The making of Asheville’s Woolworth Walk

A 76-year-old structure is bound to have stories to tell. The F. W. Woolworth building in downtown Asheville, established in 1938, experienced Civil Rights in the ‘60s first-hand through sit-ins held at the lunch counter. In its current incarnation, it is now Woolworth Walk, Asheville’s largest art gallery displaying over 160 local artists’ work.

Owner Scott Sirkin began renovations of the building in 2000, which took more a year to complete and included the removal of 19,000 sq. ft. of asbestos floor tiles and the reclamation of the center stairwell that had been put in during the ‘60s. The building has received two Griffin Awards in recognition of the restoration efforts.

These renovations would have likely been delayed if Sirkin hadn’t been able to negotiate the termination of a standing 30-year lease between the previous owners and the Family Dollar. Otherwise, that retailer might still be located in the F. W. Woolworth building. However, Family Dollar decided it was not a good location for them, allowing Sirkin to move forward with his renovation plans.

“Downtown was very depressed 17 years ago, which is hard to fathom today,” Sirkin said. “The first thought was to just own any one of the buildings downtown. I just wanted to have a part of the downtown with hopes that it would become a great little city.”

At first, Sirkin had other plans for the building. “The original idea for the building was to lease it to one user, but I was a few years ahead of the town [in terms of finding] a 20,000-square-foot tenant,” Sirkin said. “This brought on the thoughts for Woolworth Walk and the Soda Fountain.”

Manager Erin Kellem has a long-standing relationship with the gallery. “I first became an artist at Woolworth Walk in 2002, only a few months after it opened,” Kellem said. “It was wonderful to be welcomed into a gallery setting, which was not so easy for a photographer in Asheville at that time.”

The recreated Soda Fountain was built in its original location and adds to the building’s draw, not only for its offerings, but as yet another element of nostalgia. The menu includes a mixture of classics like the BLT, as well as modern fare such as black bean burgers.

“In my generation, almost every city had a mall where friends gathered and had fun and caught a bite to eat,” Kellem said. “Previous generations had the Woolworth 5 and 10 cent stores. The nostalgia that many customers walk in with is obvious. They are excited to be in a Woolworth’s again and excited to find over 160 local artists in such a great setting, and they are thrilled to find that they can get lunch or an ice cream treat at the soda fountain.”

“It’s been a privilege to watch artists pursuing their creative dreams, even to the point where some have quit their jobs to be full-time artists,” Kellem said. “What an amazing source of artistic and creative talent we have in Asheville.”

As far as the future is concerned, Sirkin hopes the gallery and the Soda Fountain will continue to thrive, and he has plans to someday transform the third story of the building, another 10,000 sq. ft., into apartments or condos.

Camille Wick is …

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