Asheville’s historic Montford neighborhood is a living museum, rich in architectural treasures. It’s also a changing urban area that’s struggling to maintain its diversity and preserve its special character in the face of sharply rising real-estate prices and increasing nonresidential development. Amid the pressures of growth and change, however, a strong feeling of community persists; meanwhile, the neighborhood’s creative evolution has also made it a fun place to eat, shop or enjoy local music.
Among Montford’s many pleasures is taking a stroll through Asheville’s past, admiring historic homes and hiking in Riverside Cemetery. To help you find your way, Montford walking-tour maps are available from local businesses. The Montford Arts Center also offers several walking tours (covering architecture/history, local geology and Riverside Cemetery) on a rotating basis. Diverse shops offer used books and CDs, picture framing and fly-fishing equipment; assorted eateries serve up everything from ice cream and sandwiches to a full meal, while spotlighting the talents of local artists, writers and musicians.
The monthly newsletter, Montford: The Newsletter of Asheville’s Most Historic Neighborhood, invites communication and gives everyone a forum for expressing their opinions. Residents deliver it to their neighbors, and it’s also available online (at www.montford.org).
Montford is a great place to play, with many special events throughout the year. The Montford Tour of Homes, the main fund-raiser for the Montford Neighborhood Association, is what enables the group to sponsor free events, such as the Easter-egg hunt. The Spring Garden Tour helps fund renovations to Montford Park, which was donated to Asheville by noted philanthropist George W. Pack but has lost much of its historic character over the years. In the 1920s, the park was said to offer the most beautiful spring floral display in the city; since 2003, the proceeds from bulb sales have enabled us to begin restoring that repulation by planting daffodils.
The Montford Music and Arts Festival, now in its second year, showcases the neighborhood’s many artists and musicians while helping build a community network. This year’s festival is slated for May 14; a tour of artists’ studios is also in the planning stages. The Montford Recreation Center offers a variety of activities, from rock climbing to a 5K race and street dance. There’s a skateboard park on Cherry Street. And the Montford Park Players serve up two free Shakespeare plays every summer in the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater.
It’s fun to stroll in Riverside Cemetery, with its stately trees, winding paths and striking monuments. But it’s also a great place to learn about Asheville’s rich history. Besides authors Thomas Wolfe and O. Henry (the pen name of William S. Porter), many other notable folks are buried here. Visitors can also discover the graves of Ben Addison (“killed by a desperado”), Dr. Lewis McCormick (who created the “Swat That Fly” campaign to combat diseases spread by these insects), and prominent families whose names now adorn Asheville’s streets (such as Starnes, Woodfin and Patton). In addition, Riverside Cemetery is a wonderful example of 19th-century cemetery design and an outdoor museum of funerary monuments. Local-history buffs may recognize the hand of sculptor Fred Miles (who also worked at Biltmore Estate and on the Drhumor Building downtown) in some of the cemetery carvings.
Between about 1890 and 1925, prosperous doctors, lawyers and business owners built homes in Montford. Stylish apartment houses rubbed shoulders with institutions such as Norburn Hospital. Even then, however, Montford was a diverse neighborhood. On the periphery lived people who worked as domestics in the bigger homes, or as porters, maids and cooks in the downtown hotels.
In the 1920s real-estate boom, some houses were built as rentals or investments; Richard Sharp Smith, supervising architect of Biltmore Estate, was retained to design a number of these. Other architects whose work endures are Charles Parker (who designed the Grove Arcade) and William Lord (who founded Six Associates, a local architectural firm that designed many well-known buildings, such as the Asheville Citizen-Times Building and UNCA’s Ramsey Library).
During the Depression, Lord’s son Tony ran a forge in Montford that created gates and hardware for homes in Biltmore Forest and clients as far afield as Yale University and the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Highland Hospital treated many famous patients, including Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of acclaimed novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald (Zelda died in a fire there in 1948). The Rumbough House belonged to the family of Montford’s only mayor (Montford was annexed by Asheville in the early 1900s). Homewood hosted performances by famed composer Bela Bartok.
But history doesn’t stand still, and Montford today is facing many changes. Among the developments now in the works are new homes for the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and The Health Adventure, new office space at the head of Montford Avenue, and Campus Crest (450-plus units of privately owned student housing). Escalating real-estate prices are bringing much-needed renovations to some neglected properties — but also making the neighborhood less affordable for those with limited incomes. New houses seem to be filling every vacant lot. Within the officially designated Montford Historic District, building is monitored by the Historic Resources Commission, which sees to it that historic guidelines are followed. But those parts of Montford lying outside the district aren’t subject to the guidelines, and new structures erected there can seem out of context.
Over the last several decades, Montford has seen many changes. The construction of Interstate 240 placed a barrier between the neighborhood and downtown; in the 1970s, Montford declined as people moved to the suburbs. Since then, however, several forces — notably the proliferation of bed-and-breakfasts, the work of Neighborhood Housing Services, and the determination and vision of a lot of dedicated individuals who’ve lovingly renovated century-old homes — have helped make the area desirable once again. It’s an inspiring story, and it’s written in the bricks and stones and gingerbread and turrets of Montford’s lovely old houses. Come and see for yourself!
[Montford Arts Center proprietor Sharon Fahrer also edits the Montford newsletter and collects oral histories with a partner through their consulting firm, History@Hand.]