Swing low, sweet bungalow

Around here, you can’t really talk about Arts and Crafts-era antiques — those signature simple-yet-durable pieces — without bringing up the Grove Park Inn. The stone giant perched on Sunset Mountain is intimately linked to this town’s identity.

“In 1913, the Grove Park was furnished with Roycroft chairs,” relates author and historian Bruce Johnson during a recent interview. The man behind the Arts & Crafts Conference and Antiques Show (now in its 18th year hosted by Grove Park), Johnson keeps a few anecdotes up his sleeve. “My favorite story is that in 1955, when the Inn was undergoing a remodeling, they literally had a porch sale.”

That’s right — the Inn’s management pushed most of the 400 original dining-room chairs onto the porch and sold them off for pocket change.

“You could buy rockers and chairs for $5 apiece,” Johnson laughs. “People drove away with truckloads.”

For decades, the chairs popped up in unlikely places. “There was a bar on Eagle Street that had five or six of them,” Johnson remembers. “I went there in the ’80s — they were coated in so many layers of gray paint.”

But some keen-eyed enthusiast saw through the latex coating and refurbished the chairs, pieces that — until the ’80s — were considered antiquated junk.

These days, a GPI Roycroft chair can sell for up to $3000.

The other Bele Chere

Each February, collectors, experts, craftspeople and casual fans of the American Arts & Crafts movement pour into the Grove Park for a three-day conference. In fact, the event is so popular that Grove Park rooms sell out by the end of each conference — for the next year.

Luckily, Asheville offers a wealth of history-imbued digs (from B&Bs to small inns) for attendees who can’t stay at Grove Park but who still want something more than Motel 6 accommodations. “Used to be people would just come in on Friday and leave on Sunday [for the conference], but Asheville has gotten such a reputation that now people come in days early [to see the town],” Johnson notes. “It can’t compare to Bele Chere, but for the month of February, [the Arts & Crafts Conference] brings in a lot of business.”

Craig Culbertson, co-owner with Otto Houser of Stuf Antiques, has a different view. “The clientele that fly into [the Conference] are real focused,” he insists. “They’re a higher-income clientele, and they shop hard. They get in, spend a lot of money, and get out of Dodge.”

And while Culbertson and Houser say they don’t benefit from the full swell of buyers haunting the Grove Park, they’re quick to praise the conference for the extra business it does send their way. “Everything we have [from the Arts & Crafts era] usually sells out,” Culbertson admits. In fact, prior to the Feb. 18-20 event, the antiques dealer will make a trip out of town to pick up more of the coveted relics.

While visitors make up a major part of the annual conference’s attendance, locals are getting in on the action, too. “Since there’s a real resurgence of interest in Arts & Crafts homes in North Carolina and Asheville, we now draw heavily from Asheville,” Johnson notes. “Hundreds of people [in the area] live in bungalows built between 1900 and World War II, and a lot of new construction is influenced by the Arts & Crafts era.”

The DIY walking tour

When Arts & Crafts Conference attendees ask Johnson where to go to take in the sights, he suggests the Montford district, the Manor Grounds neighborhood off Charlotte Street, and Biltmore Village (not including the Estate itself). “Ironically, this is one of the few groups who doesn’t come to Asheville to visit the Biltmore House, because [the architectural style of the Biltmore is] the opposite of Arts & Crafts,” he explains.

According to www.Craftsmanperspective.com, the Arts & Crafts movement can be correctly attributed to architect Augustus Pugin, who spoke out against how industrial society separated designer from laborer. Pugin inspired Oxford history professor John Ruskin to campaign for “a simpler way of life in tune with nature,” which prompted architect William Morris (not coincidentally an Oxford student) to dedicate his life to the “reformation of society through art.” In 1859, he hired fellow architect Philip Webb to build Red House, which Morris then filled with custom crafted furniture, wallpaper, tiles and accessories.

The movement didn’t take root in the U.S. until the tail end of the 1800s. But, to some extent, a focus on craftsmanship was always important in Western North Carolina.

“Asheville has always appreciated the tradition of handicrafts before [renowned woodworker Gustav] Stickley and Roycroft [an artistic community founded by Arts & Crafts champion Elbert Hubbard] made it known,” Johnson explains. “There’s always been that handmade tradition here. One reason people embraced the Arts & Crafts movement was because the groundwork had already been laid.”

After the completion of the Grove Park Inn, Fred Seely — the hotel’s designer and early general manager — commissioned all of the Inn’s furnishings from Arts & Crafts designers, such as the Roycroft workshops and the White Furniture Company in North Carolina. Later, Seely bought and managed Biltmore Industries, maintaining a strong local handicraft business. “If you’re going to point at one person who brought the Arts & Crafts influence to Asheville, you can’t find anyone better than Seely,” Johnson comments.

Another reason was that the Arts & Crafts style was the height of fashion during Asheville’s boom period, in the early part of the 20th century. The advent of the railroad into WNC brought goods from other parts of the country — like Roycroft lamps from East Aurora, NY and Stickley tables from Grand Rapids, Mich. The completion of the Grove Park Inn in 1913 attracted wealthy clientele interested in building mountain homes. Others moved to the area for health reasons and jobs.

The Montford neighborhood was settled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to Asheville’s Historic Montford District (self-published by the Preservation Society of Asheville & Buncombe County, 1985), by “middle class individuals who carried out the day-to-day activities of the city.” Though architecturally Montford is primarily known as a Victorian neighborhood, many other influences are at work. (Beyond its social mission to put design back in the hands of the artisan, the Arts & Crafts movement, with its stress on simple lines, is commonly viewed as a reaction against ornate, Victorian fussiness.)

The book notes: “The appearance of English architect Richard Sharp Smith in Asheville … profoundly affected the city’s subsequent architectural development.” Smith favored the hipped gables, heavy porch brackets and Colonial Revival details popular in Arts & Crafts style homes.

Bungalows — designed after the small, open, airy domiciles favored by the British in Colonial India — are the most famous house style of the era, but others, according to Craftmanperspective.com, include the related Craftsman, Mission and two-story Prairie styles.

Bungalow hunters can also find many examples of the style in West Asheville. “It used to be a separate city,” reveals local architect Jane Matthews. “People migrated out with the trolley lines.”

When looking for Arts & Crafts homes, Matthews suggests “any neighborhood with park in the name. That was the popular thing at the time.”

Hunting and gathering

But you don’t have to live in a bungalow (or Prairie house, or Richard Sharp Smith original) to fill your home with Arts & Crafts antiques.

“More and more locals are furnishing their homes that way,” insists Betty Cowles at Lexington Park Antiques. The cavernous shop boasts several (Charles) Limbert pieces, as well as a Mission oak grandfather clock. (When used to describe furniture, the term “Mission,” a style initially influenced by adobe dwellings but one that came to characterize pieces featuring indigenous wood and uncluttered lines, is sometimes used interchangeably with “Arts & Crafts.”)

But don’t expect a blossoming interest in these artifacts to mean that they’re plentiful — or inexpensive. “Because of the Grove Park being decorated in that style, people in Asheville know what they’ve got,” Cowles confirms.

Collector Ken Roberts attributes his Arts & Crafts love affair with a life-long connection to the Grove Park Inn. As a child, Roberts’ mother worked at the Inn and brought her young son with her during the off season, when the Inn used to close to visitors. “I was too young for school, so my younger sister and I would spend our days … playing in the Great Hall and the [six-foot-high] fireplaces. … It was our own private playhouse in the winter,” he reminisced by e-mail. When Roberts decided to become a woodworker, it was his mother who reminded him of the Inn’s enduring, no-nonsense decor.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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