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Asheville, N.C., Has a Song at Its Heart

By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 16, 2009

In Asheville, music is everywhere. From church bells and buskers to pipe organs and drum circles, the city pulses with soundtracks as different as the experiences it has to offer.

On a warm summer night, I could hear the drums from blocks away. Instead of a steady bum-bum, though, the sounds drifting through Asheville's downtown core made an exuberant cacophony: the thump-a-thump of hands slapping djembes, the ching-ca-ching of tambourines, the dong-dong of a cowbell and the shuff-a-shuff of shakers, the toc-toc of claves and the broo-roo of a didgeridoo, plus the sound of many hands clapping. It's all part of the eight-year-old Friday night drum circle that takes place in Pritchard Park, a little landscaped triangle in the middle of this western North Carolina city.

On brick steps and boulders ringing the park sat silver-haired matrons in preppy knits, young Rastafarians in dreadlocks, elderly Asian ladies, bearded white men in dashikis, young kids with their parents and teenagers in flip-flops. In the center of the park, a handful of drummers manned huge kettle drums, and others shared congas or passed around beaded gourds, wooden blocks and bells. Dancers twirled, swayed and bounced in the warm summer breeze.

Just around the corner, a musical duo of another sort was churning out its own melodies, seemingly oblivious to the drumming ricocheting off the art deco, beaux-arts and baroque buildings. On an accordion and a euphonium, two young men played plaintive strains that would have spurred Edith Piaf to break into song.

Down the street, a lone sax player poured out a tune, his open case at his feet. A half-block away, an R&B trio jammed in a doorway, while near museum-filled Pack Square, the city's main plaza, a dead ringer for Bob Dylan had his accordion at the ready. The layers of music were dizzying -- a little something for everyone.

As the drummers filed out of the park after dark, other musicians hauled instruments and amps into bars. At the labyrinthine World Coffee Cafe, the stereo played indie rock in the main room while a group of kids plunking out "Heart and Soul" on a piano segued into a joyful singalong that lasted well into the night.

* * *

Most visitors to Asheville, though, aren't there for the music. Roughly half of the city's 2 million yearly visitors trek there to see the biggest private home in America, George Vanderbilt's palatial Biltmore estate.

The 1895 mansion and grounds are a product of the Vanderbilt family's railroad fortune, George's insatiable appetite for luxury and an astounding team of planners and visionaries, including architect Richard Morris Hunt and Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect whose design of Central Park in New York was merely practice for his largest (and last) undertaking: transforming a 125,000-acre swath of deforested North Carolina countryside into lush gardens and managed forest, 8,000 acres of which are still Biltmore property.

The house alone -- with its 250 rooms, including 34 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms -- has four acres of floor space, much of which is open to the public for a hefty admission price. After coughing up $55 for a ticket and paying an extra $10 for the audio tour, I started out in the house's crowded foyer along with hundreds of other Saturday day-trippers there to ogle Vanderbilt's ostentatious creation. I was fully prepared to be offended by the sheer wastefulness, the greed, the pomposity of the place.

Then something funny happened: As I toured the house, I started actually liking George, his wife, Edith, and their daughter, Cornelia. I gaped at their Flemish tapestries, Renoirs and Sargents and Whistlers and the library with 10,000 volumes, and I pored over exhibits on the restoration of a suite of rooms just opened to the public this summer.

Meanwhile, the stories emerged: about the youngest son of a robber baron who fell in love with the mountains and built a French-style chateau on a hilltop; about a community of architects, builders and artists who erected that mammoth building; about men and women inspired by Vanderbilt's vision who, in turn, followed their own dreams. Three years after Biltmore opened, Carl A. Schenck established the country's first forestry school nearby; after George's death in 1914, Edith championed local artists and artisans; many craftspeople hired to work on the house decided to stay and make Asheville their home.

Rather than being a gaudy showplace wholly separate from the surrounding community, it seems that Biltmore and its owners not only gave tourists a reason to visit Asheville -- Cornelia opened the house to the public in 1930 at the request of the tourism-dollar-starved Asheville government -- but also jump-started some of the businesses and industries that still thrive nearby.

Despite the carefully orchestrated Biltmore experience, the house can still surprise visitors with an unexpected song. A few minutes into my audio tour, I was in the billiards room when the voice in my headset was suddenly drowned out by a familiar tune: "Da-da-da DUM dum, da-da-da DUM dum" -- "The Ride of the Valkyries" booming from a giant pipe organ. I took off my headphones to listen to the song, and a friendly docent in the banquet hall explained that the organ had always been a player organ, but now it's entirely computer-programmed. Throughout the exchange, she didn't even seem to notice that she was shouting.

