The Old Kentucky Home

The Old Kentucky Home boardinghouse that stands at 48 Spruce Street was the setting for Thomas Wolfe's first novel, Look Homeward, Angel. Wolfe renamed his childhood home "Dixieland," and incorporated his own experiences among the boarders into the novel. The Old Kentucky Home has a long history, one that began long before Wolfe's birth, back in the earliest days of Asheville.

"Dixieland. It was situated five minutes from the public square, on a pleasant sloping middleclass street of small homes and boarding-houses. Dixieland was a big cheaply constructed frame house of eighteen or twenty drafty high-ceilinged rooms: it had a rambling, unplanned, gabular appearance, and was painted a dirty yellow. It had a pleasant green front yard, not deep but wide, bordered by a row of young deep-bodied maples."

- Thomas Wolfe, from Look Homeward, Angel (1929)

Early Asheville

On July 7, 1794, a prominent western North Carolina miller named John Burton received a two-hundred-acre land grant in Buncombe County, known as the "Town Tract." The northern boundary of this tract extended in a line from Charlotte Street near the intersection with Clay Street, west along Orange Street to east of Broadway Avenue, south to Coxe Avenue, east to the eastern extremity of Atkin Street, and north back to Charlotte Street. This "Town Tract" became the city of Asheville. From the beginning, the future location of the Old Kentucky Home lay within the town limits.

By 1840, Asheville hadn't grown much. The entire eastern section (bounded by North and South Main Streets-now Broadway and Biltmore Avenues-on the west, Woodfin on the north, and the southern Coxe Avenue boundary) had only eight residences, excluding slave quarters. James McConnell Smith, James W. Patton, and Thomas L. Gaston owned almost the entire three hundred acres. The immediate vicinity of the Old Kentucky Home was owned by Smith, and contained no private dwellings. The Smith property extended from the corner of Woodfin Street, to the square, back to Spruce Street, and again to Woodfin. The old Buck Hotel and one small two-room frame house stood on North Main Street.

James McConnell Smith was born on June 14, 1787, at the future site of the city of Asheville, to Col. Daniel Smith and Mary Davidson Smith. He is believed to have been the first white child born in North Carolina west of the Blue Ridge. In 1814, he married Mary "Polly" Patton of Swannanoa. Smith held extensive lands in Asheville, Buncombe County, and Georgia. He built the Buck Hotel and ran a store and lanyard, several farms, and a ferry on the French Broad River. Smith constructed and operated the county's first bridge over the French Broad. By the time of his death on May 18, 1856, Smith was one of the city's wealthiest and most prominent citizens.

In 1883, Asheville was a remote settlement of 3,874 people: 408 white and 1,466 black. There were five general merchandise stores around the Courthouse or Public Square. The only bank was the Bank of Asheville. The city boasted seven dentists, eleven physicians, and 26 attorneys. There were 38 streets, six hotels, nine churches (six white and three black), and seven schools. The Board of Trade-later the Chamber of Commerce-had been founded in 1882. But even as early as 1820, Asheville had begun to gain notice as a health resort. The Western North Carolina Railroad from Salisbury to Old Fort was finally extended to Asheville in 1880, and the Asheville-Spartanburg line was completed in 1886, enabling Asheville to become a major resort and health center. The Battery Park Hotel opened in 1886, and the Biltmore Estate—the largest private residence in America—was completed in 1895. By 1898, the Asheville Board of Trade was promoting tourism to the area.

By 1881, the Old Kentucky Home lot was owned by a banker named Erwin Sluder (1824-1885). On October 4, 1881, Sluder and his wife Julia A. Shepherd, conveyed a large Spruce Street lot to Thomas Van Gilder, a prominent hardware merchant, for $800. On October 2, 1882, Sluder repurchased half of the lot (95 feet by 190 feet) back from Van Gilder for $400. This section was the Old Kentucky Home lot.

