Battery Park through the Years
by Rob Neufeld
PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1) Present-day view of Battery Park Apartments from the Civic Center. Photo by Rob Neufeld. 2) The 1854 “View of Asheville N.C. and the Mountains from the Beaux Catcher Knob” by C.H.G.F. Loehr, published in Henry Colton’s “Mountain Scenery” (1859), shows the wooded mound that was Stony Hill.
Looking at the Battery Park Apartments from the Civic Center opens a view to a pageant of history.
Once there had been a stony hill there, called Stony Hill. Cherokees had used it as a hunting stop; and Confederates had used it a shooting spot.
In 1886, soon after the railroad had reached Asheville, Col. Franklin Coxe, a major railroad investor, built what he called Battery Park Hotel atop the knoll. It was known as the finest in the South. Its lawn stretched down to a wall, later the edge of Wall Street.
Coxe’s Queen Anne style manor lasted 36 years before giving up the ghost to Edwin Wiley Grove, who tore down the hotel and the hill, built a new hotel and created a business center.
The strain that plays through these hotel years might be the Viennese Waltz. Society columns provided a running account of parties, conventions, and dances. During World War I, Arthur Murray brought the best instruction in ballroom dancing to Asheville ingénues.
Fast-forward 50 or 60 years. Asheville has moved past World War II to the boom years, but its economy is still sluggish. Credit returns and Asheville builds the airport, the Civic Center and other improvements. Government subsidies enable the conversion of Grove’s Battery Park Hotel to housing for the elderly. Tax credits enable the preservation of the structure’s integrity.
So, here the building stands today, experiencing the growth of luxury hotels around it; an argument over a parcel of dirt; and the stability of two old friends—St. Lawrence Basilica, constructed in 1903; and the Grove Arcade, started by Grove in 1924, and completed after his death.
What was the Battery Park site like before development?
In Robert S. Duncanson’s painting, “View of Asheville, North Carolina, 1850,” the town clusters below a road that curves around a densely wooded bump within a mountain-surrounded plateau.
An 1854 view, published as an engraving in Henry Colton’s book, “Mountain Scenery,” shows the bump even more prominently. Mountains to the west cut down to the French Broad River, and another rise slumps down to the Asheville plain and to Water Street, now Lexington Ave.
The curve around the hill is preserved today by Haywood St.; and by the 1921 Castanea Building, the tawny brick front of which bows with the road.
Stony Hill goes unmentioned in Dr. J.S.T. Baird’s description of Asheville in 1840, published in 1905 as “Historical Sketches of Early Days.”
Asheville had about 300 residents in 1840, and the few richest had slaves. The northwest portion of the town (the part at the base of Stony Hill) included “but two dwellings, those of Hon. N.W. Woodfin and Rev. David McAnally, both on Woodfin St.”
Nicholas Woodfin’s house became the headquarters of Asheville’s YMCA in 1922. It was torn down as part of 1970s urban renewal. The site is now occupied by HomeTrust Bank.
McAnally, a Methodist preacher, lived in the Methodist parsonage on Woodfin St, and became editor of Asheville’s first newspaper, the “Highland Messenger.”
The front page of the June 5, 1840 “Highland Messenger” featured three columns devoted to “Thoughts on Literature”; advice about inter-planting bush bean varieties; and the exposure of General William Henry Harrison, Ohio senator and presidential candidate, as an Abolitionist.
In 11 years of publication of the “Highland Messenger,” the name, “Stony Hill,” never appears.
Dr. Baird, in his reminiscence, makes an interesting aside about a Miss Katy Parks. She ran a schoolhouse beyond the Woodfin place in an area now covered by the interstate. Parks “afterwards became Mrs. Katy Bell, mother of Rev. George Bell of Haw Creek.” Rev. Bell would become a legendary teacher and figure in Haw Creek, someone who knew many languages, used a stick in the classroom, and brought Christmas presents on horseback from distant cities.
Further back in time
Capt. James M. Gudger’s family memory takes us back further in Stony Hill history—to the 1790s. Before his death in 1916, he told F.A. Sondley, author of “A History of Buncombe County,” how his grandfather, James Gudger, had, as a little boy in the 1790s, passed over Stony Hill to deliver sacks of grain to a grist mill.
James and other little boys had led pack horses, “and usually a man accompanied the party,” but one day he didn’t come along, and a sack fell off a horse while crossing the hill.
“A party of Indians came upon them, and from pure mischief, threatened and actually began to hang them,” Sondley recounts, “but finally the Indians replaced the sack and left them unharmed.”
The hill was unusual in that its composition was rounded stones and dirt, not bedrock, indicating that it once had risen above the French Broad River, and possibly a lake.
What did the Cherokee like to do atop the Stony Hill mound? I can find neither an archaeological study nor a demolition analysis to help tell.
Nearby, at the site of the Riverside Cemetery and in Chunn’s Cove, Sondley notes, there had been found a “great number of stone arrow heads, many of them defective and unfinished … Nothing but a residence at such places for some time of a considerable number of Indians would seem sufficient to account for (these relics) … Their unfinished state shows that they were made here, since no one would carry “unfinished or broken arrow heads in quantities about the country.”
Below Stony Hill, a trail had run along the creek later covered by Water Street (now Lexington Ave.) and had negotiated the muddy gully that would become Patton Ave. An Indian graveyard, perhaps a memorial to a lethal battle between Cherokee and Catawba, Sondley surmised, had existed about where the Kress Building is now.
