Asheville: Boom to Bust to Boom

I’ve been talking about Asheville for years, and finally realized I need to show off this little city a bit.  Despite the misguided efforts of the North Carolina legislature to move Asheville to the Piedmont, Asheville is a  mountain town, and this has always been a factor in the town’s growth.  Above you see Pack Square, where Asheville really began, back in the early 1800s when it was just a stop on a livestock driving trail from Tennessee to South Carolina.  People in the hot lowlands of South Carolina quickly realized that Asheville was not just for pigs, and by 1851 a road was built north from Greenville, SC.  The tourists arrived soon afterward, looking for a cool spot to spend the summer.

A railroad was completed into Asheville in 1881, and a period of wide growth resulted.  Hotels were built on every hilltop, the most famous of which was the Batttery Park, finished in 1886.  There the rich and famous stayed, including George Vanderbilt who decided to make his home on one of the nearby mountaintops.

Through the turn of the 20th century and the 1920s, Asheville prospered as a prime tourist destination.  In the 1920s the city went on a building spree, with a new Art Deco city hall and neoclassical courthouse.  The old Battery Park was torn down and replaced by a modern skyscraper and a shopping arcade.  But all this came to a screeching halt in 1929.  The city was hard hit by the Depression, but through the 1960s the downtown area maintained five large department stores and a variety of little shops and restaurants.

As a child in the 1960s, I would go with my family to Asheville twice a month or so.  We always went to the big downtown Sears store, and then to a new shopping center just outside the downtown area.  We didn’t know it then, but the Westgate Shopping Center was the first sign that downtown was beginning a downhill slide.  The slide became an avalanche in 1971 when the Asheville Mall opened its doors.  The department stores opened branches at the mall, which soon greatly outsold the downtown stores.  One by one they closed.  By the early 1980s, downtown Asheville was pretty much a ghost town, with a few businesses managing to hang on.

I realize there is nothing unique about this, and the story might have ended here except that there were a few far-sighted individuals who refused to give up on downtown Asheville.  In the late 1980s a group set about to revitalize the city’s core, and today we reap the benefits of their success.   There were some notable losses along the way, but for the most part downtown Asheville has emerged as a unique place filled with privately owned businesses.

Pack Square, where the city began, and the center of early development.  The obelisk is a monument to Civil War governor Vance, who came from the area.  Behind it is the courthouse and the city hall.  The biggest change in this photo is the I.M. Pei monstrosity to the left.  When the building of it was announced in the early 1980s, there was a public uproar.  The block it replaced contained small shops dating back to the early days of the square.

But it did get people to thinking, which is usually a good thing.

Tops for Shoes was one of the few businesses to remain in downtown through the 1970s and 80s.  The store opened in 1952 as part of The Bargain Center.    The shoes were so successful they soon got their own space, and have been there ever since.  And yes, in Asheville, they really are tops for shoes.

I hope you can tell from the photos just how hilly Asheville is.  This is looking up Haywood Street, which was developed in the 1920s.  Asheville’s premier department store, Bon Marche, moved to Haywood in the mid 1920s, and soon this area became the shopping street.  The Woolworth is now an arts and crafts co-operative.

Directly across the street is that 1923 Bon Marche building, on the right.  This store moved beside Woolworth in 1937, in a new Art Deco building.  Ivey’s of Charlotte moved into the old Bon Marche building.  Today it is the Haywood Park Hotel.  Yes, Asheville does have a Flat Iron Building, and behind it runs Wall Street, which used to have a lot of character but was sanitized to death by renovation.

The 1937 Bon Marche building now houses the Earth Guild, which sells craft supplies.  Have you noticed the  artsy vibe?  The Earth Guild was one of the first businesses to take advantage of the large empty spaces for rent during the late 70s.

From the beginning of the revitalization in the 1990s, the efforts were entirely local.  No national chain would have touched the place, except for a CVS pharmacy that was eventually closed.  That all changed a few years ago when Urban Outfitters announced they would be opening in the old CVS space.  The protest continues, as you can see by the graffiti on the rear of the store.

Don’t shop here.

