- The Washington Times - Friday, June 11, 2004

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Six years after fire nearly reduced the historic Thomas Wolfe House to a pile of charred rubble, the drafty old boarding house in downtown Asheville has been painstakingly restored to its 1916 condition.

Furniture lost or damaged has been replaced or restored. Even the rough plaster walls of the day have been restored — to the same half-finished look they had when a young Mr. Wolfe left home to study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But good luck getting Steve Hill, site manager at the memorial site for more than a quarter of a century, to admit that the still-unsolved July 1998 arson turned out for the best.

“You could pull both my arms out their sockets and I would never say the fire was a good thing,” Mr. Hill says, “but when it’s said and done, it took something like this to help its long-term presentation.”

Among other changes resulting from the lengthy restoration process, the 6,000-square-foot Queen Anne-style house at 48 Spruce St. is no longer painted white — as it had been for years before it burned.

“It’s a shade below canary yellow,” says Mr. Hill, who oversaw the effort to restore the 121-year-old, 29-room structure to the way it was when Wolfe’s mother, Julia, rented its small bedrooms to travelers in the early 20th century.

The house was memorialized as “Dixieland” in Wolfe’s 1929 novel, “Look Homeward, Angel.”

Restored at a cost of $2.4 million, Wolfe House recently reopened to the public. Most of the funding came from insurance, but private gifts ranging from $35 to four-figure donations helped restore hundreds of pieces of furniture and other artifacts damaged in the blaze.

The restored boarding house reflects Julia Wolfe’s penny-pinching ways.

“Julia paid $6,500 for the house in 1906 and she was always adding rooms,” Mr. Hill says. “She didn’t always pay to have the work done right.”

For example, when she added about a dozen rooms in 1916, she did not bother to pay for a final coat of plaster.

“She told the workers to omit the final coat, or the skim coat,” says restoration architect Joe Oppermann. “They stopped at the brown coat and had no top coat, so it’s rougher than some of the other plaster.”

The house’s restorers asked workers to mimic that half-done feel.

“The big challenge is to not gild the lily,” Mr. Oppermann says. “It was a flophouse. Tom did not know what room he would sleep in every night until he looked to see which rooms were occupied and which ones were empty. There were a lot of people down on their luck who slept there.

“We were not trying to create something different from it was,” he says. “It was the life that he lived.”

The fire did a lot of damage to some parts of the house and left other parts virtually untouched. Just one baluster of the main staircase burned; a short distance away, in the dining room, the fire burned so hot that it turned a silver tea service into a pool of molten metal.

Investigators believe the fire started in the dining room, where most of the damage occurred. Among the items destroyed was the large table where the Wolfe family and their guests broke bread nightly.

That is where a young and impressionable Thomas Wolfe met drifters and travelers whose personalities and characteristics appeared in his later writings.

The pieces that replaced the original tables and chairs offer one thing the originals did not have, Mr. Hill says.

“Visitors will be able to sit down at this table,” he says. “We never could have done [that] with the original table because it was so fragile.”

In the entrance hall, mission-style oak chairs were spared, but the photographs on the walls were consumed by flames.

The house has 13 fireplaces, some with ornate mantels. While one in the front room was undamaged, another in the dining hall was destroyed. Using old photographs provided by Mr. Hill, a local woodworker built an identical walnut replica mantel at a cost of $13,000.

In all, the fire destroyed about a fourth of the house’s furniture and artifacts, Mr. Hill says. An outpouring of support — both money and talent — from area residents helped bring the Wolfe House back to life.

“We happen to live in an area with a lot of people who really care and who are well-qualified to help,” Mr. Hill says.

Donated warehouse space was used to store furniture and other artifacts that were removed from the house but could not immediately be restored.

Curators from the nearby Biltmore Estate came to help remove and clean charred furniture and other pieces.

Like a nervous parent, Mr. Hill is edgy about reopening the house to the public after the fire. He locked the front screen door when he took a visitor on a tour of the house’s second floor.

Behind the screen door is one lasting remnant of the fire.

The wooden front door — which was carefully restored after it had been painted and repainted several times — still shows the marks from a fireman’s ax from that fateful night. “We thought it was important to leave it that way,” says Mr. Hill.

While it still looks to most visitors like it did in the early part of last century, the house now features a modern sprinkler system and security system, Mr. Hill says.

Despite his own doubts that the restoration could live up to his expectations, Mr. Hill is pleased with the outcome. “People will know we’re been here, but we want it to be like the house in ‘Homeward Angel,’” he says. “We’d like people to have the impression we were never here … . When I come inside the house in the late afternoon, it just looks like we came in and gave it a good cleaning.”

• • •

Wolfe House, 52 N. Market St., Asheville, N.C., is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday from April to October, and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday from November to March. Admission is $1 for adults and 50 cents for students. For information, call 828/253-8304 or visit www.wolfememorial.com.

Author describes ‘Dixieland’

North Carolina author Thomas Wolfe had an enduring relationship — call it love-hate — with his boyhood home in downtown Asheville.

Between 1906 and 1916, the young Wolfe lived in the house, the Old Kentucky Home boardinghouse that he featured as “Dixieland” in his novel “Look Homeward, Angel”:

• “It was situated five minutes from the public square, on a pleasant sloping middle-class street of small homes and boardinghouses. 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.

“In winter, the wind blew howling blasts under the skirts of Dixieland: its back end was built high off the ground on wet columns of rotting brick.

“As the house filled, in the summer season, and it was necessary to wait until the boarders had eaten before a place could be found for him, he walked sullenly about beneath the propped back porch of Dixieland, savagely exploring the dark cellar, or the two dank windowless rooms which Eliza rented, when she could, to negresses.”

• “At Dixieland, Eliza slept soundly in a small dark room with a window opening on the uncertain light of the back porch. Her chamber was festooned with a pendant wilderness of cord and string; stacks of old newspapers and magazines were piled in corners; and every shelf was loaded with gummed, labelled, half-filled medicine bottles. There was a smell in the air of mentholatum, Vick’s Pneumonia Cure, and sweet glycerine.”

• “Daisy had been married in the month of June following Eliza’s purchase of Dixieland: the wedding was arranged on a lavish scale and took place in the big dining-room of the house. Gant and his two older sons grinned sheepishly in their unaccustomed evening dress, the Pentlands, faithful in their attendance at weddings and funerals, sent gifts and came.”

• ” ‘Ben’s in that room upstairs,’ Luke whispered, ‘where the light is.’ ” Eugene looked up with cold dry lips to the bleak front room upstairs, with its ugly Victorian bay-window. It was next to the sleeping porch where, but three weeks before, Ben had hurled into the darkness his savage curse at life. The light in the sick room burned grayly, bringing to him its grim vision of struggle and naked terror.”

Wolfe House began as home of banker 121 years ago

Some key dates in the 121-year history of the Thomas Wolfe House:

1883: The seven-room house at 48 Spruce St. in downtown Asheville is built by a banker for his daughter and son-in-law. It is later expanded to 18 rooms.

1906: Julia Wolfe, author Thomas Wolfe’s mother, buys the house, which was named Old Kentucky Home, and moves in with 6-year-old Thomas, to run it as a boarding house.

1916: The house is expanded to 29 rooms. Wolfe leaves Asheville to study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

1918: Wolfe’s brother, Ben, dies of pneumonia in an upstairs bedroom. The scene is later reprised in “Look Homeward, Angel.”

1929: Wolfe’s first novel, “Look Homeward, Angel,” is published. Negative local reaction keeps him away from Asheville for eight years.

1937: Wolfe returns home to a warm reception.

1938: Wolfe dies of tubercular meningitis at age 37 in Baltimore

1939: The house is auctioned by a bank to pay for defaulted mortgages and unpaid taxes. Julia Wolfe continues to live in the house.

1942: Julia Wolfe buys the house back.

1945: Julia Wolfe dies at 85 and the house passes to her surviving children.

1948: The Old Kentucky Home is purchased by the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Association from the family.

1973: The house is designated a National Historic Landmark

1975: The state of North Carolina begins operating the home as a State Historic Site

1998: An arsonist sets fire to the house. No arrest has been made.

2004: The restored Thomas Wolfe Memorial reopens to the public.



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