Asheville’s Architectural Treasures: The Perks of Playing the Hand You’re Dealt

No matter how well managed, no city is immune to systemic financial disaster. Asheville, North Carolina learned this lesson the hard way. 

In 1929 when the Great Depression dropped its economic bomb, city finances in Asheville were left in tatters. It’s been nearly 100 years and, believe it or not, the impact of this financial armageddon is still evident in Asheville’s beautiful mountain-skirted skyline today. 

Known for its delightful Blue Ridge Mountain location, Asheville has a surprising collection of elegant Art Nouveau, Beaux-Arts, and Art Deco buildings. Looking at a map, one might think it was a provincial backwater, but its scenic Appalachian location made it a resort destination for dignitaries such as Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. The obscenely rich Vanderbilts picked Asheville as the location for their money-is-no-object Biltmore Estate. So in the late 1920s, all this wealth and notoriety made Asheville a boomtown.

The next chapter in this story is the double whammy of bad luck and bad timing. To help keep the boom on track, the city borrowed heavily and when the stock market crashed, the Depression hammer came down leaving the city essentially bankrupt. But instead of defaulting on the loans, city leaders decided to take the long view and pay off the debt over the next five decades. Naturally, this strategy left little money for anything else.

Consequently, Asheville’s attractive collection of century-old buildings isn’t so much about what the government did, but what they didn’t do

The city was broke, and in the 1950s and 60s when many successful American towns were tearing down older buildings to modernize, Asheville couldn’t afford it and their architectural gems avoided the wrecking ball. 

It’s a classic case of what economists call the “Law of Unintended Consequences” – when a decision has results that weren’t any part of the original plan. 

As a postscript, the city did finally pay off its debt, and it took 47 years: which certainly must be a testament to the rugged mountain spirit and trustworthiness that fills early American adventure stories. Sometimes you have to play the hand you’re dealt, and luckily, Asheville’s architectural treasures are there as proof that the results can be positively unexpected. 

Good Health,

James & Terri

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

48 thoughts

  1. Such a picturesque city, skirted as you say with abundant verdant views. And ahhh, what elegance and beauty in those buildings… I love that cafeteria sign! Did you investigate? 😉

    1. Amit, when we lived there the cafeteria was a neat little coffee shop with a beautiful, old sculpted ceiling. Most of these buildings have been re-purposed from the 1920s and 30s, which breathes new life into them. ~James

  2. We took a day trip to see Biltmore, but the next time we will spend some time in Asheville.
    It is always sad to drive through a small old town, look up and see elegant upper stories while the lower levels have bland 1950s facades. Fortunately, in our more prosperous times, many of these small town main streets are being restored to their original glory.

    1. Ray, we lived for a while in Asheville and with all our visitors we visited Biltmore many times. In the past, Biltmore was pretty much Downton Abbey … American Style.

      And actually, Asheville’s presence on various “Best places to Live” lists has made it a bigger and more affluent place. However, it still has a old-hippy, free-thinking subculture that keeps the city interesting. ~James

  3. You’re so right to emphasize the assets of Asheville, NC. What a pretty city, one that we’ve watched in the growing stages. Thanks for posting all these architectural shots — just goes to show that this is no little mountain town but rather a sophisticated city with a youthful, arts vibe all its own.

    Hope you both are doing well and thinking of more travel in your future.

    1. Rusha, you must know Asheville well because you’ve described it perfectly. I guess it’s pretty much a straight shot for you guys from Knoxville.

      We loved living there and it’s one of those places we’ll always be happy we experienced. It was a very different experience for us, and we loved renting a funky, old apartment near downtown. After a few years living at the beach at sea level, those mountains almost killed us, but it was very cool. ~James

    1. Darlene, it is funny how things turn out sometimes. I’m not sure how unusual that bankruptcy as a motivation for preservation is, but it’s certainly an interesting historical fact. ~James

  4. I didn’t know that about the city’s finances, but I do know Asheville’s charms after many years of attending camp nearby myself and then depositing my children there decades later! We thought for a while that we might want to live there someday, but now we might just stay put farther south! I wonder how the insides of those old buildings have been kept up?

