Not far from downtown Asheville, the River Arts District is an old warehouse district that has been reclaimed by the art community. Chockful of artists studios and great restaurants like Summit Coffee and 12 Bones, it’s a great place to sit and enjoy the buildings which have been turned into works of art by the artists who now use RAD as their base. We visited on a beautiful August day in 2018. Here’s a sample of the wonderful wall art that makes RAD special.
Old Kentucky Home, Asheville, NC
American author Thomas Wolfe spent much of his youth at this boarding house, which was purchased by his mother in 1906. While most of his brothers and sisters lived with their father in their house a few blocks away, Wolfe’s mother insisted that he live with her at the boarding house.
Wolfe chronicled his early life in Look Homeward, Angel, a novel that drew heavily from his time at Old Kentucky Home. One of the defining moments of Wolfe’s time at the boarding house was the death of his beloved brother Ben, who died in the house.
Today, the Old Kentucky Home is the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. It’s an interesting slice of American literary history. Behind the house is a museum celebrating Thomas Wolfe. Both the house and the museum are well worth a visit.
Buncombe County Courthouse, Asheville
The Buncombe County Courthouse is a beautiful Neo-Classical Revival structure completed in 1928. The 17-story building was designed by Frank Pierce Milburn, an architect whose work focused on public buildings. The Buncombe County Courthouse was Milburn’s last public work and is still the tallest courthouse in North Carolina. Although Milburn passed away before the completion the Courthouse, his son, Thomas Y. Milburn saw it through to completion.
The original intention was for the Courthouse and the adjacent City Hall to be a matched pair, but the city government favored Douglas Ellington’s Art Deco design, while the county commissioners preferred Milburn’s more classical plan. Ellington ended up with the design of the City Hall while Milburn’s design was chosen for the Courthouse. The two completed buildings are quite beautiful and are as different as night and day.
As I said, the construction of the building was completed in 1928, with the dedication ceremony being held on December 1st of that year. Less than two years later, the United States was rocked by the Great Depression. Buncombe County and the City of Asheville were left with massive debt. While counties and cities across the country were defaulting on their debts, the governments of Buncombe County and Asheville vowed to repay their debt. For nearly forty years the government made their payments until, in 1977, their debt was fully paid.
Their determination to bring Asheville out of debt had a lasting effect on the city. Because they could not afford to finance new construction while repaying their debt, many of the beautiful structures, like the Courthouse, the Grove Arcade and the City Hall, remain intact today. The beautiful old buildings of the city are one of the things I love about Asheville. Imagine if these old buildings had been razed to make way for newer, more modern structures. The city would have lost much of the history that contributes to its appeal.
Asheville Urban Trail
The Asheville Urban Trail is a 1.7 mile self-guided walking tour that celebrates the art, architecture and history of Asheville. There are 30 stops on the tour that loops through the historic downtown area. The entire tour takes about two hours, and there’s a lot more to see along the tour besides the designated stops.
There are five sections of the tour, each marked with its own unique symbol carved into pink granite and embedded in the side walks. This is the beautiful angel symbol that marks the Thomas Wolfe section.
The first section of the tour celebrates the city’s pre-depression boom. A few of the highlights are the Grove Arcade, the Basilica of Saint Lawrence and the huge Flat Iron sculpture.
Another section of the trail celebrates Asheville’s most famous son, Thomas Wolfe. Among the stops in this section are the “Dixieland,” a bronze replica of Wolfe’s size thirteen shoes, a wonderful abstract sculpture on the side of the Asheville Community Theater, and a beautiful art deco sculpture honoring the history of transportation. The central wheel on this sculpture can be rotated.
There are also many places and items of interest that are not official stops on the trail. The Buncombe County Courthouse is a beautiful art deco structure and you’ll pass The Old Kentucky Home, Thomas Wolfe’s mother’s boarding house where the author spent much of his youth. Also, keep your eyes out for the street art, which is everywhere in the city.
Asheville is a wonderful little city. The art and architecture are just one aspect of the city. The food scene is remarkable for a relatively small town. It’s one of our favorite places and I’m looking forward to our next visit.
River Arts District, Asheville, NC
One of my favorite aspects of the River Arts District is the outdoor art. Whether you call it graffiti, murals, or street art, just walking through the warehouses of the River Arts District is fun. Here are a few of my favorites.
This wall on the back side of Summit Coffee has been turned into a beautiful work of art.
This work by Asheville artist Dustin Spagnola has a different kind of beauty. Spagnola has works of art displayed around the world, including in NYC, Japan and Nepal.
This portrait of the late singer Charles Bradley is another of my favorites.
Even storage sheds have been turned into works of art.
Asheville’s River Arts District is a treasure trove for art lovers. It’s not just the building exteriors. Over 200 local artists have studio space in the warehouses and buildings of the River Arts District. It’s a great place to wander through the studios and, if you’re so inclined, to take home a work of art.
Jackson Building, Asheville, NC
When I was young, I wanted to be an architect. Now, half a century later, I’m still fascinated by great architecture.
