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The Urban Trail is Downtown Asheville's history, art and architecture tour wrapped into one. Visitors are welcome to take the urban trail at their own pace, guided by short audio podcasts that are available for download online onto computers and mobile devices. The tour is marked by memorial granite plaques carved into the sidewalk at 30 different locations. Asheville's history is divided into five distinct eras. The podcasts give short, colorful and historically accurate accounts of the people who shaped Asheville, the famous art deco buildings that create the ambience of the Downtown district, and the artisans, writers, doctors and local residents that gave it such a distinct and memorable character.
The podcast tour of the Urban Trail is made up of 1-4 minute audio clips that tell the stories of Asheville with expert interviews and commentary complemented by musical backgrounds to set the tone.
Highlighted below are some of the major points of interest in a self-guided walking tour of historic Downtown Asheville. Expect the entire 1.7 mile tour to last about 2 hours or more, depending upon pace.
Lumberman and philanthropist George W. Pack came to Asheville in 1889 when his wife was ill. The Pack's left in 1902. Mr. Pack was a businessman in Ohio, with a fortune. Before departing, he donated the land for Pack Square, leaving a lasting impression on the design, construction and growth of Downtown Asheville. Here visitors can see the Vance Monument, Pack Place and the Diana Wortham Theater as well a mix of historical and modern buildings. Pack Square has been a city center since the early 20th Century. Under the conditions of Pack's gift of land, this green space is to remain a downtown park for perpetuity.
Elizabeth Blackwell was the first licensed woman doctor in America. Blackwell first came to Asheville in 1845 after her father's death and she worked in a girl's school teaching piano. Her teacher happened to be a doctor. Blackwell asked him why women were not medical practitioners and noticed a need for women's health care. Elizabeth Blackwell later studied medicine at Geneva Medical College in New York and graduated at the top of her class. Finding employment in a clinic in the U.S. in 1849 was difficult, so she began practicing in Paris. She returned to America, where she and her sister established the first medical clinic for women in the U.S. and the first medical school for women. Elizabeth Blackwell died in England in 1910. She was known for implementing natural medicinal cures through plants, a practice still popular in Asheville today.
O. Henry (William Henry Porter) was a native of Greensboro, North Carolina. After his first wife died, he married an Asheville woman, Sarah Coleman Porter. His writing was mainly inspired by large urban areas, such as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and New York City. O. Henry spent time in Asheville visiting his wife's family. His most recognized work is "The Gift of the Magi." He died in 1910 of cirrhosis of the liver in New York City and was buried at Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, not far from Thomas Wolfe's grave.
Thomas Wolfe was the internationally acclaimed novelist who grew up in a boarding house in downtown Asheville, owned by his mother. Wolfe wrote Look Homeward Angel, a famous novel notoriously and loosely based on characters who lived in Asheville. The National Park Service maintains the Thomas Wolfe Memorial (site of Wolfe's 'Old Kentucky Home') and offers tours of the interior of the home.
The Basilica of Saint Lawrence sets the tone for Downtown Asheville with the tinkling of bells chiming on the hour. Located at 97 Haywood Street in Downtown Asheville, The Basilica has a dome that spans 58 by 82 feet. Rafael Guastavino helped build Biltmore Estate and it was his idea to build a basilica in Asheville. He was originally from Barcelona, Spain, where he worked for a family company. In Spain, he learned his specialized technique of installing tiles and layers of mortar to construct buildings. His methods were effective at creating vaulted ceilings and domes, with examples of this in his work as an architect and builder. Guastavino lived from 1842-1908. He also built many buildings in New York City, including the Great Hall at Ellis Island and the National Museum of Natural History, among others. Guastavino's tomb is interred at the Basilica of Saint Lawrence in Asheville.
Long before the Grove Arcade building dominated the hill in Downtown Asheville, the old Battery Park Hotel sat atop the hill. It was the most luxurious hotel in Asheville in the late 1800s, a place where dignitaries and famous people stayed. The old Battery Park Hotel was destroyed by fire and later torn down by Edwin Grove, who made his fortune on a chill tonic. Grove first completed the Grove Park Inn in 1915, a luxury hotel that is in full operation today. Then he set his sights on Downtown Asheville. Grove had a vision for a grand retail center downtown, so the Grove Arcade was conceived. After demolishing the hotel, he had the mountain excavated and flattened. The Grove Arcade was built on a slope. Grove died in 1927, two years before the Grove Arcade was completed (1929). In 1997, Grove Arcade was acquired by the City of Asheville. Today it is a mixed-use building with retail, offices and condominiums. Metalwork and glass were restored by local artists - making the interior and exterior just as sumptuous and light filled as it was when it was first built.
On the corner of Wall Street and Battery Park, the Flat Iron Building is a reminder of Asheville's connection to New York City, where a twin building is the centerpiece of the Flat Iron District in Manhattan. The building was designed by Albert C. Wirth and constructed in 1925-26. Built in the shape of a triangle, the Flat Iron Building is constructed the same way in New York City. Asheville's first steam laundry was also housed here. The laundry remains in the Flat Iron Building. Visitors can distinguish this building by gazing directly at the sculpture of a steam iron in front of the building or looking upwards to take in the unique triangular structure. The Sky Bar on the 8th floor provides visitors a chance to see a spectacular view of Asheville from above and enjoy a ride on the gated elevator, still operated by a person, rather than buttons.
Asheville's Gilded Age occurred from 1880-1930, when many of the architectural treasures of the City were constructed. For those who have a fascination with history, art, architecture, literature, and science, the Urban Trail tour provides some memorable highlights of the growth of Downtown Asheville. Learn more about Asheville's past by taking the Urban Trails tour at your own leisure, accompanied by well-narrated audio podcasts while en route.
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