Driving The Mountains of Asheville
Published: April 2009
By Alfred Corn
The signs read Blue Ridge and Black Mountain, but at least one part of North Carolina sure looks a lot like Europe. <b>Alfred Corn</b> tools around greater Asheville and reflects on the area's profound, if long-gone, influence on American arts
My friend, who doesn't like to leave New York, let me persuade him to come along with me to North Carolina. I'm even allowed, on condition of anonymity, to quote him, so I'll call him the Ironic Fellow Traveler—or IFT. He and I have flown into Greensboro instead of Asheville because it was cheaper and, besides, I like to drive.
I've been anticipating the moment, during this westward trek along I-40 between the two North Carolina towns, when the Blue Ridge peeps over the horizon. IFT has been punching the FM scanner and making faces, but when I alert him, he sits up and takes notice. "No kidding, it really is blue," he says. We're reliving what coastal planters of the antebellum period experienced when they began beating the summer heat by fleeing upland to the village of Asheville, turning it into a resort. Rubber keeps hitting the road, and by this point I've gotten used to the rented Stratus's various differences from my own car's controls, so I allow myself a deep breath of fragrant air, relax, and let the mountain aura take over.
Out-of-the-way corners in unaffluent states don't usually figure as cultural crossroads, yet Asheville and its environs had an artistic heyday, partly because of tourism itself. Something native to the place accounted for it as well, though; a vague, lyrical yearning hovers over western North Carolina's mountain ranges so that the dreamy melancholy and outsized ambitions of the Appalachian Tar Heels make a kind of indigenous sense. In the 1880's, Northerners who liked to hunt began coming to this outback, and one of them chose Asheville as the place to site his fantasy castle. It's still, at 250 rooms, the largest private residence ever built in America.
We're standing on the front steps of Biltmore Estate, fighting off our incredulity that a vast pile modeled on the Renaissance châteaux of the Loire Valley was conjured up in this Carolina setting. Instead of speaking French, the locals ambling along next to us have pure land-of-cotton twangs; though one of them, I notice, could pass for a Hell's Angel, with his mullet, knee-busted jeans, onyx shades, black T-shirt, and writhing tattoos. He and his more conventional-looking wife and daughter move into the front entrance just ahead of us—our reality check during the visit to wonderland.
George Washington Vanderbilt, grandson of the Commodore, was also determined that old times would not be forgotten, but in his case they were mainly European old times. Studious and refined, he wanted to reside in the architecture of feudalism, but on native ground. Gender barred him from acquiring a title by marriage, so instead he joined destinies with Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, a descendant of New York's first governor. Together they could afford the upkeep for a 125,000-acre demesne larger than some European principalities. Architect Richard Morris Hunt was engaged to design the château, and Frederick Law Olmsted landscaped it. A stately home has to have a park, and Biltmore's is the most beautiful I've seen. The view from the loggia is stupendous, partly because of the careful blend of forest and meadowland below and partly because of the peaks beyond. "Next to the mountains, the house looks dinky," IFT decides. "The Loire châteaux have less to compete with."
Hunt placed a replica of the famous spiral staircase at Blois on the left side of the entrance. On the right he put the domed Winter Garden, whose elaborate wood groining and plants are attractive,but anachronistic for the Renaissance. Biltmore Estate is a monument to eclecticism, equipped with rooms in French or English period styles, with baths up to date for 1895. Still, robber barons were goodat shopping for heirlooms in Europe, and apart from its period furniture, the house boasts works by Dürer, Whistler, Sargent, and Renoir. And it contains a library of 10,000 leather-bound books, hundreds of etchings, porcelains, sculptures, tapestries, and carpets. "The super-rich are different from you and me," says the IFT. "Their houses become museums." The déjà vu we're experiencing derives from Henry James's novels. In fact, he visited Biltmore in 1905, referring to it as "a castle of enchantment," without, you may guess, really approving. My friend, who's an expert on the Brown Decades, explains why oligarchs of the late 19th century wanted to annex Europe's impoverished aristocracy: "It sounds better when you're introduced as a countess instead of a baking soda heiress." I suppose so.
The Vanderbilts' only daughter married a British Cecil, and her grandson is the present CEO of the Biltmore Company, which looks to be doing quite well. Admission to the grounds costs a stiff $39, and other means of netting tourist dollars are in place. There are gift shops, places to lunch on the estate, a winery flogging the local vintage, and the new Inn on Biltmore Estate,where we're staying. We drive up and debate whether to use valet parking or schlep and save a buck. But not belonging to the noblesse obliges one, so the attendant gets his fee. With turrets and slate roofs reminiscent of Biltmore, the inn is well sited for a view of the mountains and the distant château. The lobby is adjoined by a faux library (the books glumly aware that no one will read them), where afternoon tea is served. The cheapest version is $21.95, but, again, we spring for it. Sun is setting, tea is elegant, light is golden—and so are we.
We have dinner in a pleasant dining room, where the new American cuisine is decent but pricey, considering the non-metropolitan location. Ditto for the rooms, about which the IFT says, "If this were the Beau-Rivage in Geneva or the Hassler Villa in Rome, no problem—but here?" Henry James, during the American tour that brought him to Biltmore, saw our hotel culture as one of the most striking phenomena he encountered. The American-grand hotel experience, now globalized, has become a kind of amateur theater, whose rituals are designed to showcase our affluence and sophistication. But it's also a shakedown, one that successful establishments have to disguise in order to preserve the silken ambience top feeders expect. Biltmore manages pretty well, helping you forget that isolation from alternatives tightens its expensive grip on you.