* * *

One of the craftsmen hired by George Vanderbilt was a Spaniard named Rafael Guastavino. He developed a way of building self-supporting tile arches, and he created Biltmore's 70,000-gallon indoor swimming pool, tiled in blue. After his commission, Guastavino decided to stay in North Carolina, settling near Asheville in Black Mountain, where he took projects here and there (the Duke Chapel in Durham, the Jefferson Standard Building in Greensboro) and in 1905 completed construction of Asheville's Basilica of St. Lawrence Catholic Church, on the north end of downtown at Haywood and Flint.

The sanctuary was cool and empty when I visited on a Monday morning. Light came through the stained-glass windows, and I studied the terra cotta figures ringing the altar. Then I looked up. The domed ceiling is made of modest materials -- simple, uniform red terra cotta tiles -- in the trademark Guastavino houndstooth pattern, and it's said to be the largest free-standing elliptical dome in North America.

It's a nice dome, and impressive work, but that boast sounds like a stretch. It reminded me of Asheville's reputation for having the most art deco buildings (apart from Miami) in the southeastern United States. The claim to fame seems underwhelming, but it reveals something important about Asheville: Before the railroad arrived in 1880, it was mostly a hardscrabble crossroads. Then, for almost 50 years, it was a posh resort town. After the stock market crash of 1929 and the failure of Asheville's local bank, the residents found themselves saddled with the highest per-capita debt load of any American city, and it took 50 years to recover. Those art deco and other historic buildings still stand because Asheville never saw a mid-century economic boom or urban renewal.

Until now.

Little by little, tourists started coming back, and now there are three trolley tours in town and so many transplants to Asheville that the visitor center has multiple racks of relocation-related brochures. New restaurants and businesses have popped up all over, some with unusual twists on the city's history.

On the ground floor of the elegant Battery Park Hotel, one of the first luxury lodgings in the city, the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar just opened. In the spirit of thrift and recycling so prevalent in Asheville, patrons can trade their old books for new ones. Or they can embrace a more ephemeral return: Trade in their books (or just pony up some cash) for a cheese plate at the bar or a split of champagne to sip while wandering the stacks or slouching in buttery leather couches. The soft jazz on the stereo only reinforces the mood: Anyone with a few books to spare can feel like a Vanderbilt for a moment. You just need the right soundtrack, maybe.

What would Guastavino have thought? Back at the basilica, he is buried in the church's crypt, and a small display case honors his life and work. The display says nothing about his opinion of church bells, but I'm sure he would have liked them. On Sunday mornings, the St. Lawrence church bells peal sweetly, their sound rising above Guastavino's beautiful, understated dome. Some locals say the basilica has the prettiest church bells in town.

* * *

Away from downtown Asheville, down near the train tracks and the French Broad River, Guastavino's artistic descendants labor in warehouses in a part of town now called the River Arts District. Several warehouses, which used to be part of the city's shipping trade, have been transformed in recent years into working artists' studios plus galleries, restaurants, classrooms and a brewery.

At the Clayspace Co-op in the Wedge building, the light-filled gallery displayed works ranging from functional mugs and bowls to fanciful vases and wall-hangings, all made by potters who share a long but narrow and crowded room next door, with tight booths serving as studios for each of the six co-op members.

That's where I found Heather Tinnaro at her wheel at the back of the room, throwing honey pots for a commission. She was working alone that day, with only her iPod and passersby as company. When a raunchy punk song came on, she blushed and got up to change it, wiping clay off her hands. When I asked her if she minded the close quarters in the studio, she told me that in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the neighborhood is full of artists working around the clock, and it's fun and social and raucous.

A few blocks away, I stepped into the air-conditioned gallery of Jonas Gerard, a Moroccan-born abstract painter who also has a gallery in downtown Asheville. His colorful, energetic paintings hang on the clean white gallery walls, but I soon found myself wandering into the warehouse next door, where paintings were stacked against the wall, oil paint and turpentine wafted faintly in the air, and Gerard stood in a corner, chatting with a pair of women. When he noticed me, he walked right over and said, "You missed it!"

I noticed rows of mismatched chairs facing a paint-splattered wall, and one of the women explained, "His performance was at 2." Pointing to wet canvases nearby, she said, "He just painted four new ones."

Every Saturday this summer, Gerard has been hosting free afternoon painting performances, playing music and painting quickly and spontaneously while a crowd looks on. "He was playing a romantic song," said the woman, gesturing to a painting of a red heart.

As I was leaving the gallery, I looked closely at a bright painting by the door, one with an unusual texture. Then I realized what it was: Gerard had attached sheet music to the canvas, then painted over it.

In Asheville, even the paintings are musical.

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