    1. Lexie, I can imagine there are tons of cool camps scattered in the mountains around Asheville. As you know, summers there are marvelous and the national forest make it a paradise for outdoor types. We enjoyed our time there, but I must say that the winters can be nippy and snowy so one has to keep that in mind. ~James

  5. Despite having visited Asheville, I didn’t know this history and why it has preserved so many buildings. I certainly remember visiting Biltmore, unfortunately with a horrible cold which took the edge off it! Obscene is certainly the word for that kind of wealth.

    1. Anabel, the Vanderbilts still own and manage Biltmore. When it was built it was the largest house in the US, and in fact, I’m sure it’s still on the top 10 list. But it’s certainly an asset for Asheville, and they’ve done an excellent job of making it a year-round destination. ~James

    1. Rebecca, I don’t know how long it normally takes for a city to repay its bonds, but 47 years seems a long time for sure. And it was so interesting to me that it had such positive results. ~James

    1. I did see the volcano Pam. When we visited we could see plumes of smoke from a volcano in daylight from downtown Reykjavik, and I suspect that it was this volcano. I’ve never spent much time around volcanoes, but I must admit they would make me nervous if I lived 20 miles from one. ~James

  6. Hi James and Terri, I was curious after your last post where you would take us. It is interesting how we are seeing the results still standing from one hundred years ago. Like you say, wealth and notoriety evident. I get it now, on the concept of “did” versus “what they didn’t do.” And, yes, postive results. You have an amazing eye for photography. A fascinating post!

    1. Thanks Erica. There are derelict buildings all over the world that sit year after year which are eventually torn down. Some characterless hulks certainly deserve to be, but hopefully someone is taking the long view with the more interesting buildings.

      Charleston, South Carolina is another example of what “didn’t” happen. If you’ve been there, you may know that it has one of the best collections of 19th century architecture in the US. And the primary reason is that after the Civil War the city was so destitute that no one could afford to do anything with the old houses. Today, they’re multi-million dollar mansions. ~James

  7. Such an interesting history of an American city I didn’t know existed until you mentioned it in your previous post. This story reminds us why policymaking has never been and will never be easy — I can imagine the strong opposition the city leaders faced when they decided to pay off the debt. Today, we — especially heritage building enthusiasts — can only feel grateful for this since these circumstances helped spare those Art Nouveau, Beaux-Arts and Art Deco buildings from the wrecking ball.

    1. Bama, this is a valid point and thanks for making it. Writing about old buildings that sit for 50 years without attention is one thing, but walking by those same buildings day after day is another. I know that I’m certainly guilty of looking at derelict buildings and thinking “Someone should do something about that ugly building!”

      Policymakers have a lot of balls to juggle, and frequently there’s no right answer. The long view and preservation yields one answer, and progress another. In the meantime, we hope that a balanced approach helps some of these old beauties to survive. ~James

  8. Thanks for sharing your wonderful photos of many of Asheville’s architectural gems. My family is from the Asheville area and I have many great memories of my times there, especially trying out chocolates from the various specialty shops in the city center. Unfortunately, the construction and very existence of the downtown bypass (now I-240) left a lasting scar on the once beautiful landscape. Cheers and take care!

    1. Henry, I’m sure that Asheville has changed considerably over the years, and not all for the better. When we lived there we had a nice little apartment in an old building on Montford Ave, so we had to walk over I-240 to get into town. And you’re right, it makes a major division between a very walkable neighborhood and the pleasant downtown. Given the activist community, I’m sure there must have been lots of controversy when it was built. ~James

    1. Marilyn, if you sister is like me, even though she lived there, she may not have heard the story of the debt. I know that when I lived there I didn’t. It’s not really something the Tourism Board advertises. ~James

  9. Hi Guys, Interesting story about silver linings. As in the case of Asheville, North Carolina, unintended consequences can sometimes have fortunate outcomes. It is serendipitous that the financial stagnation between the Great Depression and the 1980s, left you with one of the finest collections of Art Deco buildings in the USA. It looks like a very interesting and beautiful place. I hope to visit some day.

