Montford Area Historic District
The Montford Area Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2012, The Gombach Group.
The Montford Area Historic District is a large, primarily upper middle-class residential neighborhood developed during Asheville's 1889-1920s boom era. Lining the curving, shaded streets of the neighborhood is a wide variety of dwellings including examples of the Queen Anne style with its towers, brackets, and lively textures; the picturesque, intentionally informal Shingle style; several interpretations of the Colonial Revival style with rich classical detail and frequent use of expansive gambrel roofs; and the widely popular, unpretentious, comfortable Bungalows, some with handsome California-inspired detail. A special, highly individualized collection of dwellings which gives the neighborhood much of its distinctive character was designed or inspired by Richard Sharp Smith, Asheville architect who also worked at Biltmore House and Village. Smith's work in the Montford Area Historic District makes frequent use of dramatic, sculptural forms derived from the Colonial Revival; including gambrel rooflines, pebbledash or stuccoed wall surfaces, and simple Colonial Revival details. The neighborhood began developing in 1889, a venture of the Asheville Loan, Construction, and Improvement Company; major development occurred after the area was acquired by lumber tycoon George W. Pack, who made the project a success and donated the park at its core. The neighborhood had a varied population, with about 75% of the leading citizens coming from places other than Asheville, and many from out of North Carolina. Although Montford declined in the mid-twentieth century, there has been an upsurge in interest in its vitality and preservation in recent years.
About a mile north of Asheville's Battery Park Hill was located the village of Montford, a small residential community incorporated in 1893. It was sited on a promontory overlooking the French Broad River, the mountains, and the town of Asheville. Montford's population was about fifty, consisting chiefly of retired people, a few professional men and their families, and a number of black household servants and laborers. James Edward Rumbough (1861-1941), who retired to the Asheville vicinity in 1892 and built one of the largest and most pretentious houses in the county, was mayor and is presumed to be the village's founder. Asheville annexed Montford and other villages in 1904 in an important consolidation that made Asheville the state's second largest city in land area. At that time the village ceased to exist, and, although there are buildings left that once comprised the village, there is no perceptible evidence of its autonomous existence. The name Montford now technically applies only to a small wooded public park and the area's principal thoroughfare, Montford Avenue, leading north from the Battery Park Hill. Today, however, the land between the Battery Park Hill and the old village of Montford, an area slightly larger than the Montford Area Historic District boundaries, is known as the Montford area.
The first important developer of the Montford area was the Asheville Loan, Construction, and Improvement Company. The company was formally organized on March 11, 1889. The Grantee Index to Deeds records sales of forty-two parcels of land to the company from 1890 to 1894, with familiar Asheville names such as M.J. Beardon, G.S. Powell, David Rankin, and W.B. Gwynn among the grantors. The company, evidently subdividing its acquisition, sold three lots in 1890, thirty-six in 1891, two in 1892, twenty-two in 1893, and seven in 1894. Despite these land sales, the company did not prosper and most of the Montford area was sold to George Willis Pack (1831-1906), a lumber tycoon from the Midwest who made Asheville his principal place of residence after 1885. Pack was able to make the venture succeed, and later invested in other Asheville real estate enterprises. Pack is best known in Asheville as a philanthropist, contributing generously to a plethora of city charities and activities, and was the eponymous benefactor of the public library and the city's principal square. Among his gifts was Montford Park, located at the junction of Montford Avenue and Panola Street, near the center of his residential development.
In addition to Pack's development which incorporated most of the district at least as far south as Chestnut Street, there were a few families who subdivided their own property for lots, among them the Rankin and Beardon families. Evidently a number of families purchased more than one lot, which were broken off at later dates, so that the process of subdivision and development continued into the 1920s.
In the early and mid 1880s the land between the settlement of Montford and the city of Asheville remained relatively undeveloped save for a few farmhouses and outbuildings. One of these, the Rankin House (192 Rankin Avenue), survives in an altered form. In this period, the only roads through the present Montford Area Historic District were Academy Street (later absorbed by Montford Avenue) which ended where Chestnut Street intersects today, and a narrow dirt road which led along a small ridge to Riverside Cemetery and on to Richmond Hill (National Register), the Pearson family estate. (Later this road became known as Pearson Drive.) It was one of the areas earliest roads, begun shortly after 1792 by order of the county court as a wagon road. The early development of what is now known as the Montford area occurred naturally in the area closest to Asheville proper — Cherry and Short Streets and the beginnings of Cumberland Avenue (then called Sondley Street) and Flint Street. Maps of the mid 1880s show fewer than thirty houses in this small undeveloped portion.
