Chestnut Hill Historic District
Chestnut Hill Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2012, The Gombach Group.
Chestnut Hill Historic District is a relatively compact late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century residential neighborhood adjacent to downtown Asheville, North Carolina. The area reflects the remarkably cosmopolitan character the mountain town quickly acquired once rail transportation opened it to tourists and investors in the 1880s. Practically all of the more than 200 buildings in the Chestnut Hill Historic District were originally single-family dwellings. Architecturally they range from the local in-town vernacular of the period to sophisticated versions of the nationally popular Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, and Shingle styles. At least two locally-important architects' works are represented: J.A. Tennent and R.S. Smith. Tennent designed Asheville's important late-nineteenth century municipal buildings. Smith, who came to Asheville with the firm of
Buncombe County, newly created in 1792, was in search of a county seat. The North Carolina General Assembly appointed a commission to fix the center of town, and the site they choose was a most natural one. The area had certain geographical advantages: it was on a slight plateau; it had been the crossroad of the Cherokees and other earlier travelers; and it was already the homesite for several settlers. First called Morristown, the center of town was located on a portion of what is now Pack Square. By 1797 the state legislature incorporated and officially changed the name of this village to "Asheville" in honor of Governor Samuel Ashe. In incorporating the village, the legislature referred to a 200-acre land tract which John Burton had obtained from the state in 1794.
"Burton had laid out a north-south street along an old Indian path and platted forty-two lots of about one-half acre each on either side of the street, which became North and South Main and eventually, Broadway and Biltmore Avenue."
Burton deeded sizeable tracts of his land to several of Asheville's more distinguished early residents, including Captain John Patton (1794), Col. William Davidson (1795) and Zebulon Baird (1795).
Tradition maintains that Orange Street (part of the Chestnut Hill Historic District) formed the northern boundary of Burton's original village plan. Naturally Orange Street, as one of the outermost areas within the village, was farmland and woods. Thus a house on Orange Street demolished in 1978, if indeed it contained a log section built in 1830 as tradition maintains, was likely the seat of a small frontier farm rather than an in-town dwelling.
Public Square (now known as Pack Square) was officially named in 1805, and it soon became the center hub of this mountain village.
"From the Square the first trails were leading out that would in time become thoroughfares, Patton Avenue, Montford Avenue, Broadway and Merrimon Avenue. Here and there on farmlands that would eventually become part of the City infrequent cabin-raisin's occurred, while about the Square huddled the log courthouse and less than a score of equally primitive buildings that comprised 'But a small and struggling village.'"
During most of the nineteenth century, Merrimon Avenue, (Chestnut Hill Historic District's western boundary) was known as Beaverdam Road and ran north to Beaverdam (a pioneer settlement about five miles north of the County Courthouse) from the Square. The making of Merrimon Avenue and other early roads were significant in Asheville's development from a geographically isolated area to a center easily accessible for growth.
The Buncombe County turnpike which reached Asheville in 1827 provided an avenue for trade as well as an opportunity for visitors to explore the village, then numbering about 350 inhabitants. "The carriage trade had been coming here since about 1827, when the Buncombe Turnpike was completed from Saluda Gap through Asheville and Warm Springs (now Hot Springs) to the Tennessee State line." By 1850 Asheville had grown to 520 people and included schools, stores, churches and a bank. The city limits had been extended in 1849 to include all property within one mile of the courthouse. Hence, the entire Chestnut Hill area was within the city boundaries, though none of the homes presently within the Chestnut Hill Historic District had been built.
However, the most important transportation phenomena to come to Asheville was the railroad. As early as 1856 construction had begun on a western North Carolina railroad but three factors seriously delayed its completion: the Civil War, the Swepson-Littlefield scandal, and the physical/geographical challenge of running nine miles of railroad tracts to connect two points only 3.4 air miles apart through the Swannanoa Gap. So it was not until "October 2, 1880, the first engine, in steam, on rails arrived at Asheville. It was met by hundreds of people in great jubilation." "WNC came into its own as a resort area with the opening of railroads into Asheville between 1880-1890. That decade saw the beginnings of the tourist industry..."
