Today’s batch of burning questions, my smart-aleck answers and the real deal:
Question: What are the oldest buildings in Asheville and Buncombe County that are still in use? What’s the history of the oldest commercial building?
My answer: And let the arguments begin!
Real answer: As a bit of a history buff myself, I got a little carried away on this one.
I talked and emailed with Jack Thomson, executive director of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County; Jennifer Cathey, restoration specialist with the State Historic Preservation Office, part of the North Carolina Department of Natural & Cultural Resources Western Office; and John Ager, who lives in the oldest house in the county.
The preservation folks and I agreed that it's probably best to use phrases such as “earliest known” or “oldest known surviving" when referring to these structures, as some folks may beg to differ, and some buildings have been renovated or added to over the years.
Having offered that disclaimer, Thomson offered up No. 1 Biltmore Avenue as the oldest operating, strictly mercantile building in Asheville, dating from 1887.
"Today, it's known as Posana restaurant, with offices above the restaurant," Thomson said. "It housed a very early Masonic Lodge, which moved later to the Drhumor Building. If you look above the entrance to Posana, there’s a pyramid shape, and there's another geometric pattern on the stairs, which are slight indications of the Masonic influence."
But nothing is simple in any of this, and Cathey noted that "some Asheville residents have indicated to me that the three-story brick commercial building at 37 Biltmore may in fact be older."
To further complicate the matter, the building at 29 Ravenscroft Drive downtown, just off Church street near Hilliard, was built in the 1840s, as a residence but transitioned to commercial uses.
"Ravenscroft is identified as the oldest surviving building in the downtown area, built as a private home for Joseph Osbourne, and later occupied by the Ravenscroft School," Cathey said. "Ravenscroft was very stylish for its time and place, its design derived from the picturesque villas promoted by nationally-known designer and taste-maker Andrew Jackson Downing."
The building, now called Ravenscroft Suites, remains in use as office space.
But for the flat-out oldest building, we must move into the county, Fairview to be precise. Thomson tapped another well-known structure for this title, although he left a little wiggle room.
"There are several ruinous buildings out there that are earlier, but the one I can put a nice firm date on is Sherrill’s Inn, which is John and Annie Ager’s house today," Thomson said, referring to the state legislator and his wife. "The earliest portion of the house dates from about 1801."
Parts were built later, though. The National Register of Historic Places offers this summary: "Sherrill's Inn was a way-station for stagecoach travelers and cattle drivers on the 'Hickory Nut Turnpike,' which connected Rutherfordton and Asheville, throughout most of the 19th century. The inn was built sometime between 1839 and 1850 for Bedford Sherrill, who was appointed a Commissioner by the 1841 General Assembly for the purpose of building and keeping up the turnpike."
The house is located on Charlotte Highway in Fairview, on the way to Hickory Nut Gorge.
John Ager offered some additional intriguing nuggets of history about the place.
"We believe the oldest building in the county is a smokehouse that's behind our house, in the courtyard," Ager said. "It was an old smokehouse, or really a smokehouse/blockade — it has gun ports cut into it. We believe that was built in the 1790s."
Their understanding is that structure was built by original settlers John and Nancy Ann Ashworth, or more likely by their slaves.
"We still use it," Ager said. "Then, with the house, we believe the Ashworths lived in that (blockade) when they built the log cabin part of Sherrill’s Inn around 1801."
The Sherrills built the rest of the house in the 1830s, but the log cabin part of the structure is still in use.
Cathey said another structure in the mix is the “Weaver House," which dates to around 1834. In Doug Swaim's 1981 book, "Cabins and Castles," he referred to it as "perhaps the oldest surviving frame building in the county.” The historical information on the home states it was built for Jacob Weaver "as an addition to his original two-story, hall and parlor plan log house."
By the way, the well-known Smith-McDowell House, which now operates as a museum adjoining the Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College campus, was built in 1848 and can stake the claim as "oldest brick house in the county," Thomson said.
On the Smith-McDowell House website, it's described as "Asheville's oldest surviving dwelling..."
Cathey pointed out that "what we know about historic buildings in Buncombe County is the result of survey and research that took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, cooperative projects between the State Historic Preservation Office, the City of Asheville, and Buncombe County. That work was published in two publications — "Cabins and Castles," edited by Doug Swaim, and "Historic Architectural Resources of Downtown Asheville," edited by David Black.
Alrighty then. I now feel like Asheville's oldest surviving Answer Person.
This is the opinion of John Boyle. To submit a question, contact him at 232-5847 or jboyle@citizen-times.com