Built by developer Lynwood B. Jackson and architect Ronald Greene, the Neo-Gothic Jackson Building is a fascinating structure. Jackson had purchased a small 27-by-60 foot lot on Pack Square previously owned Tobias Wolfe, father of Asheville’s favorite son, author Thomas Wolfe. The lot was considered too small for a skyscraper, but Jackson didn’t let that stop him. He instructed architect Greene to build the tallest building possible and to “go nuts at the top.” Greene succeeded on both points.
The thirteen story structure holds the record as the world’s tallest building on the smallest lot. What initially attracted me to the building was its ornate top. The tower at the top, with its spires, seems more suited to a cathedral than a skyscraper, but it works. Then there are the four grotesques that jut out from the buildings top corners. It’s a fascinating building.
Interestingly, the eight-story building next to the Jackson Building, also built by Lynwood Jackson, was too small for an elevator. Because of this, the Westall Building shares an elevator with its taller neighbor.
There are so many interesting aspects to the little city of Asheville that it keeps me coming back. It’s one of my favorite places to visit.
Street Art, Asheville, NC
This beautiful painting peaks out of an alley along Woodfin Street in Asheville. I love the colors, but I also love that if you look closely, the “feathers” of the rooster are made up of words and letters. I can’t figure out what the words say, but it adds a dimension to the art that keeps you studying the painting.
Asheville is full of beautiful works of art. If you visit the city, it would be worth the time to follow the Asheville Urban Trail, which explores many of the city’s highlights. This painting is not an official stop on the trail, but you’ll pass it along the way.
12 Bones Smokehouse, Asheville, NC
Asheville, North Carolina is a food lover’s paradise. My wife and I love visiting this great little city and make a point of visiting restaurants we haven’t yet been to. There are a few restaurants, however, that we have on our must visit list, no matter how many times we’ve been there. 12 Bones Smokehouse is one of them.
12 Bones came to prominence when then President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama dined at the restaurant not once, but three times on trips to Asheville. We’ve been there three times as well- once to their Arden location, once to the original riverside restaurant and, most recently, to the new location in the River Arts District.
I loved the Arden location, a converted automobile service station, for its funky feel. The now-defunct riverside location had a great outside dining area next to the river. The new location, though, is probably my favorite.
The River Arts District was once a run down industrial area, but it’s been converted into art space for Asheville’s creative community. More than 200 local artists have studio space here and, with the artists, several restaurants have moved into the district. One of the things I love about the River Arts District is that the exteriors of many of the buildings are covered with art. 12 Bones is no different.
Dining at 12 Bones is a little different from most restaurants. First, you have to wait in a queue to get into the restaurant; as the group at the counter places their order and moves into the dining room, the next group moves into the restaurant. Second, by restaurant standards 12 Bones’ hours are unusual. The restaurant is only open for lunch Monday through Friday (it’s actually open for takeout until 6pm, but the dining room closes at 4). If you get there late you’re out of luck.
We got there just before the Friday lunch rush, so our wait outside wasn’t long. We placed our orders and chose to sit outside to enjoy the great weather and the fascinating wall art of the surrounding buildings. We enjoyed watching an eagle soar high overhead against the beautiful blue sky.
The food at 12 Bones is great. Ann Marie ordered their award winning blueberry chipotle ribs with potato salad and collards and I had a pulled pork plate with mac and cheese and collards. I tried several of the barbecue sauces- a vinegar based sauce, a mustard based sauce, and an awesome jalapeno sauce. It’s country cooking, but taken to a whole new level.
There are no secret sauces at 12 Bones. They don’t keep their recipes locked in a safe. If you’re up to it, you can “try this at home.” They’ve got a cookbook with recipes for pretty much everything they serve, including their blueberry chipotle sauce. Ann Marie makes a pretty awesome barbecue, but she’s always looking for new things to try. The cookbook was one we definitely needed. I see blueberry chipotle ribs in our future.
If you make it to Asheville, head to 12 Bones River. You won’t be disappointed.
Charles Bradley Mural, R.A.D., Asheville, NC
The River Arts District in Asheville is a fascinating place. Until the mid 1980s the area was an industrial area, when Asheville artists began looking for inexpensive studio space and found it in the neglected warehouses along the river. Today it’s home to over 200 artists.
One of the coolest aspects of the River Arts District is that the buildings have been turned into works of art. Murals and graffiti cover the virtually every surface of the buildings. Some of the murals are quite beautiful. One of my favorites is this tribute to the late “screaming eagle of soul”, Charles Bradley.
Bradley found musical success late in his life, with all three of his albums being released when he was in his sixties. Bradley released three critically acclaimed albums and was a popular performer at festivals. Unfortunately Bradley succumbed to cancer in 2017 at the age of 68.
This mural, outside the Summit Coffee Company, is a beautiful and fitting portrait of the man.
Flatiron, Asheville, North Carolina
Asheville has two iconic flatirons. The first is the Flatiron Building, designed by Albert Wirth and built in 1926. It’s reminiscent of Manhattan’s Flatiron Building.
The second is the Flatiron sculpture, designed by artist Reed Todd, and located at the end of Wall Street. It’s a giant replica of the kind of irons used by laundries and housewives at the turn of the 19th century.
Asheville is one of my favorite places to go. Art and music are everywhere in this great little city. It’s also known for it’s food and many great local breweries. To top it off, it’s a very progressive city, friendly to people from all walks of life. All in all, Asheville is a great place.