Between 1888 and 1891 the Montford area grew rapidly. The Sanborn Insurance Map of 1891 recorded a network of streets growing north in a column from Cherry Street. Flint Street extended to Magnolia Avenue; Cumberland Avenue and Starnes Avenue at least as far as the north end to Soco Street. Blake Street, Cullowhee Street (then called Seney), West Chestnut Street, Magnolia Avenue and Beardon Avenue had become established by then. By 1892 the electric streetcar line extended north on Montford Avenue to Chestnut Street where it crossed to continue north on Cumberland Avenue to the city limits, about where Montford Park is today. By 1894 the street plan, with a few unimportant exceptions, had become fully established.
House construction proceeded rapidly in the early years of the suburb, reflecting the city's dramatic growth. From a town of about 2,600 in 1880, by 1930 Asheville had grown to about 50,200, with the largest percentage increase (400%) occurring between 1880 and 1890. From then until 1930, the population increased between 25% and 40% each decade, a rate which dropped suddenly after 1930. The city directories show that the number of dwellings in the Montford area increased about 50% between 1896 and 1900 (the earliest years for which directories are available), more than doubled by 1910, and increased about 25% by 1920. By 1930, growth had leveled off and with the depression years, particularly lean in Asheville, house construction slowed nearly to a standstill.
After the depression, the Montford area experienced a decline. The development of the vicinity of the Grove Park Inn and Biltmore Forest, a residential town that grew up on the fringes of the Biltmore Estate, attracted potential Montford residents. The Biltmore development became the most desirable community, and many Montford residents left. In recent decades the city demolished much of the substandard housing in other parts of town and homeless individuals were encouraged to relocate in the Montford area. Property values declined and the area began to deteriorate. Today, happily, the area is experiencing the beginnings of a minor renaissance, as younger couples are attracted to the large older buildings, with their landscaped settings, solid construction, individual characters, and bargain prices. Neighborhood residents are hopeful and optimistic of a rejuvenated Montford area and increased property values despite two serious threats to the area — a potentially disastrous thoroughfare plan and the danger of incompatible commercial development.
The people who built the Montford area in its late nineteenth and early twentieth century prime were not the literati, social luminaries, and fashionable people who drifted in and out of the resort city of Asheville, but instead were for the most part businessmen, lawyers, local politicians, retired persons, a great many doctors, and even a few architects. The Montford Area Historic District's most prominent resident was probably Locke Craig who was elected governor of North Carolina in 1912 while living at 169 Montford Avenue. Most of the residents are now nearly anonymous individuals who carried out the day-to-day activities of the city. Several of these, however, found immortality in Thomas Wolfe's autobiographical Look Homeward Angel, including TB specialist Dr. Eugene Byron Glenn (Wolfe's Dr. Hugh McGuire); wealthy businessman Gay Green (Big Jeff White); merchant Louis Lipinsky (Louis Rosalsky); and mail carrier Fergus Stikeleather (Fergus Paston).
The Montford area became Asheville's leading middle class neighborhood in the early twentieth century and survives today as the largest and most intact neighborhood of the period in the city. Thomas Wolfe mentioned Montford Avenue, or "Montgomery Avenue," as "...the most fashionable street in town." An Asheville journalist wrote of it as the "swank street" and the area as the home of "Asheville's aristocracy." The article exaggerated the area's exclusiveness, because, as city directories of the era show, among the professional people was a mixture of working class citizens.
The distribution of economic levels of residents tended to reflect, as one might expect, the varying grades of housing quality in the district. Generally speaking, the choicest lots were those with views of the mountains or on Montford Avenue. Though at first the blacks were fairly evenly distributed among white residents, this arrangement did not persist. Black working people in the district soon clustered on Short Street, the south end of the Montford Area Historic District, and the fringe areas.
