If Wolfe could go home again

SUN JOURNAL

Novelist: In the hometown of Thomas Wolfe, funds are being scraped together to restore his mother's boardinghouse, devastated by arson two years ago.

January 05, 2001|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - In this small, restful city, the train still arrives daily over the Appalachian Mountains from Tennessee and the spa resorts still advertise the healing powers of fresh mountain air, just as they did almost a century ago.

And in the small town squares, artisans and city folk still gather around the fountain steps and statues as they have for decades extolling the liberal, easygoing nature of the town, a shelter from the conservative politics and religious fervor that often surround it.

They owe that spirit in many ways to Thomas Wolfe, who immortalized his birthplace when he burst upon the literary scene in 1929 with his first, largely autobiographical novel, "Look Homeward, Angel." Imposing at 6 feet 4 inches, Wolfe believed wholeheartedly in his own genius, and his book, a coming-of-age story about the often bizarre and degrading peculiarities of small-town life, established him as one of the country's greatest writers.

The town's residents hated him for that book, deeming it too personal, too mortifying for the true-to-life characters he depicted. Then, after a while, they loved him for it.

Seventy years later they still do, describing him with the glowing terms usually reserved for benefactors and founding fathers. His longtime editor, Maxwell Perkins, to whose door Wolfe delivered crates of frantic prose, once wrote that to understand Wolfe, you must understand Asheville.

These days, when everything in Asheville is Thomas Wolfe - Thomas Wolfe Plaza, Thomas Wolfe Square, Thomas Wolfe Street - it seems that to understand Asheville, you have to understand Wolfe.

The town still resembles some of what he described, its quiet streets, alleys and grass-covered yards, all so pervasive throughout his literature. But not everything is the same, namely the one thing that made Asheville the epicenter of all that was and is Thomas Wolfe - his mother's boardinghouse.

On July 24, 1998, sometime after midnight, an arsonist threw a torch through the window of the dining room, the place where Wolfe's mother served the boarders who later became the eccentric characters of his novels, a place Wolfe described as having "the animation of feeding, the clatter of plates, the braided clamor of their talk."

The fire smoldered for hours, burning every piece of the original dining room furniture, melting the silverware and burning through the dining room walls.

By early morning, the century-old roof was gone, the rooms glowed orange from the planks of coals that had been walls. A night security guard from a hotel down the street saw the flames shortly before 3 a.m. and called the town Fire Department.

The fire chief later said they would never have tried to contain the 40-foot flames had it been any other house than Thomas Wolfe's. The damage for any other building would have been too great to do anything but start over.

But for Wolfe they tried anyway. They drowned the house, as hundreds of residents, many in pajamas, gathered on the street outside watching their famous historic site and much of its original furniture, photographs and knick-knacks disappear forever.

When it was light, the few remaining walls and front porch brought a sense of hope that something had been saved.

It has been more than two years since that night. The blackened remains of the house still sit on Spruce Street - as if time simply stopped at the Kentucky Boarding House, known to any reader of Wolfe as Dixieland.

The Thomas Wolfe Memorial, which operates out of the Wolfe visitors' center next door and has run the house for a half-century, began putting together a plan to restore the national historic site almost as soon as the wood cooled. But the efforts have been dogged by funding shortages, permit requirements and a need to find renovators with expertise in reconstructing historic buildings.

The town residents, who compare the loss to feeling naked and without their long-held identity, have rallied behind the cause, raising $200,000 to restore the 800 pieces of damaged furniture. More than 200 were lost for good.

The site, which belongs to the state, falls under North Carolina's self-insurance plan, but that funding reaches a maximum at $1.1 million. The building restoration costs are estimated at $2.5 million.

The historic staff has since gone to the state's reinsurance plan to fund the rest. In October, in the biggest sign yet toward progress, the state approved the building work to begin in March.

The staff, many of whom have spent decades studying Wolfe and his home, is eager for the work to begin. As Ted Mitchell, historic site interpreter for the society, walks through the house remains, he breezes past a black-empty room that was once the parlor and stops in the entryway in front of a charred wall where the Wolfe family photos once hung. The wall crumbles at his touch.

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