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Asheville, North Carolina

Biltmore House, Asheville, North Carolina
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Biltmore House, Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville is the site George Washinton Vanderbilt chose for his country retreat, a sprawling French chateau that is the largest house in America. He was the grandson of steamship, railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt.

Visit Asheville and you will discover many of the reasons people have been drawn to this mountain region in western North Carolina. One of the easiest ways to get this kind of overview is with the narrated two-hour Gray Line Hop-On Hop-Off Trolley Tour. It departs from the Asheville Visitor Center. The full loop takes just under two hours. You can get on and off at any of the stops, and the ticket is good for 48 hours.

Hop-On Hop-Off Trolley, Asheville, NC
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Hop-On Hop-Off Trolley, Asheville, NC

Asheville’s prosperity and population surged after the railroad came to town in 1880. Tourism and medical facilities, still Asheville’s top industries, boomed. George Vanderbilt, who vacationed there with his mother, who suffered from malaria, in the 1880s, was one of the visitors who decided to stay.

Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Asheville
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the former Old Kentucky Home, now the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Asheville

By the turn of the century there were dozens of hotels, over 100 boarding houses and many city parks. Asheville was second in the nation to get street cars, after Richmond, Virginia. With arts and entertainment and sightseeing tours by carriage or motorcar Asheville became the “Paris of the South.”

Wealthy tourists from cities like Atlanta and Savannah came to escape the summer heat. People with medical problems, especially tuberculosis, came for fresh air and treatments at the sanitariums.

the former Dr. Carroll’s Sanitorium, Asheville, NC
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the former Dr. Carroll’s Sanitorium, Asheville, NC

Highland Hospital, originally known as Dr. Carroll’s Sanitorium, is the best known treatment center. It was established for nervous conditions and other psychiatric disorders. Carroll’s wife, Grace Potter Carroll, a former patient and world-renowned concert pianist, ran a music school and held performances at their home here.

Nine women died in a fire in the main building, including author and artist Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who stayed at the nearby Grove Park Inn.

“Dr.” Edwin Wiley Grove, “Father of Modern Asheville,” made millions selling Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic, a product that outsold Coca-Cola. His doctors suggested visiting Asheville to recuperate from his chronic bronchitis. Noting the railroad expansion and opening of Biltmore House, he invested in 408 acres, demolished some of the sanitariums, and embarked upon residential development.

The Arts and Crafts-style Grove Park Inn is constructed of hand-cut boulders from Sunset Mountain. It was built in just under a year.

Grove Park Inn, Asheville, NC
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Grove Park Inn, Asheville, NC

It opened as a world-class resort, with 12’ logs blazing in the lobby fireplaces and 400 rugs from Aubusson, France, a 40’ swimming pool, and pure water piped in from 6000’ Mount Mitchell.Only Biltmore Estate milk and cream was served.

Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan gave the keynote address at the opening banquet in 1913. Guests had names like Edison, Ford, Firestone, and Roosevelt. President Obama played golf at the Asheville Country Club while there in 2010.

Writer Thomas Wolfe’s mother ran a boarding house, The Old Kentucky Home (see photo above), that can be toured for half-price with a trolley tour sticker. He called it Dixieland in his 1929 thinly-disguised novel about his home town, “Look Homeward, Angel.” It angered locals so much it was banned from the library. He stayed away for years.

Dixieland, name given to the Old Kentucky Home in “Look Homewrd, Angel," Wolfe, Asheville, NC
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Dixieland, name given to the Old Kentucky Home in “Look Homewrd, Angel,” Wolfe, Asheville, NC

Sandra Bullock stayed in the Black Walnut, one of the Historic District’s Bed & Breakfasts, while filming 28 Days. “The Hunger Games”, “Hannibal”, “Forrest Gump”,Being There” “The Last of the Mohicans” and the original and remake of “Dirty Dancing”, are among the movies filmed in the area, some at the Biltmore Estate.

Black Walnut Bed and Breakfast, Asheville, NC
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Black Walnut Bed and Breakfast, in one of the historic homes in Asheville, NC

Richard Sharp Smith, the British-born supervising architect for Vanderbilt, liked Asheville so much he stayed on to build about 700 downtown structures, including monuments. Facades here and in Biltmore Village feature his signature pebbledash, a stucco with pebbles that is hand thrown and troweled for a unique effect.

Country Kitchen in Biltmore Village, one of the pebbledash cottages, Asheville, NC
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Country Kitchen in Biltmore Village, one of the pebbledash cottages, Asheville, NC

Douglas Ellington’s architectural legacy of Art Deco fused with styles like Beaux-Arts transformed the city during the pre-Depression 1920s. Asheville High School and First Baptist Church are among his work. His commission to build a complementary county building next to his octagonal pink Georgian marble Asheville City Hall went to someone else. The controversy continues about what some call “The Wedding Cake building and the box it came in.”

Asheville, North Carolina
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Asheville, North Carolina

 

Carmel’s Kitchen & Bar in the historic Grove Arcade, Asheville
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Carmel’s Kitchen & Bar in the historic Grove Arcade in downtown Asheville

Asheville’s downtown area, like many others, slipped into a period ofdecline. Young entrepreneurs lured by low rent have revitalized and transformed old buildings into art galleries, craft breweries, and locally-owned restaurants.

Bouchon, Asheville, NC
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Bouchon, Asheville, NC

It is not unusual to see long lines at dinner hotspots like the French comfort food restaurant, Bouchon, where an inscription over the open kitchen reads “Bon Appétit Y’all!” You can still order from a red stool at the fully-restored F. W. Woolworth building’s soda fountain.

Jonas Gerard studio, River Arts District, Asheville
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Jonas Gerard studio, River Arts District, Asheville

A former industrial area by the river is flourishing after major improvements created the River Arts District. There are unique working artist studios, classes and special events like 1st Fridays, 2nd Saturdays and 3rd Thursdays.

entrance to the Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina
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entrance to the Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina

You can’t leave Asheville without visiting Biltmore. Drive back toward Biltmore Village. It was built across from the estate entrance as a self-sustaining town for estate workers. Look for the brick archway across the street and you are on your way to the Biltmore Estate.

 

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