a mountain aesthetic that people really love," Asheville architect Jane Mathews said, noting the inn's Arts and Crafts design, a movement that stood for traditional craftsmanship from the mid-1800s to early 1900s.
From its Roycroft furniture and copper fixtures, to its granite walls and curving tiled roof, the inn reflects a design that's become synonymous with the mountains, Mathews said.
"The Grove Park Inn's design conjures images of national parks and that kind of recreation in nature, so it drew lots of people over the years, both visitors and locals, who enjoy those elements that fit together in a very naturalistic way. It's so much a part of our mountains," she said.
Once complete, Grove Park Inn ranked with other remarkable structures of its day, namely the original, ornate Queen Anne-style Battery Park Hotel, built by the Coxe family, and the enormous Biltmore House, the home of the Vanderbilts built in the French chateau style.
The inn, marketed as a quiet getaway for the rich and famous, played a role in developing Asheville as a tourist destination.
"The Grove Park Inn occupies two defining spaces," said Stephanie Pace Brown, executive director of the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"One is as a world-class resort that's unique and authentic to Asheville. The other, which is more often overlooked, is as an important source of jobs, not only in terms of employees of which they have more than 900, but because the scope and reach of the Grove Park Inn attracts visitors that support so many other jobs" in sectors such as retail and dining, Brown said.
"Over the course of its 100 years, the Grove Park Inn has provided leadership in those categories and well positioned for the next 100" under its new owners, the Omni Hotel & Resort chain, she said.
Asheville and Grove Park Inn "are linked arm-in-arm" to the tourism economy, Johnson said.
"You have to remember that the Grove Park Inn has always been a resort hotel. The key word is 'resort.' Resort hotels will always mirror the state of the economy, whether there's a recession or Great Depression or good times, because they depend upon people with disposable incomes coming to stay here," he said.
The human ties that bind the hotel and its home city, beyond the tourists who visit, include longtime employees such as Troy Gentry, who started as a server in the Sunset Terrace restaurant known for its stunning mountain view. Twenty-three years later, he works in the inn's sales and convention services department.
"We're a huge family. I love the camaraderie of my co-workers and with our guests," Gentry said.
"I've made friends -- guests for life -- and I see them return year after year. We celebrate their accomplishments, as well as ours," said Gentry, whose most memorable brush with greatness at the inn was serving former first lady Claudia Alta "Lady Bird" Taylor Johnson, wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, in the early 1990s.
Speaking of the inn as a living entity, Gentry said he's impressed that "she's still standing, she's still prosperous. We call her 'the grand old lady' here at the Grove. She was originally advertised as built for the ages, and after 100 years, I'd say that's true."