The House is Built

Sluder was one of western North Carolina's leading private bankers. In 1884, he took his son-in-law, W. W. Barnard, as a partner. Barnard was married to Sluder's eldest child, Cordelia. Sometime in 1883, Sluder began construction of a five- to seven-room residence on the Spruce Street lot-probably for the newlywed couple, as Sluder himself lived on North Main Street. Some of the stained glass windows and the coal fireplaces in the current structure date to this original construction. The Spruce Street property was sold to the Barnards on January 13, 1884, for $3,500. The couple had probably been living in the house since its construction the year before, as the 1883 City Directory listed the Barnards as residents of 48 Spruce Street.

W. W. Barnard (1858-1944) was a leading buyer and warehouseman during Asheville's tobacco marketing period in the 1880s. After Sluder's death in 1885, Barnard continued to prosper in banking. By 1890 he had risen to the position of vice-president of the National Bank of Asheville, and he served as the bank president from 1892 to 1896. On April 1, 1884, the Barnards sold the Spruce Street house to J. H. Herring for $3,600. There is little information on Herring, except that in 1887 he ran the Herring and Weaver Shoe Store at 30 South Main Street. There is also little explanation for his purchase of the house, as the property was resold to Cordelia Sluder on March 14, 1885, for $3,390. The house then stayed in the Barnards' possession until July 13, 1889. In 1887, two years after Erwin Sluder's death, several members of his family-possibly his widow and children-moved into the Spruce Street house.

The First Expansion

On July 13, 1889, the house was sold to the widow Alice Johnston Reynolds for $7,500. Apparently, sometime between 1885 and 1889, a massive addition was made to the house, increasing the size to eighteen rooms and installing a coal-burning furnace. Among the changes made to the house were the addition of a bay window on the front of the house, the rebuilding of the staircase, and the addition of new fireplace mantles. Some of the stained glass windows may also have been added at this time. Mrs. Reynolds began operating the property as a boardinghouse-the establishment was advertised in the 1890 City Directory. From 1890 to 1900, the house took in boarders as the "Reynolds." In 1896, although still called the Reynolds, the house was under the proprietorship of Mrs. Leah I. Drake. Other proprietors under Mrs. Reynolds' ownership were Mrs. W. O. Hudson in 1889 and Mrs. Mollie C. Wadsworth in 1890. On July 27, 1890, after the death of Mrs. Reynolds, her brother [in-law] Dr. Carl V. Reynolds sold the house to Rev. Thomas M. and Mary Myers for $5,000.

The House Gets Its Name

Reverend Myers was a Cambellite preacher from Kentucky, who had a strong propensity for alcohol and an unstable mental condition-supposedly having undergone several stays in an institution. In August 1898, Myers purchased a large farm near Asheville and named the farm "Old Kentucky Home," after his home state. He later transferred this name to the Spruce Street house. Myers was portrayed by Wolfe in Look Homeward, Angel as "Rev. Wellington Hodge." Under Myers's ownership, the Old Kentucky Home was operated by several proprietors. These included Mollie C. Wadsworth in 1900, Edward T. and Mary B. Green in 1904, and Thomas W. and Elsie C. King in 1906. Myers also leased the property to C. J. Jeffries in August of 1902, for $900 with an option to buy.

In 1910, Asheville had 19 hotels, charging $1.00-$6.00 per day, and "scores" of boardinghouses, charging $6.00-$14.00 per week. It was estimated that the town's hotel/boardinghouse capacity was 12,000-15,000 people. By 1920, hotel rates had risen to $2.50-$10.00 per day and up, while boardinghouses charged $15.00-$25.00 per week. Prices at the Old Kentucky Home never rose that high.

Old Kentucky HomeIn the summer of 1906, Asheville real estate agent Jack Campbell approached Julia Wolfe with the information that Myers's Spruce Street property was on the market. According to Julia, papers for the purchase were drawn up at the law firm of Bernard and Bernard the following day. At that time, the house already had 19 boarders paying $8.00 per week. Fred Wolfe recounts that Myers requested that the name "Old Kentucky Home" be retained for the boardinghouse. On August 30, 1906, ownership was conveyed to Julia E. Wolfe for $6,500. A down payment of $2,000 was made, with $500 to be paid every six months. Julia took actual possession of the house less than one week after the sale. At first, Julia tried to operate the boardinghouse from the family's Woodfin Street home, but after a few months Julia suffered a severe leg infection and began to sleep at the Old Kentucky Home. She took young Tom with her to the boardinghouse, and never left.

