“It was situated five minutes from the public square, on a pleasant sloping middleclass street of small homes and boarding-houses. Dixieland was a big cheaply constructed frame house of eighteen or twenty drafty high-ceilinged rooms…” —Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel
Forty-eight Spruce Street is no longer on Spruce Street. Or, more accurately, Spruce Street no longer goes past Number 48. For a block it runs as it used to run, directly south from Asheville’s heart, Pack Square, and is flanked now on one side by stores and offices and on the other by the vast rear parking lot of the Radisson Hotel. Then the paved street and its sidewalk make an abrupt inverted ‘J’ back towards Broadway.
But that’s a latter-day reroute. If you disregard the turn and keep walking straight ahead, you come to a flight of steps. At the bottom of the stairs you are standing no longer on concrete, but on paving bricks in the middle of Spruce Street. A century ago.
At that time all of Spruce Street was leafy and residential, lined with two-story houses in varying styles, all set back from the sidewalk by shallow, flower-dotted lawns, the lots divided by pale fences or hedges of privet and hawthorn. Only one such house now remains, sandwiched between the rear of Asheville Community Theatre and the towering bulk of the Radisson. It’s a rambling “stick style” dwelling in pale mustard yellow. It has gables, a bay window, some gratuitous gingerbread trim and a spacious, inviting ‘L’ of a porch. From the overhang above the steps, like an old fashioned doctor’s shingle, hangs a modest strip sign: “The Old Kentucky Home.”
This is how that came to pass:
As a wedding present, in 1883, Asheville banker Erwin Sluder built his daughter and her husband a modest seven-room house on a property he owned on Spruce Street. The young folks eventually moved and Sluder’s widow built a huge addition to the house, increasing it to 18 rooms. She lived there until 1889, when she sold the house to a wealthy widow, Alice Johnston Reynolds. Mrs. Reynolds decided to capitalize on Asheville’s burgeoning tourist business and turn 48 Spruce Street into a boarding house. She called it, logically, “The Reynolds” and she left the actual running of it up to a succession of live-in managers.
Down the hill from Number 48, Spruce Street ‘T’ed’ into Woodfin Street. If you were to turn right and walk a few paces, the next street on your left would be Central Avenue, which runs up another hill and into Chestnut Street. And opposite you, at the corner of Woodfin and Central, would have been the home of W.O. Wolfe.
An incomer from Pennsylvania and a stonecutter by trade, W.O. operated a successful monument business up on the public square. His large, rambling house was adorned with flowering vines, and behind the house the deep backyard was full of fruit trees that helped feed his large family.
W.O.’s wife, Julia, was a member of another old and prominent Asheville family, the Westalls. Julia, as much as any of her male kin, had inherited the Westall preoccupation with wealth, as well as their ability to acquire it; indeed, she had an uncanny knack for anticipating business trends, and local businessmen had a reluctant respect for her shrewdness. She had bought and profitably flipped several downtown properties, but she wanted something she could run hands-on. Nearly every day, on her way uptown to shop or run errands, she passed right by Number 48. First, she took note of it in passing. Then she stopped, her feet in their sensible black shoes planted firmly on the brick pavement, and sized up the place, making entries on her spreadsheet of a mind.
She asked around discreetly. Number 48, she was told, was actually on the market. Old Mrs. Reynolds had recently died and the family had sold the place at a loss to Rev. Thomas Myers, a retired Campbellite minister, and his wife. Myers, a native Kentuckian, had renamed the house “The Old Kentucky Home.” Gossip had it that the boarding house was capable of providing a good living if managed properly, but Rev. Myers had a fondness for liquor and was reportedly unstable even when he was sober. Julia weighed all this input, plucking her chin and looking up the hill through her thick round glasses to where Number 48’s gables jutted from the Spruce Street tree line… and she made up her mind: If a drunk, crazy preacher from Kentucky could hang onto that place for even a little while, then Julia, an Asheville Westall (she never thought of herself as a Wolfe), could make it a gold mine.
So, on August 30, 1906, Julia signed the mortgage papers and she took over “Old Kentucky Home” a few days later. At first she walked to work, but she suffered a leg infection and began staying at the boarding house. (There was no question of her recuperating at home; there was work to be done.) As soon as she was well, she went down to Woodfin Street, gathered up her things and moved bag and baggage into her new boarding house. She never returned to the home where she had borne eight children, including one who had died in infancy and another of typhoid only two years earlier. She left the remaining kids in their father’s care and took with her, almost as a hostage, her youngest—a brooding, sensitive six-year-old boy with dark, contemplative eyes. She had named him Thomas Clayton.
