Asheville estate, boardinghouse reach out to tourists

April 02, 1995|By Jack Hurst | Jack Hurst,Chicago Tribune

Nestled in the shadows of the Smoky Mountains, Asheville, N.C., is rich with attractions, and two of them are residences that represent decidedly opposite ends of the spectrum.

At one end is the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate, which includes the 4-acre, 255-room Biltmore House built by world traveler George W. Vanderbilt, a New York shipping and railroad heir whose Carolina digs remain the largest private home in the United States.

A few miles from the Biltmore's regal gate is the Old Kentucky Home, a comparatively Spartan 29-room boardinghouse that provided early shelter to star-crossed novelist Thomas Wolfe.

Asheville is the largest city in western North Carolina. It's the southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway and looks out on the surrounding summits of the Great Smokies as an equal, thanks to its elevation of 2,340 feet. From its early days, the city's panoramic scenery has attracted the vacationing rich.

And because such people require appropriate accommodations, Asheville affords them several choices, most notably the elegant Grove Park Inn, a resort with 510 rooms ($121-$285, depending on size, view and season) and a guest book whose signers have included presidents and literary lions. Over the years, in fact, the town's cultural atmosphere has grown with its clientele, and Pack Square downtown now has artistically inclined restaurants, coffee shops and bookstores.

Asheville's literary air is genuine, too, having been breathed by such notables as F. Scott Fitzgerald, who reputedly whiled away many hours drinking and hitting on Grove Park's female guests while his wife Zelda received psychiatric treatment in the local hospital in which she would later die. O. Henry, a North Carolinian buried in Asheville's Riverside Cemetery, became a temporary resident after marrying a local woman. Connemara, a 263-acre farm 26 miles down Interstate 40 at Hendersonville, became home in 1945 to historian-novelist-poet Carl Sandburg.

The city itself produced noted writers, including novelist Gail Godwin. By far, Asheville's best-known literary figure, however, is Wolfe, a prolific and erratically brilliant author whose 1929 novel, "Look Homeward, Angel," brought Asheville both admiration and embarrassment. It also introduced the reading public to the world of Wolfe's mother's rooming house, which the book re-christened "Dixieland."

The Old Kentucky Home is now a state-operated landmark called the Thomas Wolfe Memorial.

Wolfe's mother, a local real-estate speculator of considerable ambition, operated the home over the objections of her husband, an educated tombstone manufacturer who felt keeping boarders was beneath the family's station. Touring the place, with its naked light bulbs hanging from cords, its chamber pots and wash pitchers, its beds crammed into corners and hallways, one can begin to understand the loneliness of traveling salespeople and others who stayed there in the early 1900s.

Inside the door, to the left, is a cheerless parlor with a piano, to which guests could repair in the evenings after dinner. Down the hall, on the right, brightened by a couple of lightly curtained windows, is a dining room resembling a modest small-town restaurant in an old movie. Farther down the hall is the kitchen and a small adjoining room where Mrs. Wolfe rested when she had a moment. Across the wooden porch outside the kitchen door is another door opening onto the bedroom of her husband.

Upstairs are the boarding rooms, including one now furnished with young Tom's manual typewriter and a picture of his editor, Maxwell Perkins. Tom actually had no permanent bed of his own and roamed the halls each evening looking for an empty one in which to pass the night.

Biltmore House

My wife and I were among the earliest arrivals at Biltmore House. We presented our $25 admission tickets at the stone gatehouse and then drove three miles to a parking area facing the fabulous stone mansion, which is still owned by the Vanderbilt family (though it has not been lived in since the 1950s) and run as a private business.

Part of that business is show business. The house can be seen in the films "Forrest Gump" and "Richie Rich," as well as a string of other movies ranging from Peter Sellers-Shirley MacLaine's "Being There" and scenes from "Last of the Mohicans" all the way back to Grace Kelly's "The Swan" in the early '60s.

Getting out of the car, we faced the house across a couple of football-field lengths of manicured grass interrupted in the center by a pool and fountain.

With the sky threatening rain, we decided to first tour the open-air walled garden and, at its lower end, the conservatory, both salient parts of the master plan of Biltmore landscape artist Frederick Law Olmsted.

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