The Montford area residents of relatively greater means and education who naturally set the standards, pace, and taste of the neighborhood were not, to a large extent, natives of Asheville or Buncombe County. About 75% of these leading citizens came from other North Carolina cities, neighboring states, far off places like Arkansas, Michigan, Ohio, Massachusetts, and even a few foreign countries. A few of these include William B. Northrup (1854-1936) of 43 Watauga Street, a native of Stoughton, Massachusetts, who moved to Asheville in 1891 and became a prominent hardware merchant; Robert W. Griffith (1879-1935), a Welshman by birth educated in British universities who served as a chemical sales engineer for the Champion Fibre Company and lived at 224 Pearson Drive; Dr. Marion C. Millender (1859-1963), the archetypal "beloved physician" who lived to be 104 in his imposing house at 240 Pearson Drive; R.T. Cecil (1876-1956), a native of Thomasville, North Carolina who founded Cecil's Business College and resided at 73 Cumberland Avenue; Charles Henry Honess (1873-1960), a native of England who began practicing optometry in Asheville in 1903 and lived at 34 Cumberland Circle; and Alfred S. Barnard (1873-1939) of Danville, Virginia, who moved to Asheville in 1894, became a leading attorney, and lived at 37 Watauga Street. Added to them was a steady stream of visitors from all over the nation attracted to Asheville's resort hotels, healthful climate, and tuberculosis sanatoria bringing news of recent changes in taste, fashion, and modern trends in architecture. Many of the tuberculosis patients, such as Dr. Charles H. Cocke (1881-1944) of 230 Pearson Drive and Harmon A. Miller (1860-1931) of 171 Montford Avenue (destroyed) were cured and remained in Asheville continuing useful, productive, and occasionally distinguished lives in the city.
The varied backgrounds of the residents of Montford helped to develop trends in domestic architecture relatively more sophisticated in character than those found in other early twentieth century suburbs in North Carolina. Yet at the same time the houses were simple and unaffected, in keeping with the informal and unpretentious customs and lifestyles of the mountain region. Those willing to experiment in new modes of architecture, however cautiously, must have found Asheville fertile ground, because there was a great demand for housing and for all practical purposes no entrenched architectural tradition. The neighborhood's buildings vary widely in pretension and sophistication; few of them are preeminent as individual architectural landmarks but as a body reflect in a range of ways Asheville's cosmopolitan architectural sensibilities.
Little is known of specific architects working in the district during the boom years, except for Richard Sharp Smith (1852-1924). Though he did not live in the district he brought to the Montford area his well-defined style and his impressively cosmopolitan experience. He is the only architect known to date to have designed more than a handful of buildings in the Montford Area Historic District. A native of England, R.S. Smith received his training there, worked for New York architect B.L. Gilbert, and later for
William Henry Lord, a contemporary of Smith's, appears to have been active in the district. Little is known of the nature and extent of his practice but research is currently  underway which is expected to identify his major works. One other architect, Charles Parker, has been identified, Parker designed the Griffin House at 224 Pearson Drive in 1920 but no other works by him are known in the Montford Area Historic District. He is, however, known to have been the architect for the massive Arcade Building (NR) constructed for developer E.W. Grove 1926-1929. Parker, a native of Hillsboro, Ohio, moved to Asheville in 1904 and began his career with the firm of Smith and Carrier. He opened his own office, which he maintained until joining the Asheville firm of Six Associates, Inc., after World War II. He died in 1961.
Of considerable note is the builder/"architect" Oliver Davis Revell (died 1937) who is said to have built 36 Montford Avenue and 118 Cumberland Avenue, both handsome Queen Anne style houses, and "many others." Revell was a successful builder, real estate entrepreneur, and merchant, operating Revell and Wagoner's Staple and Fancy Groceries on Patton Avenue. Apparently building houses for resale was an important part of his real estate business. Not much is known of his early life and career in which he was associated with William Duckworth, of whom virtually nothing is known.
