The Fascinating History Behind Asheville

Do you know Asheville’s history? Travel with us back to the roaring Twenties, when Asheville first became a shining star on the map and began its journey to the city it is today.

Asheville’s memorable cobblestone sidewalks on Wall Street.

Asheville’s memorable cobblestone sidewalks on Wall Street.


A City In The Blue Ridge Mountains Lays Down Its Roots in Art Deco Architectural Style

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous fictional character, Jay Gatsby, once waxed poetic about the “pictures of the sporting life at Asheville and Hot Springs and Palm Beach.” That the character knew of the South’s favorite mountain getaway makes sense: as written in “Gatsby’s Asheville,” by Michael Kruse, Asheville in the 1920’s is an easily imagined symbol of America’s era of excess and indulgence.

In the 1900’s, Asheville’s downtown was dubbed the “Paris of the South.” Wealthy landowners began to build their summer homes in Western North Carolina, including (of course) the famed Biltmore Estate. Thanks to the arrival of the train in the late 1800’s, Asheville’s transformation from a country village to a unique urban getaway in the mountains was well underway by the turn of the century.

As America headed into an era of prosperity in the 1920’s, Asheville’s downtown area saw a boom in development. More than 65 buildings were constructed downtown in the 1920’s (NPS). The Art Deco architectural style which remains the crux of Asheville’s downtown today is prominently symbolized by architect Douglas Ellington’s City Hall, conservative Neoclassical County Courthouse, Asheville High School and S&W Cafeteria.

The Grove Park Inn is another sweeping symbol of the lavish art deco style of the 1920’s. Fitzgerald himself spent months at the inn, “but not until later, when the seminal decade to which he had given so vivid a voice felt like distant history, and he himself was a husk, a lesson for those who cared to look.”

Biltmore Estate gardens.

Biltmore Estate gardens.


The Great Depression devastated Asheville. According to longtime Asheville local J. Patrick Whalen in The Atlantic, “an economic pall settled over the area for over 50 years; and there was no reason to do anything other than let buildings stand vacant or underutilized because nothing much was happening.”



In the 1970’s, the idea of revitalization swept through many communities across America. People were migrating from cities to suburbs, creating a desire for shopping centers.

In 1971, a mall was built on South Tunnel Rd. Businesses moved from downtown to the mall, subsequently devastating the downtown area.

According to Whalen, “a profound pessimism settled over the community so that every new idea floated to bring the city back was met with an oft-repeated refrain: ‘That will never work here – don’t even try.’”

An enclosed downtown mall project was proposed and voted down, but through the process local citizens found a renewed sense of investment and interest in the downtown area.

Woolworth Walk downtown.

Woolworth Walk downtown.


In the 1980’s, some locals made attempts to strengthen the downtown business community and revitalize the area. According to The UNC Asheville Digital Archive, “In 1977, Asheville’s City Council established the Asheville Revitalization and Economic Redevelopment Commission or more commonly known as the ARC.”

In a formerly dry community, restaurants were now allowed to serve liquor by the drink. A summer festival called Bele Chere was established, and restaurants were allowed to seat patrons on sidewalk patios. Parking garages were built, even though there wasn’t a desire for increased parking downtown.

The response in the community was a backlash against local officials, and efforts to force them out of office. The efforts didn’t create an immediate revitalization, but they did lay the framework for future growth.

Busy lunch time at the cafes and restaurants on Wall Street.

Busy lunch time at the cafes and restaurants on Wall Street.


Revitalization of the downtown in the 1990’s was supported in large part by two people: Roger Mcguire and Julian Price. Mcguire, a former advertising executive, moved to Buncombe County to retire.

McGuire became involved in revitalization efforts and invested in Pack Place. He fundraised, led nonprofit efforts to benefit the area, and threw his support behind a new arts and sciences center downtown.

In an interview with the Asheville Citizen-Times, McGuire said: “Madness is seeing things as they are and not as they might be.”

Julian Price met Mcguire and ended up allocating his small fortune to support businesses, artists, creatives and entrepreneurs downtown. In addition to supporting existing entrepreneurship, the pair also created businesses where they saw a need:

“a great local bookstore, a movie theater, a European bakery, a grocery store, a number of interesting and appealing restaurants, a nationally known live music club, and high-speed Internet for downtown, while at the same time creating a number of affordable market rate apartments and condominiums so that people could live downtown.”
Downtown at the corner of College and Haywood Streets.

Downtown at the corner of College and Haywood Streets.


In short: this time, it stuck. Entrepreneurs and developers were attracted to downtown, creating a robust and charming urban center set in a beautiful mountain landscape. Historic buildings have been renovated, hailing back to the art deco style of the 1920’s. A renewed “Shop Local” initiative, combined with a growing entrepreneurial and manufacturing hub, placed Asheville on the map as a place to “stay a while” and as a creative powerhouse, especially with regards to two tourism-driven industries: food and beverage. Asheville is home to almost three dozen breweries, many of which have received national acclaim and awards. In addition to chill brews, there are plenty of farm-to-table restaurants in almost every cuisine imaginable.


Asheville was named Lonely Planet’s #1 “Best in the US Destination” in 2017.

The city has earned a steady stream of accolades, including Travelocity’s “Festive Favorites: The Top 15 Cities for Seasonal Brews,” Craft Week’s “Top 10 Towns For Craft Lovers,” Elle Decor’s “The Coziest Cities in America,” and US World and Report’s “Best Foodie Destinations in the USA.”

Today, new housing developments such as 145 Biltmore Avenue are drawing on the inspiration from the 1920’s. 145 Biltmore, among the first residential buildings to appear in downtown in almost a decade, is designed in a modern take on art deco. Residences like these take us full circle to Gatsby’s view of the mountain town where culture, taste and living achieve new heights.


NPS National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary

The Atlantic: Asheville Just ‘Happened’ to Develop a Nice Downtown—or Did It?

Asheville Citizen-Times: McGuire saw Asheville as it ‘might be’

The UNC Asheville Digital Archive

National Parks Service: Architecture in Asheville