Appalachian Chic

North Carolina: Asheville's mountainous beauty and thriving cultural scene draw a decidedly sophisticated crowd.

November 25, 2001|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Here were the folk art, the fall foliage, the Biltmore mansion looming in the valley. Here were the country roads, the courtly homes and the reminders of Thomas Wolfe, who said he couldn't come home again but nevertheless rests next to his mother in his hometown graveyard. All these elements were in order when I arrived in Asheville, N.C., for the first time earlier this fall.

So what was it that put me off balance? The city, often considered the cultural capital of Appalachia, is stocked with all the Americana a visitor could hope for, from the gardens and turrets of the 250-room Biltmore Estate to the whirling contra dancers and old-time musicians who gather on Thursday nights in the auditorium at Warren Wilson College. And each fall, Asheville's advantages are further underlined when the rolling hills of birch, beech, poplar, maple, oak and dogwood erupt in autumn colors.

Yet something was up. Within hours of arrival, I felt like a playgoer who had stumbled into a nontraditional staging of Our Town, finding a New Hampshire hamlet in which the stage manager meditates transcendentally, George Gibbs speaks with a Jamaican lilt and Emily Webb's dress incorporates the Nicaraguan flag.

Asheville is many things, but homegrown it isn't.

As the largest city in western North Carolina, it remains a repository of Appalachiana and American folk culture. But if you ask, you find that the contradance fiddler is from New Jersey, the waitress from Connecticut, the innkeeper from New Orleans, the mayor from Florida.

When you call Tom Tveidt, the Chamber of Commerce research director, for statistics on relocations, you learn he moved here five years ago from California. You also find that Buncombe County, which includes Asheville, grew in population by about 18 percent from 1990 to 2000. Of the 31,509 residents gained, more than 27,000 were "in-migrants" from elsewhere in the United States.

Out at the Folk Art Center, the featured woodworker is Simon Levy, 55, who 20 years ago was living in Los Angeles and art-directing album covers for Neil Young, Chicago and George Benson.

Levy, who moved from Los Angeles to Nashville several years ago, is a regular Asheville visitor now and dreams of moving here. "I don't know what it is; there's an energy in those mountains. It just stimulates people," he said. "Something just resonates."

These mountains may not rival Everest for altitude -- none rises more than 6,700 feet -- but there are plenty of them. The Appalachian range includes the Blue Ridge Mountains, which cluster near Asheville, and the Great Smoky Mountains to the west.

In the retail precincts along Biltmore Avenue and Lexington and Maywood streets, you find avocado-and-hemp-oil lip balm (Asheville Hemp Co., $3.50) and not-so-naive folk art ("Leda and the Chickens," a cheery, G-rated canvas at the American Folk Gallery, $325). And you notice that an awful lot of old buildings' upper floors are being redeveloped as residential lofts.

The closer I looked, the more I saw how Asheville sustains itself on equal measures of native character and imported personalities. For a century now, much of Asheville's vitality has been supplied by out-of-towners looking to live well or do good here amid fresh air and mild mountain summers.

That's the story behind the area's greatest landmark, the Biltmore Estate, just beyond the city's southern boundary. Heir to a share of the family's industrial fortune, New Yorker George Vanderbilt chose to build his faux French castle here after a visit in the 1880s. The estate was completed in 1895, opened for public tours in 1960 and (so tour guide Doyle Wilcox told my group) has been turning a profit, without government subsidy, since 1968.

I made the Biltmore Estate my first stop on the way into town and soon was swallowed up by its 8,000 acres. The principal house is four stories, with 65 fireplaces, 43 bathrooms and a bowling alley in the basement, all built for a patron who was at the time a 33-year-old bachelor. (Vanderbilt married a few years later.)

Still owned by the Vanderbilt family, it's a remarkable enterprise: mansion, gardens, winery, a hotel opened in March (the Inn on Biltmore Estate) and a half-dozen restaurants and gift shops. The landscaping was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, co-designer of Manhattan's Central Park, but this estate is nearly 10 times larger, and it was more than 10 times larger still before the Vanderbilts sold off 87,000 acres of forest to the federal government in 1915.

For a self-guided house tour and a chance to wander the gardens, adults pay $33. A roof tour, which includes vantage points and backstage views of the home and grounds, costs $12 more. Horseback rides ($45 per adult), mountain-bike rentals ($25 for a half-day), hourlong river-raft excursions ($30), carriage rides ($20) -- all are possible, for a price.

Arts of the people

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.