Asheville and Roanoke: Highlights and Grades ($5.08)

Samuel Ashe lived a long life, dying in 1813 at the age of 87. An attorney, originally from Beaufort in the eastern part of the state, after the Revolutionary War, he became the first speaker of the North Carolina Senate, presiding judge of the North Carolina Superior Court, and in 1795, the ninth governor of state (a position chosen by the legislature, not the people). During his three one year terms as governor (the maximum constitutionally allowed at the time), the western North Carolina city of Morristown was renamed Asheville.

Whether Ashe ever came to Asheville, I do not know.  It was a small western Carolina town then, set in the Blue Ridge Mountains where the Swannanoa and French Broad rivers meet, with maybe 1000 residents, and had only grown to about 2000 by the time of the Civil War. While there were some small Civil War battles near Asheville, the town itself appears to have escaped the conflict.

It was the coming of the railroad in 1880 that led to the growth and prosperity of the city, which continued through the first part of the 20th century, but the city was badly hurt by the Depression, and stagnated.

Over the past several decades, Asheville has enjoyed quite a renaissance, spurred on largely by the growth of its creative and artistic community, its reputation for tolerance of alternative lifestyles, and tourism.  Now a city of just under 100,000 in a metropolitan area of about four times that, it often shows up on lists of the most liveable places in the country.

We spent three days and four nights in Asheville, and a part of that time visiting relatives.  It was our first time in the area, and we certainly aren’t experts on the city.  There were many things we did not get to do.  For example, we did not visit Thomas Wolfe’s boyhood house, although it is located in downtown Asheville, and we did not stop at the Grove Park Inn, famous for its unique Arts and Crafts style architecture. And I must say that both of these spots are must-see tourist attractions.  We just didn’t see them.

Because Asheville was so depressed for so long, it is said to have retained more of its older buildings than would otherwise have been the case, and is considered a centerpiece of American Art Deco architecture.  We certainly saw the downtown Art Deco buildings, some of which are quite impressive and many of which are unusual.  But I was surprised that, while retaining these structures, the central area of the city to me lacked a certain architectural coherence, and had little appeal.  It also became clear that, although many older buildings remain, many others have been swept away, and that their replacements by and large lack any distinguishing architectural characteristics.

Perhaps the  highlight of any trip to Asheville is a visit to the Biltmore Estate, the country’s largest private house, built in the 1890s by George Washington Vanderbilt, the youngest son of railroad tycoon William Henry Vanderbilt.  His older siblings built their large houses at Hyde Park and Newport.  Originally situated on about 200,000 acres (much of which is now the Pisgah National Forest), the house still sits on 8000 acres, and the entry road (from the part of Asheville called Biltmore Village (built at the time of the estate to house the construction workers, etc., architecturally distinct and attractive and controlled, and the home of many ritzy chain stores catering to ritzy women) is over three miles long, through beautiful country.

Designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, with landscaping by Frederick Law Olmstead, the house contains 250 or so rooms, most of which are not shown on the tour.  But you do see a lot on the tour, including the palatial first floor rooms, built for lavish entertaining, with a large botanically overstuffed central room flanked by enormous living quarters, dining rooms (including the “breakfast room” where the Vanderbilts ate lunch), and a beautiful library room, housing about 10,000 of the estates 23,000 volumes.  The library is fascinating, a beautiful room, with windows that are apparently often open to the elements, and with the books (many of which were bound specially for Vanderbilt) arranged somewhat generally by subject area and within each subject area by color.  The books in the library all seem to be 100+ years old, and I was surprised to hear that there is no index of the books available to the public.  This is in part because there does not have to be in that the Biltmore is not in any way a public property.  It is still the private possession of the Vanderbilt family – OK, their name is no longer Vanderbilt, but Cecil (pronounced Sessel), as George Vanderbilt’s only child married a Cecil.