There are many locally owned clothing stores, some selling only locally made clothing, others selling high-end  nationally known brands.  Many display shop local signs, which really mean, “Don’t shop at Urban Outfitters.”  One store has a sign that reads, “There are no goods made in China in this store.”

“The conscious brain can hold only one thought at a time.  Choose a positive thought.”

The “new” Battery Park Hotel, built in 1924.  It closed as a hotel as downtown Asheville was abandoned, and the city leased it as low cost housing for the elderly.  It remains so today, much to the chagrin of developers everywhere!

This is the Grove Arcade, build by Edwin Grove, who also built the new Battery Park and the Grove Park Inn.  The arcade is located just in front of the hotel, and was intended as a shopping arcade for guests of the hotel.  It served this purpose until WWII, when it was taken over by the Federal government for some war-related purpose.  After the war the National Climatic Data Center moved in.  The building was strictly off limits, with guards at the doors.  Occasionally you could take a quick shortcut through the building (huge thing covers an entire block) but if you got caught then you had to answer a lot of questions.  Trust me on that one…

Thankfully, the feds moved out and the shops and restaurants moved back in several years ago.

And just one more…

The Basilica of Saint Lawrence, build in 1905.  You can’t see it in my photo, but the roof is a freestanding dome.   It is simply stunning.


Filed under North Carolina

15 responses to “Asheville: Boom to Bust to Boom

  1. Em

    Neat! I always enjoy Asheville even if the people lurking around our car while we ate at a downtown Indian restaurant the last time we were there didn’t seem particularly friendly. I will have to take a closer look at that basilica if I am ever in Asheville again.


    • Em, Saint Lawrence is truly a gem. You must go in the next time you are in Asheville.

      And there are some interesting people around, to say the least. A few years back a guy decided to lounge around Pack Square dressed only in a buckskin loincloth. This went on for days as the city officials hastened to beef up the indecent exposure ordinance!

      I suggest that people park in the garages, rather than on the street. It is usually cheaper, and it solves several problems, the worse of which is that parking tickets are freely given and towing is not unusual.


  2. It looks great, I must visit again


  3. Its on my destination list – something about it really appeals!


  4. Carol

    Thanks for the tour of Asheville in 2011. My mother grew up in Buncombe county and I grew up in Greenville, SC and we would visit family in the area. Haven’t been on Wall Street for years, but my mother and I did shop at Waechter’s Silk Shop there before it moved to Charlotte Street. I think it is in Biltmore Village now. My favorite location on your tour was the final stop. My parents married there in 1956.


    • I have dreams about being in the old Waechter’s, which was truly an experience from a different time. Yes, it is in Biltmore now, and they still have fabulous fabrics, but not that wonderful atmosphere.

      I need to get invited to a wedding at Saint Lawrence. I can only imagine!


  5. Thank you so much for the tour! You’ve sold me, I have just made Asheville a desired destination point! I LOVE the combined sense of heritage pride with intelligent humour! Looking forward to the cultural exploration in person!


  6. Thank you – what an interesting post. I really enjoyed a glimpse into the architectural and social history of Asheville. It was like taking a little trip without having to leave home. Although we haven’t been quite as overrun with big chain shopping malls here in Australia, there certainly was a move away from main street shopping in country towns here in the 80s and 90s, so I found your comments on that partiulalry interesting. Luckily many places, like Asheville are having a bit of a main street resurgence now.


  7. Thanks for the great tour. Asheville seems to be on its way to becoming a legendary US town. I got a call from my well traveled, LA based daughter when she was there a few years back: “Mom, I’ve found the greatest town. I love it here”
    I guess that sums it up, it’s on my list of places to go and things to do!


  8. Loved the tour! I’ve heard great things about Asheville from friends who have visited, but I’ve, sadly, never had the chance. It’s wonderful to hear about a town that didn’t let its downtown turn into a ghost town. I’ve seen an awful lot of those ghost towns–so sad.

    I shamefacedly admit that I love the graffiti on the Urban Outfitters building!


  9. Pingback: Charleston, SC Traditional Stores | The Vintage Traveler

  10. You mention that the Battery Park Hotel building is still used for low cost housing for the elderly, “…much to the chagrin of developers everywhere.” Considering the other reuses, activity, and general vibe of the downtown, I can imagine it might do well converted back to a hotel.


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