The Thomas Wolfe House finally reemerges after a devastating fire.
Story by Arnold Berke
Nearly six years after a fire destroyed much of the Thomas Wolfe House, the boyhood home of the famous American novelist has reopened to the public following a meticulous restoration. A ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 28 rededicated the rambling frame house at 48 Spruce St., which served as the model for the setting of Wolfe’s 1929 novel Look Homeward, Angel.
Wolfe (1900-1938) lived in the 1883 Queen Anne style residence from 1906, when his mother Julia Wolfe bought the home to run as a boardinghouse, until 1916, when she expanded it from 18 to 29 rooms and he went off to school at the University of North Carolina. “Dixieland,” as he called the house in his novel, was as much a lodging place for an ever-changing cast of boarders, as many as 30 at a time, as it was a home to Wolfe, whose memories of house and town vividly colored his writings.
With its exterior repainted in a shade of yellow that matches its 1916 hue, and furnished once again with original and replicated pieces, the 6,000-square-foot house barely resembles the smoking hulk that resulted after flames nearly engulfed the structure in the early hours of July 24, 1998. Set in the dining room by an arsonist, the blaze spread quickly, ultimately causing $2.5 million worth of damage from flames, smoke, water, and a damaged roof.
“It was a mean, mean fire to fight,” says Chris Morton, historic interpreter at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, the private organization that cares for the house, now a National Historic Landmark owned by the state’s historic-sites department. The heat in the dining room was so intense, in fact, that it melted a bronze clock as well as Julia Wolfe’s silver tea service, a wedding gift from her husband, William. The furniture and decorations in the room, including the chestnut fireplace frame and the table where the Wolfe’s and their gaggle of guests dined nightly, were destroyed. All told, the conflagration consumed some 25 percent of the house and its 800 artifacts.
But community support after the tragedy arrived quickly and amply. “A sea of people came in to help,” says Morton, ranging from curators at the nearby Biltmore Estate to employees of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which curls around Asheville. (The city was fictionalized by Wolfe as “Altamont.”) Debris was cleared, furniture and artifacts were removed for safekeeping, and the structure was secured. A modest renovation of the house, planned before the fire, was pumped up into a thorough and historically accurate restoration. At a cost of $2.4 million—raised from insurance and private donations—and led by preservation architect Joseph Oppermann, the project included installation of security, heating and air-conditioning, and, yes, fire-suppression systems.
The work was carried out with a deft and knowing touch. Charred furniture, objects, walls, and floors were cleaned and refinished. More than 4,000 square feet of surviving plaster was saved by carefully consolidating it. Replicas were made of lost features, from the patterned slate shingles and standing-seam copper of the roof to the dining room’s table and fireplace (although walnut was used as a stand-in for the chestnut). Even the first-floor wiring that ran on the surface of walls and ceilings was replaced in kind with a supply of old-fashioned tubed wiring bought pre-fire from a local hardware store.
Incongruous features added after Wolfe lived in the house—baseboard heat registers, for example—were removed. And careful analysis of the exterior’s numerous layers of paint led to the discovery of the yellow color used in 1916. “We can truly say that it’s the same house that saw all that boarding house activity,” says Morton, a house that was cluttered, utilitarian, never elegant, rarely private, but always a source of inspiration for Wolfe. In Look Homeward, Angel, he recalled the place through his alter-ego Eugene Gant: “As the house filled, in the summer season, and it was necessary for him 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.”
Visitors who want to enter the novel by stepping into the house can thank some old-fashioned groundwork for the chance. Morton feels fortunate that, prior to the fire, so much of the house and contents had been well-recorded with photographs. “What I would pass on as advice [to other historic sites] is: photograph, photograph, photograph,” he says. “Spend whatever it takes to document. It makes things so much easier.”
The grand opening’s ribbon-cutting kicked off a series of community and cultural events that stretched over the Memorial Day weekend and included tours of the old Asheville that Wolfe knew, an exhibit of historic photographs, a living-history re-creation of a day in 1916, and an authors evening attended by Gail Godwin and other prominent southern writers. Also, Wolfe’s rarely produced 1923 play, Welcome to Our City, was staged, telling the story of white developers in Altamont, like Asheville a thriving resort city, who evict the residents of an African American neighborhood in order to build expensive homes there.
Wolfe’s home, which remained open for tours throughout the renovation, has resumed its regular visitors’ schedule. For more information, consult the building’s Web site.
Thomas Wolfe Memorial
52 North Market Street
Asheville, NC 28801
828 253 8304
From Preservation Online: The magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation http://www.nationaltrust.org/Magazine