The railroad brought to Asheville its first major growth spurt during this 1880-1890 period. However, the Chestnut Hill area saw some building activity even before this construction/population boom had begun.
Nicholas Woodfin held part of the Chestnut Hill land at mid-century. He built a brick home which anchored North Main Street several blocks off the Square and owned more slaves than anyone else in the county. In 1863 he sold four acres for $925 to George T. Spears, who built a brick house at 53 Orange Street soon afterwards. The brick for the Spears house as well as the brick for the county's sixth courthouse built in 1876 was made at a brickyard located on Clayton Street and operated by Ephraim Clayton, one of western North Carolina's most active building contractor in the decades prior to the Civil War. Mr. Clayton also owned land in the Chestnut Hill area and sold a sizeable tract of land to his new employee, Albert Bunn. Bunn, who had learned the brick-making trade in England, came to Asheville upon the invitation of the contractor. He bought this land around 1879 and built a home for himself on Clayton Street.
Land speculators began realizing the potential of Asheville's growth as the railroad brought more people to the mountains. One particular speculator eyed a large portion of the Chestnut Hill area. Mrs. Alice T. Connally — whose husband John Kerr Connally built a brick mansion known as "Fernihurst" in South Asheville in 1875 — purchased thirty-seven lots between Merrimon and Charlotte streets, Murdock (now Hillside Street) and Chestnut streets. She purchased this land in 1881 from Charles Kerrison for $6,000. Mrs. Connally and other speculators were surely pleased as the 1890 census revealed a population growth of nearly five times that of ten years ago, a total of 11,913. The 1890 Asheville City Directory indicates annual visitors totaling 50,000 and at least 400 houses "...in the course of erection." Chestnut Hill was the scene of much of this building activity.
The 1890 Asheville City Directory notes additional homes on East Chestnut Street, Orange Street, Clayton Street, Broad Street, and North Liberty Street. (Incidentally, Chestnut and Orange streets were named according to their vegetation — Orange for mock orange.) The variations of architecture and style indicate a neighborhood mixed with magnificent homes, guest cottages, and middle-class dwellings. Two architects set the mood for several of the homes in this area. The name R.S. Smith in the architectural world carried with it high credentials that were brought to the Chestnut Hill area. He advertised his business as "R.S. Smith, Architect, Paragon Building. Eight years with the late Mr. R.M. Hunt. Six years resident architect for G.W. Vanderbilt, Esq." Smith remained in Asheville after his work for Vanderbilt had ended and began to change the complexion of Asheville. His designs gave areas such as Biltmore Village, Montford, downtown Asheville and Chestnut Hill much of their unique flavor. Smith designed the block of homes on the north side of East Chestnut Street, including four rental cottages for Dr. J.E. David (16 Arlington Street, 23 Arlington Street, 60 Arlington Street and 78 Arlington Street) around 1900, and Dr. H.S. Lambert's home at 166 East Chestnut Street (ca.1896). Other residential buildings in the area are likely Smith designs or at least, inspired by his talents.
Another architect who touched Asheville and Chestnut Hill was J.A. Tennent. He designed the 1876 Courthouse, later the 1892 City Hall, and his home at 223 E. Chestnut Street around 1895. Tennent sold his home to another prominent Asheville resident, Senator Jeter C. Pritchard in 1904.
Senator Pritchard was known and respected locally as well as nationally. His positions as associate editor of a Tennessee newspaper, a representative to the North Carolina General Assembly (from Madison County) in 1885, 1887, and 1891, and as a U.S. Senator first filling the unexpired term of Senator Zebulon B. Vance upon his death and then serving an elected term from 1897 to 1903 brought him much recognition. Senator Pritchard became a judge in 1903 when President Roosevelt appointed him to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, a position he held until his death in 1921 and in which: "...he bore a conspicuous part in the administration of justice in that high court, winning a national reputation for his finely discriminating and well-balanced judgment, his clemency where mercy was deserved, and the severity with which he punished those who had knowingly and wilfully violated the laws of the country. So brilliant was his record on the bench of the District Court that he won the plaudits of both bench and bar, as well as the high commendation of President Roosevelt."
Other significant homes in this area built during the turn of the century include Beaufort Lodge (Theodore Davidson House) at 61 North Liberty Street. This home was built in 1895 by former State Attorney General and prominent local citizen Theodore Davidson. Davidson was one of the Buncombe County Riflemen who marched away from Asheville on April 18, 1861 to join the south in the Civil War. He was sixteen years old at the time. Davidson was a State Senator from 1879 to 1883, North Carolina's Attorney General from 1885 to 1893, a representative to the North Carolina House in 1903, and mayor of Asheville and presiding Justice of the criminal court of Buncombe County.
The William R. Whitson House (ca.1905) at 176 East Chestnut Street gave further stature to the already impressive neighborhood. "Whitson bought this lot in 1883 for $250 (compare with Lambert's $2,000 for the lot across Washington Street in 1896) and built a small frame house. Around 1905 he moved the frame house up Washington Road and replaced it with this brick structure." Whitson, a lawyer, was the descendant of one of the founding fathers of Buncombe County and carried his name.
Though generally considered a fine housing district during its day, Chestnut Hill still reflected varying grades of housing. Businessmen, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals lived alongside and often with servants and simple working folk. Also added to these people was a steady stream of visitors who were attracted to Asheville's climate, beauty, and its healing sanatoriums. Dr. J.E. David purchased land on East Chestnut Street from public-spirited George Pack, and employed R.S. Smith, the architect, to build four rental cottages for these visitors (138, 144, 150 and 156 E. Chestnut Street). Other Chestnut Hill buildings reflecting Asheville's residential and tourist building boom of the 1920s include five apartment buildings on East Chestnut Street alone: The Jefferson Apartments (116 E. Chestnut Street), Lunsford Apartments (250 E. Chestnut Street), Commodore Apartments (215 E. Chestnut Street), Ansonia Apartments (289 E. Chestnut Street) and the Whitman-Yarrow Apartments (291 E. Chestnut Street). The Princess Anne Hotel (301 E. Chestnut Street) was built "in the roaring 20's" by Miss Anne O'Connell who operated the hotel for several years. Although it changed owners several times, it remained a hotel until 1945 when it became a temporary unit of Appalachian Hall. In 1947 it again returned to use as a hotel until 1957 when its owner opened the Princess Anne as a retirement hotel. Several homes in the area also advertised as boarding homes which would suit the resident and visitor alike. These 1920s structures are more urban-like, indicating the close proximity of the City with Chestnut Hill, and their similar growth.
Asheville's reputation as a health resort is also evident in Chestnut Hill. The health haven theme was promoted by Asheville's residents as early as 1895. The Ladies Thanksgiving Day edition of The Asheville Daily Citizen for the year 1895 declare: "Asheville has the ideal climate for the invalid, owing to the altitude (2,280 feet above sea level), the summer brings no terror, and the system is well toned up by the coolness and bracing effect of the winter, which is shorn of its harshness by reason of the southern latitude. This plateau is especially known for the great amount of sunshine, particularly in the winter, thus inducing out-of-doors exercise, riding, driving or strolling."
George Pack arrived in Asheville in 1895 because of the poor health of his wife, and remained here to produce a great impact on the city. Whereas most of the people came to Asheville to consume its valuable resources, Pack gave generously to Asheville in return. He "...was public spirited and liberal in the support of all good causes and institutions." His love of forests and nature is reflected in the restrictions he placed in his deed to Dr. David: "It is understood and agreed by and between the parties to this deed that the vendor herein his heirs and assigns shall never build on the land hereby conveyed any house or part thereof, except the step, nearer than fifty feet to the Northern margin of Chestnut Street..."
Thus George Pack, along with other health seekers, pleasure seekers, capitalists, scientists, and artisans from all over the country came to Asheville to visit and live. The restrictions in Pack's deed perhaps encouraged Dr. David's planting of sycamore trees along East Chestnut, which remain a source of visual enjoyment today.
