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.
James & Terri