Communities Heritage/History

Asheville’s YMI Cultural Center Plans for Grand Reopening Celebration

YMI Building. Photo courtesy of the YMI Cultural Center

By Lauren Stepp

After nearly two years of intensive renovations, the YMI Cultural Center (YMICC) in downtown Asheville has announced plans for a grand reopening celebration in September. According to a statement provided by the center, the remodeling project commenced in late 2022 with the goal of “addressing critical infrastructure needs and modernizing existing spaces.”

The overhaul has included essential upgrades to plumbing, electrical and HVAC systems as well as improvements to the auditorium, gallery and conference rooms. Two additional meeting spaces were also created to accommodate events and community rentals.

Young Men’s Institute Band. Photo courtesy of YMI Cultural Center

Executive director Andrew Shannon says these changes represent a “new birth” for the YMICC, which aims to “empower the Black community to celebrate its rich cultural heritage.”

The center has served as an anchor for the city’s Black community since the 1890s, when Isaac Dickson, the first person of color appointed to the Asheville City School Board, and Edward Stephens, principal of Asheville’s first public school for Black students, approached George Vanderbilt about creating a space for the Black construction workers employed by the Biltmore Estate. According to the YMICC’s website, this space would aim to “improve the moral fiber of the Black male through education focusing on social, cultural, business and religious life.”

Vanderbilt agreed, commissioning architect Richard Sharp Smith to design an 18,000-square-foot pebbledash and brick edifice. In 1892, construction ensued under the supervision of James Vester Miller, a Black brick mason who would go on to build many of Asheville’s most iconic historic buildings.

The Young Men’s Institute (YMI) officially opened in 1893 with a ceremony that included a concert featuring organist and pianist Edmonia E. Hedges. As described in an online article published by Buncombe County Special Collections in 2020, “The music of Mendelssohn, Handel and Mozart echoed through the large auditorium.”

Photo courtesy of YMI Cultural Center

In ensuing decades, the YMI housed a gymnasium, swimming pool and The Colored Library. The center also offered meeting places for churches, schools and clubs, and offices for professionals. As historian Lenwood Davis writes in his book The Black Heritage of Western North Carolina, the YMI was a “hub of social, cultural, civic, business and religious life of Black mountaineers.”

But in 1977, after years of neglect, the building was shuttered and slated for demolition. Luckily, a coalition of Black churches purchased the property, began renovations and reestablished it as the YMICC.

“As the YMI approaches its grand opening in the fall of 2024,” says board chair Anthony Thomas, “we are committed to continuing the legacy of service to the African American community through programming in arts and culture, health and wellness and economic mobility.”

YMI Cultural Center is located at 39 South Market Street, Asheville. The center will host its grand opening celebrations in conjunction with the Goombay Festival, a family event centered around Black culture happening September 26-29. To learn more, visit

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