When Julia established herself and Tom at The Old Kentucky Home, the fabric of the Wolfe family was torn as effectively as if there had been a divorce. The next-oldest daughter, Mabel, took charge and became the de facto mistress of 92 Woodfin Street at the age of sixteen. Julia called on her frequently to come up the hill and help out, which Mabel did with undisguised resentment. The other offspring visited from time to time but seldom stayed over, even if they had wanted to. Julia needed all her available space for boarders. W.O. stopped by sometimes, particularly on his way home from work, and would visit with the guests, who found him charming and entertaining. W.O., was largely self-educated, but he had a fine mind and was well versed in the classics and in Shakespeare, from which he would declaim at length to the delight and awe of the tourists, traveling salesmen, and occasional genteel and discreet prostitutes who made up Julia’s clientele.
But W.O. was also a fatalistic, frustrated alcoholic who felt his status as a businessman and provider had been undermined by Julia’s wheeling and dealing. He went along with her purchase of The Old Kentucky Home, because it would have been futile not to, Julia being Julia. Sometimes his passive-aggressiveness got the better of him, triggering binges of epic proportions. At such times he would leave Woodfin Street literally roaring drunk and stagger up to the boarding house, howling imprecations against Julia, the Westalls, and the boarders, and invoking the wrath of an apparently stone-deaf Almighty God.
The boarders, hearing him coming, would scatter like pigeons. Julia would wring her hands and weep over the damage to business, and from a corner or someplace out of the way of W.O.’s incoming invective, the young Thomas Wolfe would take it all in with his wide, dark, listening eyes.
Tom despised the boarding house. He was a shy, extremely private boy and hated the patronizing attentions of the boarders. He slept in whatever bed was available after the guests had been given priority. He ate, after the others had been fed, in a closet-like alcove off the kitchen hall where the help took their meals. He filed all his memories of this Dickensian existence away in his capacious memory, and one day he would write of them:
“He [Tom’s fictional alter ego, Eugene Gant] hated the indecency of his life, the loss of dignity and seclusion… He felt, rather than understood, the waste, the confusion, the blind cruelty of their lives—his spirit was stretched out on the rack of despair and bafflement as there came to him more and more the conviction that their lives could not be more hopelessly distorted, wrenched, mutilated, and perverted away from all simple comfort, repose, happiness…”
It was Ben Wolfe, Tom’s next-older brother, who provided Tom with his first means of escape from 48 Spruce Street. Ben, as one of Tom’s biographers has put it, was born a gentleman and had a gentleman’s disdain for Julia’s avarice; where Tom despaired of the boarding house, Ben merely scorned it. Ben was Tom’s protector, mentor, and closest friend. At an independent 14, he had gone out to work in the circulation room of the Asheville Citizen and he recruited his little brother as a paperboy. It was Tom’s first time on his own and he came to love the solitude and independence his paper route bought him. (Years later, as a famous writer, he demonstrated to an interviewer how to fold and throw a paper.)
[quote float=”right”]She was well aware of Tom’s intellect and saw its practical potential… as the family lawyer, for instance. So Tom became a preppie, living on campus among the sons of the Asheville’s rich and powerful (that pleased Julia to no end). [/quote]But Tom’s real break from his mother’s domain came when, as a precocious student, he attracted the attention of John and Margaret Roberts, who were founding the North State Fitting School. Unexpectedly, Julia sprang for Tom’s tuition. Some of the other children, particularly Mabel, carped at this special treatment, but Julia saw it as an investment. She was well aware of Tom’s intellect and saw its practical potential… as the family lawyer, for instance. So Tom became a preppie, living on campus among the sons of the Asheville’s rich and powerful (that pleased Julia to no end). He blossomed at school and was particularly doted on and encouraged by the lovely, frail Mrs. Roberts, whom he would later call “the mother of my spirit.”
For three years, Tom devoured everything the North State Fitting School could teach him. On the day he walked out of 48 Spruce Street and headed for Chapel Hill—at the age of sixteen—the bubble of life as he had known it burst once and for all. At college he flourished academically and even socially; Chapel Hill embraced his eccentricities.
