Looking Homeward

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Unquestionably the two most dramatic structures in Asheville are the Grove Park Inn and Biltmore, the estate built by George W. Vanderbilt in the 1890s. Wolfe would have known both these places. The inn, finished in 1913, was the product of the imaginations of a wealthy laxative manufacturer in St. Louis named Edwin Wiley Grove and his son-in-law, Fred Seely. When no architect could give Grove what he wanted, he turned to Seely and asked him to design the hotel, although he had no training whatsoever. The result is a colossus, all immense rough-granite blocks and red roofing tiles. One writer described it as “almost ugly, were it not so interesting.”

Despite renovations in the 1980s, the inn has remained virtually untouched, and the survival of many of its original furnishings has made it the largest repository of Mission furniture in the nation. It is still Asheville’s premier hotel and boasts an impressive list of guests over the years: Will Rogers, Béla Bartók, William Jennings Bryan, “Black Jack” Pershing, Henry Ford, and assorted Presidents and other dignitaries.

What would surprise Wolfe much more than anything at the inn are the changes that have taken place at Biltmore. The largest private house in the United States, George Vanderbilt’s version of Xanadu was designed by Richard Morris Hunt and Frederick Law Olmsted. Those two titans created for their patron an imposing château set amid 125,000 acres that Vanderbilt bought in 1890. Patterned after the châteaux at Blois and Chambord and crammed with art and furniture that the erudite Vanderbilt had brought back from his many trips abroad, the house has thirty-four bedrooms and in its heyday required more than eighty servants. It is a rabbit warren of a place, and all but the best rooms have been closed off. Among its many marvels the house contains a bowling alley and a (now-empty) indoor swimming pool. Biltmore began to fall into disrepair after World War II, and the family stopped using it in the 1950s. Since then it has been restored, and it is now run by Vanderbilt’s grandson as a private business. Once more one of the largest employers in the area, Biltmore attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year who come to admire its fine collections, tour its beautiful gardens, and sample wine in its vineyard.

So accurately had Thomas Wolfe framed his novel against Asheville’s backdrop that the townsfolk threatened to tar and feather him.

Another important house in the area, although on a slightly less grand scale, is Richmond Hill. Built in 1889, this Victorian mansion was the private residence of Richmond Pearson, a former congressman and diplomat whose father had been chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Pearson was a good friend of Theodore Roosevelt and was appointed American minister to both Persia and Greece. When TR left the White House, Pearson retired to private life, and he lived in the house until his death, in 1923. The house fell on hard times after the death of his son’s wife in 1972 but now has been restored and serves as a charming inn.

There is more to Asheville than its architecture, and the city attracted writers for reasons other than the quality of its mental hospitals. Carl Sandburg settled near here toward the end of his life. The Vanderbilts frequently had Henry James and Edith Wharton as houseguests. But the most important gathering of artists and intellectuals here occurred at Black Mountain College. Founded by rebellious faculty members from Rollins College in Florida, Black Mountain presented itself as a revolutionary experiment in liberal arts education. The college flourished from the 1930s to the 1950s, establishing a reputation for the excellence and diversity of its faculty, which included over the years Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius, Willem de Kooning, John Cage, and Josef Albers.

The presence of so many egos led to conflict, and as the better members of the faculty began to go elsewhere, the college eventually disintegrated. It closed in 1956, but the name it made for itself still serves to attract, like Butmore, visitors from all over the world.

Those who come to see the natural beauty of Asheville and the grandeur of the local architecture will not be disappointed. Those coming to see the little stone angel that was the inspiration for Wolfe’s first novel, however, do so in vain. Sadly, she no longer exists.

—Charles S. Dubow TO PLAN A TRIP