Exiting the estate grounds takes about 10 minutes; we drive another 10 to reach downtown Asheville. We're going to see a humble boardinghouse, Old Kentucky Home, near the business center. It's where Thomas Wolfe (author of Look Homeward, Angel and You Can't Go Home Again) grew up. His mother, rabidly determined to make a fortune in real estate, used the proceeds from her hostel for down payments on bargain properties around town. People came to stay not only to enjoy cool summers but also because mountain air was regarded as helpful for consumptives. One of the guests must have imported the bacillus that gave Wolfe the mild case of TB he suffered as a young man. Years later, a bout of pneumonia reopened the tubercles in his lungs and released active bacilli that infected his brain and killed him.
Wolfe's first novel describes a town he calls Altamont and a gloomy boardinghouse in it. He also mentions the nearby château, an extravagance that no doubt contributed to the narrator's discontent with his drab origins. Recently restored after a fire, the house doesn't look so bad, really. After contemplating the Victorian façade—its yellow-and-cream color scheme, its gingerbread ornamentation, the army of rockers on its veranda—IFT and I find the entrance to the Thomas Wolfe Memorial on North Market Street. A brief inspection of Wolfiana there, and then a guide takes us through the house itself.
It's a mazelike agglomeration of rooms on two levels, including one where Wolfe's brother Ben died and the upstairs sleeping porch that the wanderer liked to use when he did or did not come home again. We pause and feel a chill several times: in the labor-intensive kitchen, the dining room, and a parlor with a pump organ and family photographs. Because of today's overcast skies, there's an unfrosted Edison lightbulb still lit, its tungsten filament leaving a looped retinal afterimage for several minutes following my first squint at it. The ensemble makes a strong impression, compounded by alcoholism (Wolfe's father's), matriarchy, family deaths, and the indigenous mountain dreaminess. Wolfe left it all behind for a while, first as an undergraduate at UNC Chapel Hill, then as a romantic exile in New York. He was lionized in the years when he was alive and publishing but, according to an informal survey I took, the reputation has declined. Given a longer lifespan, he might have learned to curb his rhetorical bent and develop his comic abilities. When he died, he was brought home and buried in Riverside Cemetery, the headstone bearing two epitaphs taken from his writing. The first (from Look Homeward, Angel) simply says, "The last voyage, the longest, the best."
We drive 20 minutes east to Black Mountain, a small town nestled at the foot of the so-named mountain range, which includes the highest peak in these parts. It wouldn't have occurred to us to make the excursion except that a famous experimental school opened there 70 years ago. John Andrew Rice, the founder, had been booted out of a college in Florida, at which point he decided to set up his own alternative. His associateRobert Wunsch proposed a Christiansummer camp outside town as the site of the new college. Starting with Josef and Anni Albers, who left Germany and came to Black Mountain at the beginning of the Nazi era, the school counted among its faculty and students progressive artists of unusual caliber: Ben Shahn, Robert Rauschenberg, Jacob Lawrence, Robert Motherwell, the de Koonings, and Franz Kline. Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham were on the faculty, and Black Mountain's writers included Francine du Plessix, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Jonathan Williams, and Robert Duncan. While not bound by any uniform aesthetic, these figures shared a bent toward the experimental, making a collective impact on American culture by their work and by the freewheeling lives they led. The counterculture of the sixties really began the previous decade in California and North Carolina.
Present-day Black Mountain is basically a Southern hamlet populated by churchgoers and businesspeople. Because of the school's legend, there has also been an influx of amiable freaks, who've set up as potters, musicians, and painters within its ambit. As we stroll State Street, IFT takes in its laid-back galleries and crafts shops with a smile that looks...benign?Patronizing?Dinner here would be contraindicated, but there are cafés and bluegrass bars worth hanging out in. At the window of a shop selling dulcimers, we fantasize about apprenticing ourselves to Appalachia's sweet singers. Would Dolly Parton take our citified ways in stride?
An obligatory stop is the Black Mountain Center for the Arts, and the sites where Black Mountain College held its classes. BMC's true monument is the influence it had after its doors closed in 1956; it generated concepts that have played a role in American culture ever since. Okay, but how many artists have actually been here?Back in town, we buy the T-shirts that prove we have. IFT struggles into his. Cool. He says he wants to take the wheel when we hit the road back to Greensboro.
WHERE TO STAY
Haywood Park Hotel
In the heart of the city.
DOUBLES FROM $175
1 BATTERY PARK AVE., ASHEVILLE; 800/228-2522
Inn on Biltmore Estate
DOUBLES FROM $249
WHERE TO EAT
Farm-fresh food on the grounds at Biltmore.
LUNCH FOR TWO $20
Tupelo Honey Café
Southern comfort food.
DINNER FOR TWO $40
12 COLLEGE ST., ASHEVILLE 828/255-4863
WHAT TO DO
ENTRY FEE $39
Black Mountain Center for the Arts
225 W. STATE ST., BLACK MOUNTAIN; 828/669-0930
Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center
Gallery shows, lectures and poetry readings
56 BROADWAY, ASHEVILLE; 828/350-8484;
Thomas Wolfe Memorial
ENTRY FEE $1
52 N. MARKET ST., ASHEVILLE 828/253-8304