Tickets to the estate cost $59 ($47 if you are a member of AAA and buy your tickets at an AAA office), which makes a visit pretty pricey.  But (surprise to me) worth it.  The elegant, first floor rooms (if you go, you will see why their ceilings impressed me so), the Vanderbilts’ second floor bedrooms and the extensive guest quarters, and equally interesting, the basement, with servants’ quarters, kitchens and food storage and preparation facilities, swimming pool and bowling alley. There is an optional audio tour, but no docent guides, although there are knowledgeable  guards in many rooms.  They also offer more detailed tours at an additional cost.

Much of the furnishing was purchased by George V. abroad; the art work includes several by John Singer Sargent, and works by Winslow Homer.  Putting aside that everything is over the top by definition, it is all quite tastefully done.  (My comparison is with the Hearst Estate, San Simeon, in CA, which we visited in 2011 – there, everything was even further over the top, and I would not say that I found the house there as tastefully furnished – the Hearst Castle is the 15th largest house in the country, with only 60,000 square feet, approximately 1/3 the size of Biltmore.)

Of course, the house is not the only thing you find on the 8000 acre estate, large as it is.  The Olmstead gardens are very attractive, and are a short walk from the house.  At one time, the estate, then a working farm, boasted the largest dairy in the area, serving a four state market (NC, TN, SC and VA).  It was sold to Pet Milk and eventually moved off the estate, and the former dairy was converted to a winery, making wines both from local grapes and from grapes from California (only about 20% of the grapes are local).  We went to the wine tasting room (quite large) and took a tour of the winery (interesting, but no more so than other winery tours elsewhere that we have been on).  We tasted four wines – I thought only one that I thought was acceptable was a semi-sweet dessert wine called Century White Wine (contains Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, and Muscat). We did not buy any, as our experience with dessert wines is that they just sit waiting to be used…..for years and years.

On the Biltmore grounds, in addition to the estate, the gardens, the winery and the beautiful scenery, you find a luxury hotel, an equestrian center, private roads leading to private homes (Cecil family, and some employees), and restaurants.  There are several restaurants and based on the lunch we had at the Bistro (one of two located at the winery), they are excellent (my lunch was simple, chicken salad on a lettuce salad, but it was perfect).  The prices are not cheap, and you can only eat there if you are already on the estate grounds (which means you have already paid for your $50 or so ticket).

The Biltmore estate was so expensive (and still is so expensive to operate) that the Cecils opened the house to the public in 1930, although they continued to reside there until 1956.  It attracts over 1 million tourists each year.

Of course, there was more that we saw in Asheville.  I went to the Asheville Art Museum, a museum comprising two adjoining buildings, one an older structure and the other one of the few attractive new buildings downtown.  The buildings are connected through the lobby, and there is a plan for a major renovation of the institution, for which funds are currently being raised.

For a city that is so filled with creative people, the museum seemed to me rather unimaginative.  As I recall, not much of the permanent collection was on display. The largest exhibit contains contemporary American works being donated by Emily Fisher Landau to the Whitney in New York.  It is a Whitney-sponsored traveling exhibition. There was a small crafts exhibit from the permanent collection, and a work of wooden sculpture by Stoney Lamar and exhibit called “Play”, largely of toys or work showing toys (both of which left me completely uninterested).

We did find both interesting and good food in Asheville, in addition to our lunch at the Bistro.  We also had lunch at a very informal, Latin-themed restaurant called Salsas, located just a block from the art museum.  Called a Mexican-Caribbean restaurant, its owner is from Puerto Rico, its staff very friendly, its prices reasonable and its menu varied.  My tilapia empanadas, with rice and beans, cost 10.95.  And we got three kinds of salsa with our chips – a tomatillo, a pico de gallo, and a pineapple mint.  Our third lunch was about 20 minutes away in Black Mountain (more later) where we ate at The Veranda, also an enjoyable (and less ethnic) lunch spot.

Although we only had three lunches, we had four dinners.  Here they are:

1.  Posana Cafe – around the corner from Salsas.  It advertises itself as a “100% gluten free, sustainable, locally farmed and green upscale casual restaurant”.  What could be better? Well, I guess the food could be.  Not that it was bad, but it wasn’t the best. I .  I had quail over risotto; Edie had seared tuna.  Hers was better, but not the best (see next entry).  We ate outside with our Asheville family – a woman by herself sat at the table next to us with her laptop.  She had to go to the bathroom, stood up, and said, “can you watch this for me?”, and then left for an inordinate amount of time.  I thought we were on Candid Camera.

