Before the sprawling, red-brick Merrimon House was leveled this past summer, I managed to sneak a peek in the window of the funky former boarding house across from Deal Motor Cars. The front room was paneled in dark wood. There was an art-deco fireplace and a wide, elegant stairway with a carved banister. The dining room still had a chandelier hanging from what must have been a 12-foot ceiling, and the flooring was that black-and-white tile from the ’20s.
One can only imagine what the place must have been like in its heyday. In the boom years leading up to the 1929 stock market crash, Asheville was the tourist destination in the South, and grand hotels like the Battery Park, the Grove Park, the Biltmore and the Vanderbilt did a brisk business. Not everyone could afford these upper-crust establishments, however — and not everyone was a tourist.
People also came to town on business. Asheville had long been a regional commercial hub, and with the construction of the Grove Arcade and the expansion of downtown along Coxe Avenue, E.W. Grove helped cement the city’s role as a business center. In addition, during the age of tuberculosis, people came to town to visit relatives staying in one of the many sanitariums. And for travelers on tight budgets, Asheville offered an alternative solution: the boarding house.
“Examining the 1915 City Directory, there are 102 listings under boarding houses,” reports local historian Rich Matthews. “A half-dozen or so of these are cross-listings of hotels. However, since a fair number of proprietresses never included their their boarding houses in the City Directory, I think you can safely say there were more than 100 in the Asheville area in 1915.”
The Old Kentucky Home, run by Thomas Wolfe’s mother (and immortalized in Wolfe’s acclaimed autobiographical novel Look Homeward, Angel), quickly comes to mind. There was also the Knickerbocker (where the Buncombe County Courthouse now stands), the Hotel Oxford (a.k.a. Rogers Plumbing on Biltmore — now being converted into pricey condos), the Lady Anna (which gave way to the Fuddruckers on Charlotte Street), and St. Dunstan’s Lodge (now a group home bearing the same name).
Many of this city’s venerable boarding houses and residential hotels were lost to changing times and the spread of chain restaurants, but a handful remained. Despite periodic changes of ownership, they still served the same general purpose for which they were built. Up until a couple of years ago, the Merrimon House (formerly known as Green Oaks and the Porche Boarding House) was still accepting roomers. The Princess Anne, tucked away at the east end of Chestnut Street, has operated as an inn, a residential hotel and a retirement home since its inception in 1922. And the Windsor Hotel, smack in the center of downtown, has been checking in guests since it opened its doors as the Vance Hotel back in 1925.
Nonetheless, the residential hotels that have been an urban staple over most of the last century are fast becoming an endangered species — both here and in cities nationwide.
In his book Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States (University of California Press, 1999), author Paul Groth chronicles this vanishing urban institution, which served a broad cross section of society that, for a variety of reasons, either couldn’t or didn’t choose to set up housekeeping. Famed short-story writer O. Henry — who spent time in Asheville and is buried here in Riverside Cemetery — lived in a hotel during his years in New York, eventually taking over an entire floor. The weekly rental plan served the needs of dock workers and Supreme Court justices alike — albeit in vastly different classes of accommodations. And whether grand or humble, these establishments became part of our culture’s built environment.
“Palace” hotels (so named because their inhabitants were treated like royalty, never having to prepare their own meals or wash their own sheets) served as homes for people of means. But as Groth notes, it’s the lower class of rooming house that really captured the mass imagination. The flophouse with the flashing neon sign — now a cultural icon — sheltered the ranks of the working poor. Immigrants without resources and transients without steady work inhabited these buildings, often characterized by shoddy construction, poor ventilation and minimal amenities. For some, it was a step away from living on the streets; for others, it was a steppingstone to more permanent housing.
“Lots of people are in between; there are divorces and all kinds of situations.”
— Windsor Hotel resident Bobby Wilkerson
Despite all the changes this city has seen in recent decades, there’s still a portion of the local population for whom the more conventional, more settled residential options just don’t work.
But as boarding houses are demolished or upgraded into classy condos, the supply of affordable, temporary housing continues to shrink. And of the handful of motels in and around downtown that rent by the week, only one offers kitchenettes — and at weekly rates two to three times what some local boarding houses charge.
Anne Carpenter of the Affordable Housing Coalition says she occasionally directs people to the few remaining rooming houses — usually the Furman (42 Furman Ave.) or the Windsor. “The people I refer there are looking for something immediately. Their funds are limited and they’re paid sporadically. Sometimes their backgrounds limit where they can rent, and boarding houses [do less] screening.”
Carpenter cautions that the typical boarding house’s “inexpensive” weekly rate really isn’t all that cheap when you calculate the cost per month. But for folks on the move who need a temporary situation fast, the limited background checks — plus the fact that there’s no need to put down deposits on the room and for utilities — may loom large.
Hotel staffer Gary Boll says he’s seen a few changes in his 14 years at the Windsor. “When I first came here, we rented by the night. We used to say “even by the hour,” he recalls with a laugh. “Things are a whole lot better now. There used to be drugs and prostitution, but we’ve weeded that out.”
For $76, residents get a week’s stay in a single room. There’s a microwave and a fridge in the lobby, and a few rooms have their own cooking facilities. Some rooms come with full bathrooms, some with showers, and some just have sinks. “I wouldn’t say they’re furnished,” observes current Windsor resident Bobby Wilkerson. “They might be able to provide a bed; there might be a dresser or a mirror, I’m not sure. I brought my own stuff.”
Wilkerson has been at the Windsor for nearly five years, off and on. “I use it in between other situations,” he explains. “I was planning to get out maybe two years ago, but I kind of got stuck.” Ironically, Wilkerson — an attractive, soft-spoken man — works at a four-star tourist resort. He takes a philosophical approach to the life of the weekly tenant.
“The objective is to have an apartment or a house,” he muses. “A house is the goal, but a person doesn’t always have the means. I could move out next week if I put my mind to it, but before I moved into the Windsor, I moved seven times. It’s my goal to get out, but I’m just not in a big hurry to move.”
Life within the Windsor’s walls, says Wilkerson, is what you make of it. “You don’t always have to eat out,” he explains. “There are options: a hot plate, microwave, you can boil water. I’ve been resourceful. There were days I didn’t spend any money because I was cutting costs.”
Getting a room is fairly simple: The application you fill out is akin to checking into a hotel. “Lots of people are in between,” notes Wilkerson. “There are divorces and all kinds of situations. I know a lot of people’s stuff, and not from asking. It’s not easy to be in between.” He adds: “I knew someone who lived at Merrimon House. It wasn’t too kosher — a lot of people were chemical-dependant. I’m not knocking the business, but it can be a tough environment. I keep to myself.”
Wilkerson grew up in Asheville; in one form or another, the Windsor has been part of the local landscape all his life. The original Windsor Hotel opened in 1902 on what was then called South Main Street (the site is now occupied by the municipal parking lot on Biltmore Avenue). In 1960, the name resurfaced on the hotel at 36 Broadway. And though the business has changed hands any number of times, it’s remained a downtown Asheville landmark.
“Spiritually, it doesn’t do much for me,” says Wilkerson about his vivid window into downtown life. “The energy is confused. The downtown activity level gets intense, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. But you can endure the situation; it’s endurable if you need shelter for a while. I know a guy who stayed at the Windsor for nine years.”
Still, that kind of extended residence in a supposedly “transient” situation inevitably raises deeper questions. Is home where the heart is, or simply where you hang your hat?
“I don’t let the place define me,” answers Wilkerson. “The Windsor is my shelter — it’s not my home. It doesn’t reflect me personally. When I move out of there and set up my own apartment, that will reflect me.”