When Sallie Southall Cotten, perhaps North Carolina’s foremost clubwoman of the early 20th century, attended the 1893 World’s Fair, the experience not only inspired her latent feminism, it also quickened her aesthetic sensibilities.
For her, as for so many other visitors, Chicago presented a vision of the future, a great white city rich with parks and Venetian-style lagoons. The congruence of classical architecture, well-designed footpaths, beautifully landscaped play spaces and planned neighborhoods sparked a “city beautiful” movement that soon spread across America.
In North Carolina, the movement assumed a “village green” character. Since no city in the state had more than 20,000 people then, North Carolina had avoided many of the ills associated with the great metropolises of the Northeast. So Cotten and her fellow reformers instead focused on cleaning up these smaller cities, bringing in needed municipal services and giving them a more parklike look. By the turn of the last century, both the city of Asheville and Biltmore Village had become national models for these trends.
Until 1880, Asheville had existed as a rural county seat, a crossroads village with hogs running wild in the streets, frogs croaking in the marshes around present-day Pritchard Park, and wagons loaded with corn and wood mired in the omnipresent mud around Pack Square, the town’s cultural and legal center. A visitor in 1870 described Asheville as a “pretty country town,” remarking that the chief occupation seemed to be “the manufacture of illicit corn whiskey,” which was sold around the square.
Within a decade, however, the city’s population had mushroomed from 2,615 to 10,500. And with that cataclysmic growth came a reputation as a wide-open, anything-goes city. Inspired by clubwomen such as Mrs. W.F. Cocke and Helen Lewis, Mayor Charles Blanton (1889-93) vowed to clean up Asheville and make it the most progressive city in the state. He shut down 12 brothels and “gaming establishments,” licensed the saloons, set up a board of health, paved sidewalks around the square, helped bring streetcar lines to outlying areas, gave funds for a public library, promoted a public water-and-sewer system, and advocated universal public education, for whites and blacks alike. With the brothels gone, prostitution controlled, a new sanitation system, paved streets, a landscaped downtown, and two or three public squares, Blanton hoped that Asheville would be able to retain a parklike appearance, even in the midst of its unprecedented growth.
Around this time, another visionary — Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect extraordinaire who’d designed that very same Chicago World’s Fair, as well as New York City’s Central Park — came to North Carolina. Besides overseeing the creation of a grand estate for his new patron, George Washington Vanderbilt, Olmsted also designed a model village for him.
Biltmore Village incorporated many of the ideas that progressive city planners had been preaching. British social scientist Budgett Meakin, who toured the U.S. early in the 20th century, declared it the pleasantest village to be seen in either Europe or America. Biltmore had 100 houses, an elaborate church and grounds, a hospital, gym and restaurant, and gently curving roads for wagons and carriages, bounded by tree-studded median strips. There were walking paths, a commons for recreation and community activities, and a schoolhouse nestled amid trees and plantings. Olmsted ordered all power lines to be buried, and the railroad depot (called Best’s station) to be separated from the village by a wide boulevard that could accommodate four carriages side by side. He used natural barriers such as the Swannanoa River, the Kenilworth hills and the surrounding forests to insulate Biltmore from its sprawling neighbor to the north. Above all, Olmsted and Vanderbilt were determined not to let urban blight, or the region’s utilitarian mill villages (such as those that sprang up in nearby Swannanoa), impinge on Biltmore Village’s serene beauty.
Asheville, of course, was by no means the only rapidly developing city in those heady days. Charlotte, too, was growing, and in 1911, John Nolen — one of the finest city planners and developers of the time — built Myers Park, a gardenlike subdivision, there. Nolen’s description of the setting — “a gently rolling countryside covered here and there with beautiful groves of oak and pine” — must have resonated deeply with the great many North Carolinians and others who were moving from farms to towns to cities in the early 1900s. Those who could afford to often chose to bring the countryside with them in the form of detached homes on spacious lots, with gardens and ample landscaping. An instant success, Myers Park became the model for many early subdivisions.
And Nolen (a native of Cambridge, Mass.) moved on to Asheville, where he fashioned Blanton’s ideas into a “city beautiful” plan whose influence persists today in selected streets, in such neighborhoods as Kenilworth and Montford, and in parks along the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers.
Both Asheville and Biltmore Village owe a great deal to these twin visionaries, Olmsted and Nolen, who — at a time when the region was expanding so rapidly — helped create beautiful, well-proportioned planned communities.
[Milton Ready is a professor of history at UNCA.]