2.  Nine Mile – in the Victorian Montfort area, north of downtown, a Jamaican themed restaurant.  This time I had the ahi tuna, and it was clearly tops.  They didn’t call it ahi tuna, they called it Negril Nights.  Other menu entrees include The Pressure Drop, Marley’s Magic (I think Edie had this), Jamaican Me Thirsty, Ark of the Covenant and Concrete Jungle (don’t ask).

3.  Our third evening was at another downtown restaurant Carmel’s, where again we sat outside (we didn’t sit outside at Nine Mile – for one thing, it was raining, for another they didn’t have any outside tables), and each had delicious fish dinners.  Talking to one of our cousins, he said that it is hit or miss at Carmel’s  – we scored a hit.

4.  Our fourth dinner (our first, chronologically) was at the Wedge.  The Wedge (containing 25 artist studioes and a brewery) is located in the River Arts District, a section of rundown buildings, some empty, some occupied by auto repair shops and some occupied by creative artists.  It is not a restaurant – it is a place where you can get beer (home brewed) and peanuts, where the tables are all random picnic tables scattered outside, where the view is the railroad tracks and  the Haywood Road bridge over the French Broad River.  If you want food, there is a parked food truck, which can give you empanadas, crepes, tacos and more.  The food was surprisingly good, the beer also, the crowd (and it was a crowd) eclectic and not age-specific.  We stopped because we had just got to town, did not know where to go, saw the sign and were hungry.  We hesitated when we got there, but there was clearly no need for that.

Many other interesting things about Asheville, of course.  Not so much the beauty of the town, but the architectural interest of individual buildings, some with art deco design.  And particularly, the Grove Arcade, apparently one of the last glass roofed indoor arcades built in the country, just before  the Depression and fairly recently restored to what might be a better than new condition with upscale shops and restaurants.  And how can downtown Asheville support what must be six second hand bookstores, and not junk stores, but extremely well stocked and well maintained shops, with thousands and thousands of books, some rare and most not so rare, but the not so rare are in the $7 to $15 price range, not the $1 to $3.  And then there are the tattoos – is it possible to spend more than a week in Asheville without getting an extensive collection of body art?

And, finally, we took two short side trips.  The first, on a Monday night, was to Hendersonville, about 25 miles to the south, where we enjoyed their summer Monday night free bluegrass concert and square dance.  Maybe 150 people (including a troop of cloggers) outside in the parking lot in front of the tourist center.  The second was a day time trip to the small down of Black Mountain, about 20 miles to the east, where we enjoyed lunch and some shopping in the town’s many tourist-oriented shops, braved a summer squall, and climbed (by vehicle) the mountain to see the very unusual and picturesque campus of Montreat College, pretty buildings, small windy  mountain roads, trees everywhere, houses on short culs de sac that climb upward.  I never heard of the college – a Christian oriented school, its website says. Very Christian oriented.

Of course, when I think of Black Mountain, I don’t think of Montreat, I think of Black Mountain College, the prominent creative arts school that flourished in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.  With faculty like Josef Albers, John Cage, Harry Callahan, Merce Cunningham, Wilhelm de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius, Alfred Kazin, Franz Kline, Jacob Lawrence, Ben Shahn and Robert Motherwell, and an equally distinguished list of alumni (thanks, Wikipedia), it succeeded on all levels but financial.  And so it closed.

But it turns out that its campus was not right in the village of Black Mountain, but on a site about half way back to Asheville.  Now occupied by a boys camp, we could not get on the campus itself, but could see enough from the road, including its main teaching building, which I had seen before in photographs.

This, plus very nice family visits, was Asheville.

From Asheville, we drove north to Roanoke, about 250 miles away. We had been to Roanoke previously, but mostly for a drive-through.  This time we stayed two nights.