"Eugene was ashamed of Dixieland . . . . He hated the indecency of his life, the loss of dignity and seclusion, the surrender of the tumultuous rabble of the four walls which shielded us from them. He felt, rather than understood, the waste, the confusion, the blind cruelty of their lives—his spirit was stretched out on the rack of despair and bafflement as there came to him more and more the conviction that their lives could not be more hopelessly distorted, wrenched, mutilated, and perverted away from all simple comfort, repose, happiness . . . . He choked with fury: he thought of Eliza's slow speech, her endless reminiscence, her maddening lip-pursing, and turned white with constricted rage. He saw plainly by this time that their poverty, the threat of the poorhouse, the lurid references to the pauper's grave, belonged to the insensate mythology of hoarding; anger smoldered like a brand in him at their sorry greed. There was no place sacred unto themselves, no place fixed for their own inhabitation, no place proof against the invasion of the boarders." —Thomas Wolfe, from Look Homeward, Angel

Julia ran the Old Kentucky Home not out of financial necessity, but rather as a source of income for her real estate investments. W. O. Wolfe disliked boardinghouses in general and the Old Kentucky Home in particular, and although he went for meals and visits, he rarely stayed the night. The Wolfes maintained two residences, with all the children except Tom living with W. O. on Woodfin Street. As the youngest child in the family, Tom stayed with his mother at the boardinghouse. Julia saw the Old Kentucky Home as a place of business. The children did not have their own bedrooms, and there was little division between family and boarders.

The Second Expansion

In 1916, a substantial enlargement of the house took place to accommodate a larger share of the area's tourist trade, possibly fueled in part by an increase in business at the Old Kentucky Home in the late 1910s. Eleven rooms were added, including three sleeping porches, a small pantry, a small bedroom off the kitchen (for Julia), several bathrooms and half-baths, and four bedrooms. The more decorative Queen Anne porch was streamlined and partially enclosed into a sun parlor. Indoor plumbing was expanded from the kitchen throughout the rest of the house. By this time, the house had been wired for electricity for about 16 years, its carbide gas lighting system having been replaced around the turn of the century. Julia's additions brought the room total to 29-with more than 8,000 square feet of floor space. Rooms at the back of the house were heated by small wood and coal stoves, which opened into flues, because the old hot-air furnace could not produce enough heat for the massive residence.

"It was the winter, and the sullen dying autumn that he hated most at Dixieland—the dim fly-specked lights, the wretched progress about the house in search of warmth . . . . The chill walls festered with damp: they drank in death from the atmosphere . . . . In the winter a few chill boarders, those faces, those personalities which become mediocre through repetition, sat for hours before the coals of the parlor hearth, rocking interminably, dull of voice and gesture, as hideously bored with themselves and Dixieland, no doubt, as he with them. He liked the summers better."

- Thomas Wolfe, from Look Homeward, Angel

In the early 1920s, the furnace failed altogether and stoves and heaters were installed in other rooms. Prior to the 1916 construction, the house was painted a dark yellow ochre color. In 1921, Julia had the house repainted cream with a chocolate brown trim. Some of Myers's furnishings were left in the house when Julia made her purchase. These included the older of the two upright pianos and the black coal burning stove in the kitchen. It is also likely that much of the early bedroom furniture used by Julia was left behind by Myers. Some furniture was brought over from Woodfin Street in 1906, and occasionally thereafter. More furniture came with W. O. in 1917, the rest coming at the sale of the Woodfin Street house in May of 1920.

Julia often took trips south during the winter months, leasing the boardinghouse to other proprietors during her absence. These lessees included: Mrs. O. L. Neville, who ran the house as the "Colonial" in 1910; M. M. and Catherine D. Castillo, who operated the "Richmond" in 1916. The Spruce Street neighborhood contained private residences and several boardinghouses, including the Dixie, Colonial, Elton, Belvidere, and Belmont. The Spruce Street block was emerging as a boardinghouse area as early as the 1890s. The Belmont (later called the Belvidere) stood across the street and to the left of the Old Kentucky Home, at 57 North Spruce Street. Wolfe referred to this house as "The Brunswick" in Look Homeward, Angel. Other boardinghouses in the area of Woodfin, North Main, and College Streets included Wyckoff Hall, Lisbon, and Ozark.

