By Ron Bernthal
When a U.S. town is frequently named on almost every “Best Place to Live” list, does that mean it is truly an up-and-coming location, with relatively low housing costs, good climate, health facilities and schools? Or does it signal that the place is over crowded, over rated, and already too expensive? In the case of Asheville, North Carolina, the raves are justified.
Located in the Western part of the state, surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, and thousands of square miles of Appalachian valleys, rivers, and rolling hills, Asheville has already been “discovered” but, and let’s keep this quiet, not yet overrun by housing developments, glassy spiked residential towers, or Starbucks outlets. Nor will it be anytime soon.
Mountains and valleys limit its physical growth, and local opposition to downtown chain restaurants have kept the McDonalds, Starbucks, and Taco Bells confined to a busy commercial strip several miles away from the downtown historic district. What you have instead are funky and eclectic coffeehouses, clothing boutiques, vegetarian restaurants, art galleries, and music clubs, all housed in Victorian or Art Deco buildings in Asheville’s charming center city.
Asheville is noted today for its magnificent architecture. During the Great Depression Asheville, like thousands of other American cities, fell into debt but, unlike most other cities, its town fathers decided to pay back every cent of its debt when the country began its post-depression recovery period.
Instead of using its funds to build new downtown structures, or invest in the urban renewal fad of the mid-twentieth century, Asheville’s government used its money to pay back its debt, leaving all its 19th and 20th-century buildings to remain, well, just as they were the day the 1929 crash occurred.
Because Asheville was a boomtown in 1929, the buildings that stand today are some of America’s finest examples of Art Deco architecture, especially the structures designed by noted architect Douglas Ellington. If the city had not decided to refinance and pay off its debt, it would certainly have lost its treasured Victorian and Art Deco buildings, which are now drawing thousands of visitors each month to the city’s central historic district, itself a National Historic Landmark.
Visitors use the Urban Trail walking map to follow the five distinct time periods of the city’s history, all signified by pink granite markers in the sidewalks. Here’s the Thomas Wolfe House, over there the site where O’Henry lived, the abstract sculptures are down that block. There are about 35 markers throughout downtown, all signifying fascinating stories about Asheville’s history.
The town’s historic district exudes an ambience of Appalachian culture, frontier spirit, and a youthful energy that comes from the many bike riders pedaling around its narrow, hilly streets. Asheville’s population is listed at almost 70,000, and compared to other North Carolina cities like Charlotte (540,000), Raleigh (276,000), and Winston-Salem (185,000), it is downright small. The fact that it lies in the shadow of several mountain ranges, where early settlers had to contend with steep wagon trails, Indian warfare, and a long way from the coast, has always made Asheville seem somewhat exotic and faraway to most other Carolinians.
The most famous attraction in Asheville is not as quaint as the 19th-century brick buildings downtown. The Biltmore Estate is the largest private home in the country, built by George W. Vanderbilt in the late 1800’s, with 250 rooms on 8,000 acres. The grounds of the estate were designed by the noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, which was his last and largest landscape project. Although the Biltmore House has been open to the public since 1930, it still owned by Vanderbilt descendants, and all the furnishings, in all 250 rooms, are original pieces.
“This is where the servant operations were controlled, and this box had a call system that enabled the house manager to call any of the servants to any of the rooms in the house, including the cooks, maids, butlers, and carriage drivers,” said Darren Popoure, the estate curator.
A house tour will include a look at the basement swimming pool and bowling alley, the Chippendale Room, with its two Renoir paintings, the Observatory, with its magnificent views of the mountains and flower gardens, and Mr. Vanderbilt’s bedroom, complete with his walnut bed and hand-made 17th century Portuguese furniture.
In addition to the Biltmore house tour, visitors can visit the estate’s own winery and farm village, and then even overnight at the Inn on Biltmore Estate, a deluxe 213-room property on the grounds of the estate.
“Spring is when events take place all the time for the public,” said Andrea Pearce, a spokesperson for the Biltmore Estate. “It’s when the flower gardens are so colorful, the trees have bloomed, and visitors have a great time exploring all the outdoor areas, as well as the interior spaces of all our buildings. We have concerts on the lawn, and all sorts of workshops and classes take place during weekends.”
IF YOU GO:
Hampton Inn Tunnel Road, Tel: 828-255-9220; www.hampton-inn.com;
($129, includes full breakfast)
Inn on Biltmore Estate, Tel: 800-858-4130; www.biltmore.com;
Contact: Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.exploreasheville.com