O.D. Revell married Mrs. C.E. Gray of 110 Cumberland Avenue in 1897 and as a result of his marriage and business success became a wealthy man, traveling extensively throughout the world and holding large tracts of land in Asheville, Buncombe County, and through his wife in Oklahoma. For a short time he owned Zealandia (NR), a prominent Asheville domestic landmark. Further research is needed to further define Revell's architectural works and method of operation.
The "rusticated" concrete block house at 188 Flint Street is thought to have been designed by its first owner, Edward T. Belote. Very little is known of Mr. Belote except that he advertised in the directories as a "plain and decorative plasterer and cement worker" during the first decade of the twentieth century.
Commerce and Institutions
Though predominantly single family residential, land use in Montford was mixed since the earliest days of development. A number of commercial establishments were founded on Montford Avenue, particularly at the south end where in 1920 were located a laundry, drugstore, and market. The only surviving commercial building from the early 1900s is a gable-end grocery on the corner of Montford and Chestnut, now in an altered state and serving a religious group. Other commercial buildings are relatively recent but reflect the original distribution of commercial and domestic land use. Respectable boarding houses were popular from the beginning and were often run by widows left with small incomes and large houses. They often had picturesque names like "Shadow Lawn" or, the most famous of all, "Old Kentucky Home" (National Historic Landmark), operated a few blocks from the Montford area by Julia Wolfe, mother of the famous author.
Similar patterns existed on other neighborhood streets, where directories indicate for Cumberland Avenue, for example, the same mix of people and backgrounds and list any number of names important in Asheville's day-to-day life. One of the best known was William F. Randolph, a businessman, well-known Mason, and pioneer in public education in Asheville after whom the school on Montford Avenue was named. According to the Asheville Times, there was no white public school in town in 1887. A bond issue in that year to establish such a school passed by one vote and the first school committee purchased the old Venable Academy (known variously as Asheville Military Academy and Asheville Male Academy) renaming it the Montford School. In 1932 it became the William Randolph School. (The present building was erected in 1952.) Other schools in the Montford Area Historic District included the original St. Genevieve-of-the-Pines, founded in a house on Starnes Avenue, and a respected school operated by the Misses Nannie and Lizzie Stevens at 15 Beardon Avenue. Skyland Institute, founded in 1894 by Professor J.S. Dickey, operated for a time on Starnes Avenue. Little is known of the school, and is disappeared from the directories by 1899.
In addition to commercial, multi-family, and educational facilities were several small, private sanatoria such as the Pinehurst (later Pine Rest, the Pines, the Pearson, and Biggs Sanatorium), at 112 Pearson Drive and another at 33 Starnes Avenue (operated by the Sisters of Mercy of St. Joseph) specializing in the treatment of tuberculosis, and at least one hospital — Norburn Hospital, located in the Powell House at 346 Montford Avenue. The Norburn Hospital later merged with Mission Hospital. Among the distinguished medical men living and working in the district, the best known is Dr. Robert S. Carroll, who was the psychiatrist that founded "Dr. Carroll's Sanatorium" in downtown Asheville, moving it in 1909 to a site next to the Rumbough House. After 1912 it came to be known as Highland Hospital. Dr. Carroll's program of treatment for mental and nervous disorders, based on exercise, diet, and occupational therapy, attracted patients from across the nation. In 1939 Dr. Carroll gave the hospital to Duke University, and it continues to operate under Duke's Department of Medicine.
Tragedy struck the Highland Hospital on the night of March 10, 1948, when the central building of the hospital, a handsome frame and stone structure begun in the late 1930s, caught fire and burned. Nine women patients perished in the conflagration, among whom was Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald and author in her own right. Mrs. Fitzgerald, in and out of sanatoria in the United States and abroad for nearly twenty years, had made numerous visits to the hospital since 1935. For part of that time her husband, suffering from recurring tuberculosis, lived at Asheville's Grove Park Inn and was treated by Dr. Paul Ringer, a resident of Montford's Pearson Drive.