The best days of the Old Kentucky Home came in the late 1910s and early 1920s, when Julia was charging $7.00-$10.00 per week for a room and three meals. In 1920, she stopped serving meals at the boardinghouse and converted the dining room into a large dormitory-like bedroom. After a trip to southern Florida in January 1923, Julia began devoting less time to a decreasing number of boarders. At this point her interest was firmly rooted in her real estate dealings. The financial boom of the 1920s had put Spruce Street outside the normal lines of travel, and the area was quickly changing to a commercial setting. Between 1917 and 1925, North Market Street was cut behind the Old Kentucky Home. By 1930, Spruce Street was the location of a tire company, two auto electrical shops, one new car dealer, two used car lots, two garages, and two funeral homes. The Asheville-Biltmore Hotel stood on the corner of North Market and Woodfin Streets, behind and to the north of the Old Kentucky Home. On December 21, 1926, Harry D. Blomberg leased the back lot of the boardinghouse from Julia, and Harry's Motor Inn was built directly behind the boardinghouse. Less inviting surroundings meant fewer interested boarders.

In June 1931, there were only three or four boarders in the house. By Christmas of the same year, few winter travelers were willing to stay at the Old Kentucky Home, and Julia was left with an indigent clientele, many of whom were out of work and able to pay very little for their rooms. In March 1932, there were no roomers, the house needed painting, the roof was leaking, and some of the plumbing had burst. By May 1933, business was so bad that Julia was accepting $.50 from boarders who once would have been turned away. Income from roomers became insufficient to pay the heat and utility bills, and by the mid-1930s Fred Wolfe was forced to contribute to the house's upkeep.

A constant roomer from 1922 to 1933 was Theodore "Ted" Salmer, who was considered part of the family. He was often left in charge of the Old Kentucky Home during Julia's absences, and was allowed to stay in the house for little or no payment. Salmer helped look after the boardinghouse and acted as a companion to Julia, until his death in the Old Kentucky Home in November of 1933.

Old Kentucky HomeIn 1935, the Old Kentucky Home, again a "dirty yellow" color, was described as shabby and nondescript. A sign reading "Tourists" sat on the front lawn, and a faded "Old Kentucky Home" sign hung over the front door. The parlor of the house had red carpet and lace curtains, and a marble-top table held copies of Tom's novels, Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River. The walls were decorated with photos and Tom's college diplomas. August 1940 found Julia still charging $1.00 a day for roomers. The front yard was grassless, flowerless, and broom-swept, and the house needed paint. The parlor now had easy chairs and a davenport. An upright piano stood diagonally across one corner, with photos of Tom on top. Two enlarged tintypes of Ben and Grover Wolfe hung on one wall. Broken windowpanes in the sun parlor had been replaced with newspapers, and the central light fixture, although socketed for six bulbs, had only two. A second piano stood diagonally across the corner of the sun parlor, and the room contained a mission oak davenport, a window-seat with cushions, and a table with potted plants. A visitor described the overall impression as one of loneliness and bleakness, but a Florida couple staying at the same time claimed the Old Kentucky Home was the cleanest rooming house in Asheville.

"And all of it is as it has always been: again, again, I turn, and find again the things that I have always known: the cool sweet magic of starred mountain night, the huge attentiveness of dark, the slope, the street, the trees, the living silence of the houses waiting, and the fact that April has come back again . . . And again, again in the old house I feel beneath my tread the creak of the old stair, the worn rail, the white washed walls, the feel of darkness and the house asleep, and think, 'I was a child here; here the stairs, and here was darkness; this was I, and here is Time.'"

- Thomas Wolfe, from Return

Although Julia had originally fared well in her real estate transactions, the real estate market crash in Asheville, followed closely by the Great Depression, had ruined her financially. On June 10, 1927, Julia entered into a "Living Trust" agreement with Wachovia Bank and Trust Company, giving the bank full control of her financial affairs. On June 14, the Old Kentucky Home was added to the agreement. By January 1937, the boardinghouse was encumbered by four mortgages and a lien for unpaid taxes. On January 4, a summons was issued against Julia, the Wolfe children and their spouses, some city and county officials, private individuals with liens against Wolfe properties, Wachovia Bank, and S. J. Pegram as administrator of the W. O. Wolfe estate. This summons was for failure to maintain payment of debts and for non-payment of city and county taxes over several years. Following a series of suits and counter-suits, the court found Wachovia entitled to sell the remainder of Julia's assets for recovery on defaulted debts.

"Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying:

'To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth—'

—Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending—a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.'"

- Thomas Wolfe, from You Can't Go Home Again (Published posthumously, 1940)

The House after Tom's Death

On October 2, 1939, the Old Kentucky Home was sold to Wachovia for $32,876.65. On December 22, 1941, the house and the lot behind it were purchased by Harry Blomberg, and on March 2, 1942, the Old Kentucky Home was resold to Fred, Mabel, and Julia—purchased with the proceeds from Tom's estate and the sale of his posthumous publications [Tom died a young man in September 1938]. During the entire period of Wachovia and Blomberg ownership, Julia was allowed to continue living in the house. On August 21, 1944, the children surrendered their shares of the property to Julia. On December 7, 1945, Julia died intestate, and the Old Kentucky Home devolved on Effy, Frank, Mabel, and Fred Wolfe.

Frank Wolfe had lived with his mother at the Old Kentucky Home since 1943, and continued to live there until failing health forced him into a nursing home in 1950. In 1948, the children found upkeep of the house to be too burdensome, and decided to sell. They refused several offers, in hopes that the house could be established as a memorial to their brother, and they let it be known that they would accept a lower price if the property was purchased for that purpose. On July 8, 1948, an ad in the Asheville Citizen read:

The Wolfe Home
We are now offering for the first time the Julia E. Wolfe Home NO. 48 Spruce Street, for sale. This is also the home of THOMAS WOLFE, one of Asheville's sons and famous writer. The heirs would prefer this property being sold as a shrine to the memory of Thomas Wolfe but will consider a sale for other purposes.

The Asheville Chamber of Commerce appointed a Thomas Wolfe Memorial Committee, chaired by the Citizen editor, in January 1948. On March 25, 1948, the committee passed a resolution calling for the organization of a national Thomas Wolfe Memorial Association with a purpose to establish and endow a memorial in Asheville. The Association was granted a charter on July 27. On November 22, the Old Kentucky Home was appraised at $15,750. A plan of purchase was agreed upon, with an initial payment of $1,000 and the balance over five years. Ownership was conveyed to the Association on February 4, 1949, and they took possession on May 15. The furnishings and family mementos were leased to the Association for as long as the house continued to operate as a literary shrine. On February 21, 1949, the Association requested a $5,000 loan from the Chamber of Commerce to repay a previous loan from the Bank of Asheville, to promote the Memorial nationally, and to pay survey costs and make repairs. The debt was secured by a second mortgage on May 10, 1954—a debt which would never be repaid.

The Thomas Wolfe Memorial Association appointed a three-person committee on May 2, 1949, to work with the family on restoring the house to the period depicted in Look Homeward, Angel. Mabel Wolfe Wheaton proved extremely devoted in assisting the committee—collecting mementos and furnishings, identifying photos, and arranging the contents of the Old Kentucky Home. On July 19, 1949, the Memorial opened for the first time to the public, with an admission charge of $.30. The first year drew 1,300 visitors.

In the fall of 1954, the Association and Wolfe heirs missed an opportunity to acquire the Woodfin Street home. H. D. Miles, owner of the property, had decided to demolish the house in absence of prospective purchasers. A sum of $8,500 would have purchased the home, but neither the Association nor the Wolfe heirs were in a position to come up with the money. The Woodfin Street house was torn down in the winter of 1954-1955. The Association did manage to save the playhouse, which was moved to Spruce Street.

On April 18, 1958, arrangements were finalized for the City of Asheville to take over operation of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. The Old Kentucky Home was dedicated as a registered National Historic Landmark on May 5, 1973, and ownership of the Memorial passed to the State of North Carolina on January 16, 1975. The Historic Sites Section of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History now operates the Thomas Wolfe Memorial.