Communities Heritage

Exploring a Bygone Asheville Town

Exploring a Bygone Asheville Town

Leah Claus. Photo courtesy of James Vaughn

By Lauren Stepp

The former town of Victoria has a ghost. A few, actually. Incorporated in 1887 by Alexander Garrett and John Kerr Connally, Victoria encompassed the footprint of what now is Asheville–Buncombe Technical Community College. Replete with manicured lawns and magnificent abodes, many designed by Biltmore House architect Richard Sharp Smith, the town existed as a much sought-after bedroom community. The Vanderbilts even purchased acreage to build rental villas. Completely furnished except for silver, linen and blankets, each went for $200 to $350 per month in 1900, or $5,500 to $9,600 today. After all, living in Victoria was not cheap.

“During what Mark Twain called ‘the Gilded Age,’ Asheville became a widely known playground for the rich and famous,” says local historian John Turk. “Many gravitated toward Victoria.”

In its prime, the neighborhood comprised 15 homes. Noteworthy estates included the Smith-McDowell House, owned by Garrett, the town’s first mayor; the late 18th-century Fernihurst Mansion; and a fine bungalow owned by those kin to the secretary of the Confederate Treasury. Flanked by virgin forest and named after Queen Victoria, the township was, at its best, a beacon for the rich. And yet, in the early 1900s, Victoria had begun to wilt.

“By then several things were conspiring to destroy the area’s spirit,” Turk notes. “The City was frequently late in responding to calls to the police and fire departments. One of Vanderbilt’s cottages burned to its foundation; it sat for years unattended. The streets were not maintained and the growing rail center created noise and fouled the famous mountain air.”

In 1905, the township was annexed and, by 1929, when the Roaring 20s came to an abrupt stop, “Victoria was only a shadow of its once great self,” says Turk.

On Saturday, September 29, at 6 p.m., The Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County will give guests a taste of Victoria at its third annual Time Traveling Gala. Festivities begin at Fernihurst Mansion and continue, after a short trolley ride, at New Gunston Hall, a historic estate in Biltmore Forest, and Chiles House in Kenilworth. Each venue features a different menu, cocktail, décor and, of course, history.

Known for its Spanish Colonial Revival-style, the Chiles House anchors the town of Kenilworth with its low-pitched hip roof and Baroque inspired entrance bay. But its mistress, Leah Chiles, might be more famous than its architecture. Quite the firecracker, Leah was a devil-may-care community leader and the first woman elected mayor in Western North Carolina.

“It was tradition for the mayor to pose as Santa Claus for town celebrations and Leah didn’t let being a woman stop her,” says James Vaughn, current owner of the home. “She dressed up and was so convincing it’s said her own children didn’t recognize her.”

Unapologetically proud of Kenilworth, Leah and her husband Jake even ran an ad declaring Chiles Avenue “one of the most pretentious” in the region. Though Vaughn assumes the statement carried a positive connotation back then, he agrees Kenilworth residents sought to impress and, in many ways, honor the memory of posh communities bygone, Victoria included.

“When the stock market crashed and many of Asheville’s banks closed, Victoria suffered from desertion and neglect,” says Turk. “Economic ups and downs impacted Victoria more than any other area of the city.”

Yet, in spirit, the neighborhood lives on, if for one evening only.

The Smith-McDowell House is located at 283 Victoria Road. Tickets are $125 per person. For more information, contact Jessie Landl at development@psabc.org or visit psabc.org.

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