Adjacent to the residential section of the Montford Area Historic District is Riverside Cemetery. It was established in 1885, by the Asheville Cemetery Company whose shareholders have prominent Asheville and Montford area names such as Rankin, Sawyer, Beardon, Redwood, Pearson, and Venable. The cemetery, well known for its natural beauty and landscaping, dramatic scenery, and historic value, contains the graves of most of the Asheville establishment, many of whom, of course, lived in the Montford area, Of particular importance are the graves of William Sidney Porter (1862-1910), better known as O. Henry, whose widow was an Asheville native; Zebulon Baird Vance (1830-1894) of Buncombe County, North Carolina's Civil War governor, U.S. Senator, and statewide hero; and author Thomas Wolfe (1900-1939). Other notables include General Robert Brank Vance, CSA, a post-bellum congressman; North Carolina governor Locke Craig (1860-1924), who served from 1913 to 1917; George T. Winston (1852-1932), president of the University of North Carolina and the North Carolina State University; Richmond Pearson (1852-1923), congressman, consul, and ambassador; Hezekiah Alexander Gudger (1849-1917), legislator, consul, and jurist; Jeter C. Pritchard (1857-1921), U.S. Senator and judge; and many others, far too numerous to mention, whose names read like a "Who's Who" of western North Carolina.
Wolfe uses the cemetery ("the lonely hill of the dead") in an important scene near the end of the novel Look Homeward, Angel, just after Ben Gant's death (Ben Wolfe, the author's brother). Eugene (Thomas Wolfe) walks out Rutledge Road, presumably Pearson Drive, to the cemetery.
When he came to the gate of the cemetery he found it open. He went in quickly and walked swiftly up the winding road that curved around the crest of the hill. The grasses were dry and sere; a wilted wreath of laurel lay upon a grave. As he approached the family plot, his pulse quickened a little...
But in the distance, away on their level and above, on other hills, they saw the town. Slowly, in twinkling nests, the lights of the town went up, and there were frost-far voices, and music, and the laughter of a girl.
"This is a nice place," said Eugene. "You get a nice view of the town from here."
"Yes," said Mrs. Pert. "And Old Ben's got the nicest place of all. You get a better view right here than anywhere else. I've been here before in the daytime." In a moment she went on, "Old Ben will turn into lovely flowers. Roses, I think."
"No," said Eugene, "dandelions — and big flowers with a lot of thorns on them."
..."Who'll be coming here this time next year, I wonder? Will Old 'Gene come back then?" "No," said Eugene. "No, Mrs. Pert. I shall never come here again."
Asheville Citizen. December 24, 1937. April 17, 1938.
Asheville Citizen-Times. October 9, 1938.
Asheville City Directories. 1896-1904.
Asheville Daily Citizen. Thanksgiving Day, 1895.
Asheville Gazette-News. May 8, 1905.
Asheville Times. April 16, 1941, June 15, 1935. July 17, 1960.
Biographical Clipping Files. Pack Memorial Public Library. Asheville, N.C.
Buncombe County Deed Books. Office of the Register of Deeds. Buncombe County Courthouse. Asheville, N.C. Deed Book 89. April 12, 1894.
Champion, Myra. Unpublished notes. Thomas Wolfe Collection. Pack Memorial Public Library. Asheville, N.C. No date.
Cheney, John L., Jr. North Carolina State Government, 1585-1974. A Narrative and Statistical History, Raleigh, N.C.: Department of the Secretary of State, 1975.
General Clipping Files. Pack Memorial Public Library. Asheville, N.C.
General Map Files. Pack Memorial Public Library. Asheville, N.C.
Interview with Sara G. Upchurch by McKelden Smith. August and November, 1976. Asheville, N.C.
Interview with Mr. Walter Beardon and Mrs. Melvin Carter by Sara G. Upchurch, November, 1976. Asheville, N.C.
Mayfield, Sara. Exiles from Paradise: Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, New York: Delacourte Press, 1971.
Sondley, Foster A. A History of Buncombe County, North Carolina. Volume II. Asheville, N.C.: The Advocate Printing Company, 1930.
Withey, Henry F. and Elsie R. Biographical Dictionary of American Architects (Deceased). Los Angeles, California: Hennessey & Ingalls, Inc,, 1956.
Wolfe, Thomas. Look Homeward, Angel. New York, New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1929.
† Sara G. Upchurch and McKelden Smith, North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Montford Area Historic District, Asheville, Buncombe County, North Carolina, nomination document, 1977, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.