Downtown Asheville: History tidbits and fun facts

Downtown Asheville Biltmore Estate

The Biltmore Estate, just 3 miles from downtown Asheville, is a major tourist attraction each year, particularly around Christmas. (photo: Bill Sanders/Asheville Citizen-Times)

DealChicken spends a lot of time flitting round Asheville in search of the area’s best daily deals. Along the way, he’s managed to unearth some surprising information. From downtown Asheville’s roots to the Pink Lady ghost stories, the city is full of stories that need to be told! Here is a round-up of items even DealChicken didn’t know about until recently.

Asheville’s Biltmore House held a closely guarded secret during World War II. Concerned about the possibility of air strikes, the National Gallery of Art moved its most valuable works to America’s largest private residence in January 1942. Curators oversaw storage of paintings in the music room at Biltmore, while pieces of sculpture were placed in the servants’ dining room. The treasures remained there until October 1944, when they were safely returned to Washington, D.C.

The Grove Arcade in downtown Asheville has reclaimed its original purpose as a thriving retail center, but it took years for the building’s renaissance to occur. The federal government took over the building during World War II and evicted 74 shops and 127 offices, giving each less than a month of notice. After the war, the government used the historic, 269,000-square-foot building to house the National Climatic Data Center. It wasn’t until 2002 that the Grove Arcade returned to the usage E.W. Grove envisioned: a home to trendy restaurants, shops, and luxury apartments.

Novelist Thomas Wolfe enraged the fury of his hometown when he published his novel, "Look Homeward, Angel" in 1929. The book detailed the lives of Asheville residents, thinly disguised as fictional characters, and all of their sins and transgressions. Wolfe received death threats and promises to tar and feather him if he ever came back to town. Pack Memorial Library also banned the novel from its shelves until F. Scott Fitzgerald demanded it be put into circulation during his 1936 sojourn in Asheville. Wolfe stayed away until 1937, but by that time he was welcomed back as a famous writer and favored Asheville son.

Famed writer F. Scott Fitzgerald took refuge in Asheville in the summer of 1935. He moved into the Grove Park Inn with the intention of writing and resting, but as reported in the book "After the Good Gay Times," staff reported carting baskets full of crumpled up paper and empty beer bottles from his room. In 1936, Fitzgerald transferred his wife, Zelda, to Highland Hospital in Asheville and spent another summer at the Grove Park Inn in suites 441-443. Tragically, Zelda died on March 10, 1948, when fire destroyed Highland Hospital.

Ghost stories swirl around many inns and hotels, but the Grove Park Inn did more than just entertain stories of its resident ghost known as The Pink Lady. The inn launched a formal investigation in 1995 and hired Joshua P. Warren, founder and president of L.E.M.U.R. Paranormal Investigations to find out more. According to legend, a woman fell to her death from the fifth floor of the Grove Park Inn to the Palm Court. She was wearing a long, flowing pink gown. Warren documents his findings in his book, "Haunted Asheville."

Rumors of Babe Ruth’s death in Asheville were greatly exaggerated, but he did come close to meeting his maker right after he landed in Asheville in 1925 for a pre-season game at McCormick Field. As a crowd gathered at the Asheville train station on Depot Street to greet Ruth and his New York Yankee teammates, they watched as he staggered off the train and immediately collapsed. New York Tribune sportswriter W. O. McGeehan dubbed the ailment as “the bellyache heard round the world,” but it proved more serious. Ruth underwent surgery for an intestinal abscess and after a seven-week recovery period returned to playing baseball.

Architectural treasures define downtown Asheville’s character, and one architect is credited with creating a rich heritage for the city in its impressive collection of art deco buildings. Douglas Ellington designed the First Baptist Church, S & W Cafeteria and Asheville High School, but perhaps his crowning achievement is the pink-topped city building. He was initially commissioned to create a matching courthouse, but Buncombe County Commissioners balked after seeing the extravagant city building and chose another architect to design a more generic structure. Today the two buildings stand side by side—almost diametric opposites in character and appeal.

In 1876, author Frances Tiernan, under the pen name Christian Reid, wrote a book called "The Land of the Sky." This moniker was adopted as Asheville’s nickname and is still used today, but the town has been linked to a wide number of nicknames such as “Paris of the South” and “Santa Fe of the East.” Rolling Stone magazine dubbed Asheville the “New Freak Capital of the U.S.,” Self Magazine called it “America’s Happiest City,” and CBS used “New Age Mecca” to describe Asheville.

Actress Grace Kelly filmed her last movie as a single girl in Asheville. Scenes of "The Swan" were shot on location at the Biltmore House, and the movie was released in 1956. That same year, she married Prince Rainier of Monaco. The Asheville area has a rich history of serving as a backdrop for major movies. Some of the titles include "The Hunger Games," "The Clearing," "My Fellow Americans," "Hannibal," "Private Eyes" and "Being There."

The Swannanoa River swallowed Asheville’s Biltmore Village in one of the most extreme cases of flooding ever experienced in western North Carolina. The flood of 1916 occurred July 15 and 16 from remnants of a tropical storm. As The Asheville Citizen newspaper reported, “water was 15 feet deep in the streets.” The raging French Broad River flooded other parts of Asheville. Damage in Asheville alone was more than $1 million—a weighty figure in the year 1916.

Did you already know about downtown Asheville’s past and these other history tidbits? Check out these fun facts about Knoxville.