Stories in stone and brick

In this age of sprawling five-lanes lined with fast-food chains and megastores, we are fortunate to live in a city whose rich history is abundantly in evidence. From the gargoyles of the Jackson Building — whose necks jut out boldly over the adjacent streets — to the trim brick storefronts of bustling Biltmore Avenue, much of Asheville’s cultural heritage can be traced through its architecture.

Funky echoes

Not all of Asheville’s history is apparent to the eye, however; sometimes, you have to strain your ear to catch faint echoes of a vanished past.

The genteel galleries and eateries of today’s Biltmore Avenue give little hint of a time when lower Biltmore (along with Eagle and Market streets) was home to a sizzling soul-and-R&B music scene.

Tom Kerr, author of The Underground Asheville(TM) Guidebook (due out in the near future), writes: “Prior to the mid-1970’s, downtown was home to one of the hottest African American music scenes in the nation and attracted both regional and national acts. Sam Cooke, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Chubby Checker, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, B.B. King, Sam & Dave, Willie Dixon, and other famous performers visited Asheville to play venues like the Orange Peel (which was located near the intersection of Biltmore Ave. and Hilliard Ave.).”

H.K. Edgerton, born and raised on downtown’s Grail Street, remembers when the Kitty Kat Club and similar venues were places for fun, food, dancing — and romance. “I would venture to say there are many children in the world today, and many marriages, because of being able to socialize in those places; maybe some divorces, too,” he notes. Club owners and community elders, he explains, kept the peace and enforced codes of respect — keeping young club-goers in line. Edgerton recalls: “Al Hutchinson [an enforcer at the Kitty Kat Club] was a father figure to every one of us, but you know, he would bust my tail and send me home to my Daddy. … [But] as long as you … acted with some dignity, you could get in.”

By the late ’70s, most of the live-music clubs were gone. Hutchinson bought the property at 60 Biltmore (now home to the Blue Moon Bakery and adjacent businesses) in 1973, opening Al’s Wheel of Fortune in the basement. Members grooved to soul (and, soon, disco) tunes, encouraged by the motto, “Try your luck with food, foxes, fools, funk,” that was part of a wild, red-and-black mural adorning the exterior walls. Hutchinson closed the club’s doors in 1984. Shifting trends in music, the rising price of live performers, general financial problems, and what some have said were empty promises of urban-renewal efforts all contributed to the Wheel of Fortune’s demise. When asked about the clubs’ final days, Edgerton reflects, “Those clubs didn’t have the same kind of zeal that they had in the late ’60s, but they still provided a source of entertainment in the African-American community.”

Bowling balls in Biltmore Village

While funky vibes flowed out into the streets at the upper end of Biltmore, bowling balls were knocking down pins in Biltmore Village, near the avenue’s southern terminus. A close look at 10 Biltmore Plaza (now home to Talbots, the Thomas Kincaid Signature Gallery, and La Paz Restaurant) reveals hints that a bowling alley once occupied the premises. The building’s charming cupola contains architectural adornments shaped like bowling pins.

Through the 1940s and ’50s, the tidy brick building was home to the Biltmore Plaza Recreation Center, which housed a 12-lane bowling alley, a soda fountain and dining room, clubhouse facilities and offices. The center opened in July of 1942; at 30 cents per game, it offered an affordable (and amusing) escape from the stresses and dismal reality of a world at war. Fred Slosman — whose family now owns the property (part of which houses the Slosman Corporation) — remembers hanging out in the soda fountain/dining room as a young boy. He reveals that he particularly admired the colorful mural that wrapped around the dining room’s walls, depicting Asheville’s history and culture.

More evidence of bowling’s glory days at the Biltmore Plaza can be found in the building’s pillared entrance, off Boston Way, where the framed image of a bowling ball is engraved on the floor of the marble foyer. And Slosman says he hopes, one day, to restore the cupola, so that beveled glass once again fills its window casings.

Tall tales and lightning strikes

On east Pack Square, a tall, inordinately thin building has attracted more than its share of mystery. Perhaps it’s the Notre-Dame-meets-Gotham-City gargoyles that have helped inspire the tall tales and rumors that have clustered around the Jackson Building (22 S. Pack Square) since it opened in 1924. At that time, it was touted as the tallest steel-framed skyscraper in Western North Carolina (though it’s hard to imagine that there was much competition). Real-estate developer L.B. Jackson is said to have delighted in shining the powerful searchlight affixed to the building’s tower on the surrounding mountains at night (especially after he’d had several drinks, according to published accounts of the day). Pointed directly overhead, the searchlight’s 300,000-candlepower beam was visible 100 miles away.

The spotlight was removed in the 1950s, but periodic lightning strikes continued to illuminate the tower. Ted Prosser of Landmark Management, who co-owns the building with Bill Byrne, has witnessed such hits firsthand — and not always at the best of times. “The first time I brought Bill up here to see the property [so he could decide whether] to invest as a partner, we went up to the tower with my wife, and lightning struck,” Prosser remembers. Tower modifications in the early ’80s included replacing the spires with small gargoyles, to reduce the building’s electrostatic appeal.

Still, lightning strikes and general exposure to the elements have taken their toll on the aging structure. Restoration work was ordered in the ’50s, after several instances when broken tiles fell from the 13-story building, shattering on the sidewalk below. But tile may not be the only falling object in the Jackson Building’s history. In Haunted Asheville (Shadowbox Publications, 1999), Asheville author Joshua P. Warren cites a legend concerning a distraught businessman said to have jumped from an upper-story window during the Great Depression, to end his misery. Warren also tells of a photographer said to have captured the image of a lingering … er, form (which looked suspiciously human) in an upper window, late at night when the building was closed for renovation. The poor suicide’s restless spirit, perhaps? Or maybe ghosts are drawn to the site where tombstone carvers once toiled (the building occupies the spot where Thomas Wolfe’s father operated his stone-carving business)?

