A sense of place: Exploring the history of Chestnut Hill

Then and now: The Princess Anne Hotel at 301 East Chestunt Ave. was built in 1922 by renowned tuberculosis specialists Dr. Karl Von Ruck and Anne O’Connell to shelter families of patients at their nearby sanatorium. Photo on right taken in recent days by Max Cooper. Photo on left taken in 1947 and provided by N.C. Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, N.C. This is a companion article to the Xpress cover story, “No Vacancy: Chestnut Street Development Pits Neighborhood Preservation Against Citywide Housing Crunch.”

Chestnut Hill rises just north of downtown Asheville. Recognizing the neighborhood’s distinctive architecture, notable former residents and unique character, the National Park Service has listed the Chestnut Hill Historic District in its Register of Historic Places.

Bounded by Merrimon Avenue to the west and Hill and Broad streets to the north, the district extends east to Patton Mountain and south to Interstate 240. East Chestnut Street crosses the apex of the hill and continues across Charlotte Street. Over the years, many of East Chestnut’s historic homes have been converted into offices, but the neighborhood remains predominantly residential.

Large tree canopies, brick sidewalks and granite curbs recall a more pedestrian-friendly era. For the most part, though, preservation efforts have been driven by individual property owners’ desire to retain the neighborhood’s flavor while boosting their home’s value, notes Jack Thomson, executive director of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County.

“The sense of place, I think, has engendered a sense of pride in the neighborhood,” he maintains. “Folks want their neighborhood to be protected.”

Two important local architects, James Tennent and Richard Sharp Smith, worked in Chestnut Hill in the early 20th century, designing homes that blended colonial revival, Queen Anne and Victorian styles. In 1912, the Asheville Citizen called Tennent the “dean” of the city’s architects and builders; Smith was the supervising architect for Biltmore House.

The stretch of East Chestnut between Charlotte Street and Furman Avenue — the block slated for a new apartment building (see main story, “No Vacancy”) — is capped by two of the neighborhood’s most historically significant structures. At the corner of Chestnut and Charlotte, the Camp Patton-Parker House was completed by Thomas Patton in 1869 and designated a local landmark in 2000. Patton served as Asheville’s mayor in the 1890s and hosted the first meeting of North Carolina suffragettes at his residence in 1894.

Still owned by his descendants, the house is now for sale, brokered by the Preservation Society. Featuring six bedrooms, 4.5 baths and 8 fireplaces, it sits on 1.23 acres — one of the largest yards remaining so close to downtown, and the last vestige of a once vast family holding. There are several prospective buyers, Thomson reports, and any contract will restrict future changes to the home and land. But the future of a large adjacent parcel on Charlotte Street, the site of an Ingles grocery that burned down in 1994, remains in question.

Around the corner at 301 E. Chestnut St. sits the Princess Anne Hotel, which first opened its doors in 1924. Financed by world-renowned tuberculosis specialist Dr. Karl Von Ruck, the hotel sheltered the families of patients at his nearby sanatorium. Over the years, the sizable structure has been used as everything from a psychiatric hospital to a retirement home. In 1995, it was acquired by the Maharishi Ayurveda University of North Carolina. Preservationist Howard Stafford bought the property in 2003 and transformed it into the current 16-suite hotel.

Stafford, says Thomson, bought a building that “was in pretty scary condition. He really stepped up to make a big commitment, to bring that building back, and do it in a historically sensitive way.” The Preservation Society now features the Princess Anne on historical tours, Thomson reports.

Between the Princess Anne and the proposed new development sit three other apartment buildings that Thomson says are historically significant; the Ansonia, he notes, has “a bit of Spanish flair,” with tile cornices and stucco.

Across East Chestnut, however, is the 1975 vintage Asheville Arms apartment complex, labeled an “intrusion” into the neighborhood by Asheville Mayor Roy Trantham in an inventory of historic properties undertaken a few years later. Thomson says he’d like to see local restrictions enacted to prevent other such complexes being built in the area.

The National Park Service listing enables some property owners to qualify for federal tax credits. But unlike Montford, Biltmore Village, Albemarle Park and St. Dunstan’s, which are locally designated historic districts, Chestnut Hill has no special regulations concerning construction.

Thomson feels the neighborhood deserves a local designation. “The American public wants to experience these places,” he maintains. “They don’t want to experience bland, vanilla neighborhoods. They want some authenticity, some sense of place.”

Jake Frankel lives in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood. He can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or jfrankel@mountainx.com.


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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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