The health retreat theme was a strong one in bringing people to western North Carolina. Dr. Carl Von Ruck, after being born in Turkey (1849), studying medicine in Germany, England and the University of Michigan and Ohio, came to Asheville in 1888 because of his interest in the disease of tuberculosis. Although the tuberculosis institute he opened, Winyah Sanatorium was not within the Chestnut Hill District, his home was and presently stands in the Chestnut Hill Historic District at 52 Albermarle Place.
"Once the present house was two houses and the towering music room, or ballroom, was built around 1900 by the late Dr. Carl Von Ruck, who used the huge room to join two houses between which a street once ran."
Von Ruck's sanatorium leaped to national fame when Dr. Von Ruck announced the discovery, and the resulting success of a vaccine which bore his name.
"An admitted improvement of the specific known as 'tuberculin,' discovered and given to the profession by the eminent Dr. Kach, Dr. Von Ruck's vaccine, given by inoculation, met with surprising results, and the patients in all walks of life came from far and near."
Dr. Von Ruck brought much prestige to the area, and many were saddened by his death in 1921.
Another significant structure within the Chestnut Hill Historic District was the Orange Street School. Opened as a grammar school in 1888, it later became Asheville's first high school, and though it was demolished in 1939 is remembered for several reasons. Its first superintendant was P.P. Claxton, who later became a U.S. Commissioner of Education. Charles A. Webb, an instructor at the school, later became President of the Citizen-Times Company. Asheville's native son, Thomas Wolfe, remembered the Orange Street School in his letters and books. In writing to his beloved instructor at the school, Margaret Rogers, he states "...I have only three great great teachers in my short but eventful life and...you are one of these."
Chestnut Hill had special significance for the young boy, Tom Wolfe. His parents were married on Baird Street, and his mother began her real estate business in the building on the corner of Charlotte and East Chestnut streets. But the Orange Street School held fond memories for young Tom, revealed as he writes to his mother while a student at Harvard: "I think often of my childhood lately, of those warm hours in the bed of winter mornings; of the first ringing of the Orange Street bell; of papa's big voice shouting from the foot of the stair, 'Get up, boy...'"
In conclusion, Chestnut Hill Historic District represents a microcosm of the growth and development of the city of Asheville. From its beginning stages as a neighborhood that grew from the outlying district of a frontier town; to an area influenced by the construction/population growth brought on by the railroad; to a residential area attracting famed architects, professionals, and middle class people, to an area reaching out even more to the public in the form of a school, hotel, stores, apartments, and a sanatorium, Chestnut Hill is indeed unique. As Douglas Swaim states in his book, Cabins & Castles, "The history of this small plot of land near downtown Asheville introduces most of the themes which underwrite the special qualities of the town's finer turn-of-the-century and early twentieth-century residential development."
Asheville Citizen-Times, March 29, 1950.
Asheville City Directory for 1890.
Asheville Daily Citizen. November 24, 1895.
Buncombe County Deed Books S, 45, and 102. Registry of Deeds, Asheville, N.C.
Harshaw, Lou. Trains, Trestles and Tunnels. Asheville: Hexagon Company, 1977.
London, H.M. Proceedings of the Twenty-Third Annual Session of the N.C. Bar Association. 1921.
Nowell, Elizabeth, Ed. The Letters of Thomas Wolfe. New York: Scribners, 1946.
Smith, R.S. My Sketch Book of Architectural Designs. Asheville: French Broad Press Co., 1901.
Sondley, F.A. A History of Buncombe County, North Carolina. Asheville: The Advocate Printing Co., 1930.
Swaim, Douglas, Ed. Cabins and Castles. Asheville: Historic Resources Commission of Asheville and Buncombe Co., 1981.
Thwing, Charles F. America's Successful Men. Cleveland: privately printed, 1898.
Turnbull, Andrew. Thomas Wolfe. New York: Scribners, 1967.
† Douglas Swaim, Preservation Specialist and Barbar Groome, Intern, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History, Chestnut Hill Historic District, Asheville, Buncome County, PA, nomination document, 1982, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.