Asheville’s Greatest Philanthropist
By John Turk
The winter of 1895 in Asheville was particularly harsh. On February 16 of that year, a dispatch was sent from Cleveland, Ohio to Asheville’s mayor. It read in part, “Do your citizens need help on account of the severe weather? If so, draw on me for such amount as you think proper.” It was signed, George Willis Pack.
To anyone who knew Pack, this act of generosity would have come as no surprise. George Willis Pack, a lumber tycoon based in Cleveland, Ohio, came to Asheville in 1884. His wife, Frances, had been experiencing respiratory difficulties. Pack was well aware of Asheville’s widely advertised healthful climate. Once here, her health improved. Pack purchased land on Merrimon Avenue and erected a substantial residence.
What Pack found in Asheville was a mountain paradise that was ripe for growth. Over the next 20 years he would pour money into the development of the downtown and surrounding areas. He donated four acres of prime real estate for a new courthouse, expanded the city’s central square, bought a major building on the square and donated it to the Asheville Public Library. He also funded parks, kindergartens and the Vance Monument, and rescued the floundering Montford Residential Park project—now one of the city’s historic neighborhoods.
Although Pack frequently referred to himself as an “Ashevillian,” he spent at least half of each year in Cleveland. Even after he had handed over the day-to-day operations of Pack, Gray & Co. to younger men, he still kept track of the fortunes of the company he founded.
In 1887 Pack purchased two palatial homes that were located side by side on Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue—known in Gilded Age society as “Millionaires’ Row.” The neighbors included Charles W. Bingham, George Stockley, and John D. Rockefeller. He engaged noted architect Charles F. Schweinfurth to renovate and expand both. One was for himself and his wife and the other was for his daughter and son-in-law. When finished, they almost touched each other. The result was a combined 30-room house centered around Schweinfurth’s large living hall with a sitting area and open stairway to the second floor. It featured twelve fireplaces and a third-floor ballroom. The architect designed furniture, features and woodwork to complement the architectural style.
By 1900, Pack’s doctors were telling him that difficulties with his heart would not improve until he moved to sea level. Consequently, he and his wife moved to a shore-side residence located on Southampton on Long Island. He died there on August 31, 1906. He had never returned to the mountain city he had adopted.
I can’t imagine how many times a walking tour guide has told clients, “Meet me at the Vance Monument in Pack Square.” Tour guides and indeed all Ashevillians owe a mountain of gratitude to George Willis Pack—Asheville’s greatest philanthropist.