Prosser laughs at most of the rumors he’s heard about the building, including the one about a young Walt Disney having worked as a draftsman there, back in ’24 — and getting fired for doodling (a tale that’s been emphatically denied by the official Disney Archives). But maybe the stories should be left for the FBI to sort through — they have an office on the seventh floor.

If these walls could talk

The filing cabinets in the Buncombe County Courthouse (60 Court Plaza) enshrine the legal histories of Asheville’s people and places, but the building’s walls are tombs for creatures from a far more distant era. Officer Ingle, who guards the courthouse’s front entrance, may swear that he’s the oldest fossil there (as he told this writer). But if you focus your eyes on the Missouri marble that surrounds him, you’ll find myriad shells and the fossilized remains of other prehistoric creatures.

According to an Asheville Citizen-Times article published in 1960, the marble — which comes from the St. Genevieve Golden Vein in Missouri — is filled with seahorses, as well as a 3-foot-long lizard, numerous tortoise shells, and the remains of what the reporter called “once bony, jointed creatures.” Some of these tiny relics of eons past are obvious to even the amateur eye, but expert opinion casts doubt on the more exotic claims.

After inspecting the white, patterned forms on the walls in and around the second-floor north staircase, Keith Bamberger of the Colburn Gem & Mineral Museum observed, “It’s easy to make a mistake.” The fossilized, white cell structure of what Bamberger guesses to be specimens of coral or sponge “does look similar to scales,” he conceded. And, after further examining the courthouse walls (under the bewildered gaze of staff members) Bamberger concluded: “This is marine sediment. … My guess is it predates vertebrates by a couple million years.”

So — while you won’t find the jaws of a Tyrannosaurus Rex in those hallowed halls — you will find layers of distinct shells, corals, sponges and simple marine animals in every inch of courthouse marble. Pack along a pocket fossil guidebook, and the next time you find yourself pacing as you wait for a poky elevator, remember that the walls offer plenty for the eyes to explore.

The past is all around us

A number of illustrated books of local history are available, but the best tidbits come from those folks who’ve seen the city’s institutions come and go — such as the Plaza Theater (a former adult-movie house that’s now the Fine Arts Theater, 36 Biltmore Ave.) and the porn shops that once lined Pack Square. Tom Kerr recalls his youthful adventures in downtown Asheville, in the 1960s: “My buddies and I loved to go downtown to shoot pool. There were big, smoke-filled pool halls where we could bet drinks or small amounts of money against old codgers who would hang out drinking, spinning yarns, and playing eightball all day. Then we’d show a fake ID card to get into [what is now] the Fine Arts Theater, which was a XXX theater for smut films.” A 1985 North Carolina obscenity law put an end to the era of “skin flicks” in downtown Asheville, and in 1996, after extensive renovation, John Cram reopened the theater’s doors — this time, to fans of high-quality art films.

Some current renovation projects even promise to undo the indignities inflicted on magnificent downtown structures in times gone by. The renovation of the 1920s-gothic Grove Arcade will restore the shop fronts that were crudely bricked up when the federal government took over the building during World War II. And the exterior restoration of the drab Vanderbilt Apartments (75 Haywood St.) — whose facade once matched that of the nearby Battery Park Apartments (both were originally hotels) — will return a little style to one of downtown’s least-distinguished structures. A few years ago, when loose bricks from a cut-rate renovation began to constitute a threat to passersby, the managers of the Vanderbilt Apartments began soliciting bids to fix the problem. A collaborative effort to stabilize the brick and add decorative accents — involving general contractor Kirk Boone‘s KCB Construction; architect/historic-preservation expert William Flynn Wescott; structural engineer Jerry Stockbridge (the man who literally delivered the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse to its new location); and Pat Whalen of Public Interest Projects — is now under way. Besides submitting a competitive bid, the team promised to do the work without relocating the mostly elderly residents. Even the new red stain for the bricks (which required several test applications) may become famous. According to Wescott, national paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams is considering naming the carefully selected tint “Vanderbilt Red.”

It’s also common to find relics from Asheville’s past recycled into newer businesses — such as the retro red bar stools at Max & Rosie’s Cafe (52 N. Lexington Ave.), which used to spin at the old Woolworth’s lunch counter on Haywood Street.

But some things are best laid to rest — such as the dreary, aluminum facades that once smothered the former Asheville Hotel building (55 Haywood St.) and other downtown structures.

Still, discovering Asheville’s past is easy: Just keep your eyes open, and let your feet do the wandering.

The city in print

Asheville is fortunate to possess a rich collection of historical photographs, illustrated histories and newspaper clippings in collections at Pack Memorial Library, UNCA’s Ramsey Library and the Biltmore Village Historical Museum. For some personal insights from longtime Asheville residents (some of them celebrities, of sorts) about the city’s past and present, watch for Tom Kerr‘s The Underground Asheville(TM) Guidebook, due out sometime in the coming months. For a supernatural history of Asheville, pick up a copy of Joshua P. Warren‘s Haunted Asheville. And architect William Flynn Wescott recommends A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Western North Carolina, by Bishir, Southern and Martin (UNC Press, 1999) for an in-depth discussion of regional architecture.

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