Story by John Turk | Photo by Paul M. Howey
Urban Trail is a treasure trove of history, personalities, art, and more than a few surprises. One of my favorite surprises occurs as the trail heads north on Haywood Street with Douglas Ellington’s take on the whimsical side of art deco (the S&W Cafeteria) in the background and then makes a sudden left onto Battery Park Avenue.
It is there that you’re immediately confronted with “Pop” Art. The huge flatiron, à la Claes Oldenburg, is a tribute by artists Carleton Collins and Reed Todd to Asheville’s 1926 Flatiron Building. The building was originally designed for multiple uses. The first two floors were to house retail establishments and, in fact, they still do.
The next five floors were designed to be offices, while the top floor was for service, maintenance, and the housing of the elevator mechanics. Recent years have seen the addition of another use. The three-level SkyBar—one of the city’s most romantic bars—is attached to the building’s west façade.
Cities across the country feature similarly designed buildings that create a “footprint” in the shape of a wedge, (hence the name flatiron buildings). And they come in a wide range of architectural styles. New York City’s impressive Flatiron Building (originally the Fuller Building) is a combination of beaux-arts and Renaissance styles. San Francisco’s eight-story flatiron building is in a style all its own, while Portland, Oregon’s petit three-story flatiron building resembles a 1920s newsstand.
Asheville’s Flatiron Building is unique. Architect Albert C. Wirth designed the building in the neoclassical style—a style influenced by the buildings of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Consequently, Wirth’s building follows the format of a Greek column. The first two stories, sheathed in limestone and decorated with low-relief ornaments, form the base. The next five stories of unadorned brick form the column. And all the fancy dental work and a brass parapet at the top form the capital.
Everything is in perfect proportion. Change one thing and the whole thing falls apart. Well, almost everything. To my knowledge neither the Greeks nor the Romans ever built a major structure in the shape of a triangle. I’m also guessing that neither the ancient Greeks nor Romans ever attached a three-level outdoor bar to one of their buildings.
Too bad. They missed the chance to relax with an after-dinner drink and watch the sun set behind glorious mountains.
John Turk, Professor Emeritus, Youngstown State University, is vice president of the Western North Carolina Historical Association and leads city walking and bus tours with History@Hand (history-at-hand.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.