Julia, meanwhile, soldiered on; in 1916 she tacked several new and hastily-constructed rooms onto The Old Kentucky Home. In 1918 she had to summon Tom home from Chapel Hill. Ben Wolfe, Tom’s mentor and protector, had fallen victim to Spanish influenza and was not expected to live. Tom reached home just as Ben was breathing his last, and his account of Ben’s death in Look Homeward, Angel is transcendently moving; it has been called one of the great passages in American literature. Wolfe aficionados who tour the house seek out “The Room Where Ben Died” like pilgrims visiting a shrine.
The rest is well known and soon told. Tom returned to Chapel Hill, went on to Harvard, returning briefly in 1922, when W.O., who had long since moved into the boarding house, died (an event which also found its way into the Wolfe canon), and taught at City College of New York, all the while writing, writing, writing. To his utter surprise, he sold Look Homeward, Angel to Scribner’s in 1928 and returned home briefly, after signing the deal, to a local-boy-makes-good welcome. But the next year the book was actually published, and on every page enraged Ashevillians found thinly disguised versions of their town and themselves held up to the harsh light of Tom’s mercilessly analytical prose. The names had been changed but the people—to themselves and each other—were readily recognizable. As for The Old Kentucky Home, it was rechristened “Dixieland”… and the boarding house itself was as much a character in the novel as the humans.
Tom was hurt and befuddled by the furor his first book caused. He had, he insisted, only tried to write about the human condition using the material he knew best. Nevertheless, he stayed put in Brooklyn and wrote. He published more novels and numerous short stories and articles. He was hailed in literary circles as a major talent, and his fame became the balm by which old wounds were healed. He returned briefly in 1937; this time he was a celebrity. Tom was gathering material in the western states when he was taken ill. He was taken to Johns Hopkins Medical Center, where he was found to have terminal tuberculosis of the brain. He died in Baltimore on September 15, 1938, eighteen days before his thirty-eighth birthday.
Forty-eight Spruce Street saw him one last time, when he was laid out in the front room before being taken to Riverside Cemetery, where he joined W.O. and Ben in the family plot. Earth to earth, Asheville to Asheville.
[quote float=”right”]Tom would have appreciated the irony: The house he hated in life, he rescued in death. [/quote]Julia lived out the rest of her days at The Old Kentucky Home, but under sufferance. The Depression had shredded her real estate investment empire, and she was virtually penniless. An Asheville businessman, Harry Blomberg, bought the place, then resold it to the surviving children—Fred, Mabel, Effie, and Frank—who bought it with part of their shares of Tom’s estate. Tom would have appreciated the irony: The house he hated in life, he rescued in death. Julia, in her sensible shoes, strode up to the pearly gates on December 7, 1945.
In 1949, twenty years after Look Homeward, Angel shook Asheville society to its foundations, a newly formed Thomas Wolfe Memorial Association, with backing from the Chamber of Commerce, set about to make The Old Kentucky Home a national landmark. The house was opened to the public. In 1973 it was awarded its landmark status and ownership passed to the State of North Carolina.
About two o’clock on the morning of July 24, 1998, a hotel guest across the street saw a dark figure throw “a flaming object, like a Molotov cocktail” through a dining room window of The Old Kentucky Home. The fire department arrived from across the square in less than a minute. Even so, the hungry flames gutted most of the dining room and a bedroom above it, together with about fifteen percent of the house’s artifacts. It took six years to perform a museum-quality restoration so seamless that no trace of the damage is visible.
If you visit “Dixieland” today, let the tour group go on ahead and stand perfectly still for a few moments in the front hall by the foot of the stairs and look around. Real people walked these floors, sat in those chairs, looked out those windows. Put yourself in the place of the gangly boy who also watched and listened—it’s not hard to do—and consider this: the house has noticed you, too.
“And again, again in the old house I feel beneath my tread the creak of the old stair, the worn rail, the white washed walls, the feel of darkness and the house asleep, and think, ‘I was a child here; here the stairs, and here was darkness; this was I, and here is Time.’”
The Thomas Wolfe Memorial National Historic Site is open from 9am to 5pm Tuesdays through Saturdays, and is closed on Sundays, Mondays, and state holidays.
Capital at Play writer Roger McCredie is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial.