When George Vanderbilt, heir to one of America’s most prominent families at the time, began construction of his iconic Biltmore Estate in the late 1880s, he gave his tacit approval of the area. Wealthy businessmen, socialites, movers, and shakers began traveling from Vanderbilt’s previous social hub in New York to warm and welcoming Asheville. As the century turned and wealth continued to compound, more and more people traveled regularly from New York City to Asheville.
The population of Asheville grew more than 1,000% from 1880 to 1920. For every new resident, there were nearly 10 tourists seeking out the city’s attractions each year. To keep up with the inflow of tourists, the Land of Sky (named for its surrounding mountains) began reaching towards the heavens in a new way: with fingers of steel and concrete. During the Gilded Age, the City of Asheville had to grow rapidly in both acreage and height. And many of the features sewn into the city’s fabric were inspired by the financiers’ New York backgrounds and tastes.
Here are four Asheville features (and one that might have been) that bear a striking resemblance to Manhattan.
New York’s iconic Broadway runs the entire length of Manhattan from north to south. The wide street is one of the oldest on the island, predating European settlement. Asheville’s Broadway runs for several blocks, also roughly north to south, to the heart of downtown. It is one of the oldest streets in town, as well. While Asheville’s Broadway does not feature a famous theatre district, the Asheville Community Theatre, in operation since 1946, sits just one block back from Broadway.
Lexington Avenue in New York, colloquially known as “Lex” runs parallel to Broadway through 110 blocks of the East Side of Manhattan. Its most famous moment in popular culture may be from The Seven Year Itch. It was on Lex that Marilyn Monroe stood over a subway grate and let her skirt blow in the wind. While there’s no evidence of Marilyn Monroe recreating that scene in Asheville, our Lexington Avenue also runs parallel to our Broadway. South Lexington continues for several more blocks, running into Church Street at Green Man Brewery.
New York’s Wall Street spans eight blocks through the city’s Financial District and has come to be synonymous with the district itself. While it saw “Black Tuesday” firsthand, Asheville’s markets were also devastated by the Great Crash of 1929. In fact, Asheville shouldered a greater per capita debt burden than any other city in the country. Our Wall Street, however, was never developed as a banking center. Today, the short stretch features a variety of boutiques and restaurants, including Laughing Seed Cafe and Well Played Board Game Cafe.
Built in 1902, New York’s Flatiron Building (originally the Fuller Building) has become one of the most recognized buildings in the city. It’s wedge-like shape is said to resemble that of a cast-iron clothes iron. In Asheville, we’ve played up that comparison by placing a large bronze clothes iron sculpture in front of our Flatiron Building. Built in 1927 with existing connections to Asheville’s Prohibition era, our Flatiron Building was where Jimmie Rodgers broadcast what would become his first hit. A historical marker to Jimmie Rodgers, the “father of country music,” stands nearby.
New York’s underground subway system was one of the first public transit systems in the world. But have you ever taken a ride on Asheville’s underground subway system? If Asheville’s underground is news to you, you’re not alone. As near as local historians can figure, downtown’s once-extensive system of tunnels may have served as experimental subway tunnels for a population accustomed to traveling by underground rail. (It’s also possible that they were simply built during Prohibition to run liquor.) However, any transit plans that may have existed were surely abandoned during the Great Depression and any paperwork lost to time.