Roanoke is about the same size as Asheville, and has a background that in some ways is similar to Asheville’s and other ways very different.  Like Asheville, Roanoke played no role in the Civil War.  As the Civil War was fought throughout Virginia, this may seem surprising, but in fact is not so.  Roanoke is a newer city; it simply did not exist in the 1860s (other than as a very small village named Big Lick).  Roanoke grew primarily because of the railroads.  And it is still a railroad town. It was the home to the Norfolk and Western Railroad (before it merged with the Southern Railway and moved its headquarters to Norfolk), and still houses Norfolk and Southern maintenance facilities.  It has a remarkable transportation museum (which we did not have time to visit on this trip).  Multiple railroad tracks run through and define the downtown area in a way not seen in many other places, and there is a glass enclosed footbridge (with escalators, elevators, and historical exhibits) that span the tracks.

On the opposite side of the tracks from downtown, the footbridge leads to the front lawn of the Hotel Roanoke (now run as a Hilton Doubletree), where we stayed.  This is a large, elegant hotel.  Its central section was built in 1882, and it has been extended, and renovated, several times since then.  It is a fine place to stay, and the rates are affordable.

On the same side of the tracks as the Hotel, you find the O. Winston Link Museum, a museum dedicated to the photography of Link and others.  Link was not a native of Roanoke, and spent a limited time in the city, but he engaged in a major photography  project, creating photos relating to the railroad at a time when the large steam engines were being replaced by diesel and the operations of American railroads were being changed in many ways.  This is a major museum and worth numerous visits.  In addition to looking at Link’s work, we saw some contemporary photography, as well as an exhibit of the industrial design and architecture work of Raymond Loewy, designer of Studebakers and Lincolns, Greyhound buses, railroad engines, corporate logos, refrigerators, electric razors, cigarette packages, and so much more.  He also designed the interior of the Roanoke railway station, which is the home of the Link Museum.  Very highly recommended.

We also went, of course, to the city’s new art museum, the Taubman Museum of Art, a modernistic, Frank Gehry-like building in the heart of downtown Roanoke.  Most of the exhibits we saw were temporary exhibits, and all were worthwhile (the Roanoke exhibits were much stronger than the ones on display in Asheville).  Perhaps the best was the wonderful exhibit of the work of Suzanne Stryk, a Virginia botanist and botanical artist, who has visited every corner of the state and created multi-media representations of the plant and animal life, and the history, of each region.  A unique exhibit by a very talented and creative person.  We also saw an exhibit of Judith Leiber’s purses, much more interesting than you might think, an exhibit of work by a South Asian collective and an exhibit of works drawn from the collection.  Again, worth a visit.

Our food in Roanoke was good, although perhaps not as good as in Asheville.  The first night, we ate an an Indian restaurant, Nawab, located in the heart of old Roanoke, and the second night we went to Billy’s, in the same area, where the food was quite good, but the service (we had a brand new, very nervous young waitress) left a lot to be desired (although the manager tried to make up for everything, giving us dessert and after dinner drinks on the house – actually, he did make up for it). Billy’s is a large, very popular restaurant, both with locals and tourists.

I think that the immediate downtown area of Roanoke, centered around it’s outdoor farmer’s market, filled with restaurants, coffee shops, craft and gift stores of various types, is extremely comfortable and perfect to wander around for a day or so.  We have done this a few times and I, for one, would go back again and again.  For some reason, to me, Roanoke is a very pleasant, mid-sized town, a welcome place as a stopover, or as a destination.

Rather than take Interstate 81 back, we came cross-country, through Charlottesville.  I don’t think we lost much time, and the roads were very fast, the scenery perhaps not as nice as off the Interstate, but nicer than I expected.  It gave us an opportunity to wander Charlottesville a bit (shops, bookstores, restaurants, etc on its long pedestrian mall, perhaps one of the few downtown pedestrian malls in the country that really seems to work).  We had a nice brunch and overall a very good (if hot) time.

In another few hours, we were home.




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