    1. Joe, I think that you’d enjoy Asheville. It sits right in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway passes right outside of town. Summers are very pleasant and of course, the autumn is delightful. It’s an active place with a youthful vibe that makes for lots of diversity. If you happen to be in the area it’s definitely worth a stop. ~James

      1. Thanks for the descriptions and ideas, James. During the middle of my pandemic stay-home time, I took about a month to research some domestic travel options in Georgia and the Carolinas. I have never been to this part of the country and the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina really stood out as a fun and interesting place to do some slow traveling.

  10. Incredible! When I looked at your first few photos I was fascinated but wouldn’t have guessed North Carolina. It’s so cool to learn about places in the United States that have never been on my radar (but now are).

    1. Caroline, North Carolina’s western mountain areas as well as the eastern beaches have a lot to offer. As one of the jumping-off points for European explorers and paths west for pioneers, it has a deep, rich history and something of interest for just about anyone. ~James

  11. “Law of unexpected consequences”. Indeed! That is a beautiful case and hopefully these architectural gems are now finding sufficiently heeled new owners to keep them in an adequate state of restoration.

    We spent a weekend in Asheville when our youngest son had finished a summer internship on a farm nearby. We loved the restaurants, the organic market but especially the hike we did in the blue ridge mountain. We did not know that the Biltmore estate was in Asheville, nor the history of the 1920s that you shared here. Thank you for this bit of Americana, quite an enjoyable read.

    Ben & Peta

    1. Ben and Peta, your comment summarizes the perfect description for the Asheville area: farms for interns, great restaurants, organic markets, and hikes in the Blue Ridge.

      The Gilded Age aristocracy made it a famous destination, and the beautiful location kept it that way. It’s easy to criticize the robber barons, but their wealth and egotistical indulgences left behind many turn-of-the-century marvels for travelers to enjoy today … like Biltmore. Next time through the area it should be on your list.~ James

  12. You have to admire a city that takes a debt very seriously. I am so glad the old character and architecture gems have remained intact. Demolition to modernise places often is just a great big disaster. I would love to visit this city.

    1. Gilda, it’s an attractive and interesting city in a beautiful part of the world, so I’m sure you’d enjoy it. And it’s fabulous camping country as well, so there’s another reason you should visit.

      As for city debt, I’ve always been a big believer in financial responsibility, whether personal or government, so I have no problem with Asheville’s paying their bills. The good news in this story is that it ended up win-win. ~James

  13. It’s a lovely city and I love how it’s tucked in the mountains. I’ve been to the Biltmore Estate once as a kid and once as an adult and your description is right on the money (“obscenely rich and money-is-no-object”). That place is insane for sure.

    1. Amy, we lived in Asheville for a while, so we had lots of visits to Biltmore with out of town guests. The Vanderbilts are the closest thing to royalty the US has, and they lived a real Downton Abbey life right in the North Carolina mountains. Imagine how difficult it must have been to move all the building materials as well as furnishings to this part of the world in the 1920s.

      It’s not cheap to visit, but they’ve done an excellent job of making it a year-round destination. There’s no doubt that making money is in the genes of the Vanderbilts. ~James

  14. I’ve driven past the Biltmore on several occasions, but have never stopped in, I really should some day. Kudos to Ashville for paying off their debt. The city model should be adopted by everyone! I’m sure the glad so much of the town was spared. So many lovely buildings.

    1. Laura, Biltmore isn’t a cheap place to visit and you need to plan to avoid the crowds, but if you want a look at the best of architecture, art, and decorative arts of the 1920s and 30s, this is the place to go. The Vanderbilts literally had an unlimited amount of money and they weren’t bashful about spending on their property. It’s the jewel in the crown of Asheville, and at least once, is worth a visit. ~James

  15. That is definitely a prime example of a silver lining! I am sitting here shaking my head at the perseverance of a city to pay off its debt in 47 years. One has to admire that fortitude.
    Its a city I know very little about. One more for the list when the world normalizes.

    1. Sue, you two would enjoy Asheville. It doesn’t show up on lots of travel lists, but the in-crowd knows it for the mountain gem that it is. Also, it’s in the heart of some of the best hiking in the Eastern US. ~James

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