For many years, up until the Civil War, Stony Hill was just an undeveloped thicket off the highway. But then, Asheville had to defend its people and its Confederate armory, and emplaced four 12-pound 1857 howitzers on the hill facing the northern pass down the Buncombe Turnpike along the French Broad River.
Civil War years
A map of the April 6, 1865 Battle of Asheville, published in the July 17, 1960 issue of the Citizen-Times, along with a feature by George McCoy, depicts a Confederate battery atop Stony Hill.
The map also shows two training camps, Camp Jeter along Cherry St.; and Camp Patton on Chestnut St. across from the site of present-day Fuddrucker’s.
On Public Square, there had been a Confederate hospital; and on Valley St., behind the site of the present County Jail, an armory.
On April 6, 1865, Confederate and Union batteries established positions on bluffs facing each other on Broadway (then, the Buncombe Turnpike) above Glenn Creek. That day, 13-year-old Lawrence Pulliam and other boys scampered up Stony Hill to view the action.
They knew action was coming because a muster cannon had been fired and Col. George Wesley Clayton, in charge of Confederate troops in Asheville, had rallied convalescent soldiers and 44 Silver Grays—Asheville’s Home Guard—to combat the reported threat.
For two months, from February through March, there had been an armistice in Asheville, George Robertson recalled in his 1932 book, “A Small Boy’s Recollections of the War between the States.”
Union soldiers passed George’s mother’s house on what is now Merrimon Ave. and waved to the ladies gathered on her porch.
Then, when armistice expired, the war was on again, Robertson said. There rose an “ominous cloud of dust” above the French Broad River, north of town. “Yankees … were at every door at the same time, pounding for admission.” They took some of Mrs. Robertson’s dried beef, which, George avowed, “could beat the world.”
There had been other shocks to Asheville’s security over the previous couple of years.
Union General Ambrose Burnside’s occupation of Knoxville in the fall of 1863 had led Captain Benjamin Sloan, in charge of the Asheville armory, to write Josiah Gorgas, Confederate Chief of Ordinance, about “removing the Government Machinery from Asheville to some safer place.”
Sloan had been trying to make a poorly supplied, loosely run factory productive. It had been formed, in 1861, as a manufacturing venture by a local partnership that had included Lawrence Pulliam’s dad, Col. Robert Pulliam.
Though Col. Pulliam had been head of Western North Carolina Ordinance, he had been acting without Gorgas’ knowledge when he started his manufacturing business, John Inscoe and Gordon McKinney document in their book, The Heart of Confederate Appalachia.
“The maximum output of the 150 to 200 workers at the armory complex was 200 rifles a month,” Inscoe and McKinney note.
After Sloan took over, according to historian F.A. Sondley in a 1927 article about the Battle of Asheville, the armory “commenced to produce there Enfield rifles that were the best in the Confederate service.”
Then, another shock. The 2nd and 3rd N.C. Mounted Infantry—made up of locals, including many deserters—captured Warm Springs (now Hot Springs). Maj. John Woodfin of Asheville led a cavalry battalion to retake the town, and was shot dead off his horse. Brig. Gen. Robert Vance regained Warm Springs after a month of fighting.
But the scare foretold worse scares, and the Confederacy dismantled its Asheville armory so that it would not fall into Federal hands.
There had been, of course, throughout the war, the repeated shocks of casualties.
Lawrence Pulliam recalled regularly seeing corpses—those of soldiers brought to the Buncombe courthouse from nearby skirmishes; and those of deserters and other hunted men left on the roadside by army detachments, bounty hunters, and criminals.
Finally, there had been the shocks of people’s bad behavior, made less grim by occasional examples of humanity.
George Robertson told how he’d seen “Negro soldiers,” who’d been accused of assaulting two women, lined up for execution. George had turned his head as shots had been fired.
He’d also seen the Union soldiers, assigned to maintain the peace in Asheville, ride through the streets shouting and shooting guns after days spent in saloons.
Lawlessness prevailed, and it even stopped the mail. People in their homes gathered around stoves to wait out anarchy.
George’s family included in its domestic circle a Union officer from Pennsylvania who’d been assigned to guard the Robertson women. He helped out with chores, peeling potatoes and sweeping floors.
“His name was Joe,” Robertson states, “and he was like the other Joe in our house,” a soldier who’d returned from battle and later died of consumption.
A moment in history
When Lawrence Pulliam got to the top of Stony Hill on April 6, he would have seen four 12-pounder Napoleons—model 1857 howitzers—pointed up the Buncombe Turnpike toward the Woodfin farm.
The Napoleon, a smoothbore cannon, could fire a solid or exploding shell almost a mile—in other words, as far as Glenn Creek.
Why would the Confederates have had a battery on the ridge there? For rifle warfare? Is McCoy’s map wrong about the Confederate fortification?
“The rifles they had at the time would hardly carry that range (600 yards), any less be effective,” Vernon Stroupe wrote me in 2005. “Have mini-balls ever been found in the Botanical Gardens? I have never seen or heard of any.”
Sondley, alternately, stated that there had been Confederate defenses on Stony Hill, the Glenn’s Creek ridge, and Beaucatcher Mountain.
Asheville had been attuned to an attack especially from the north because that was the path across mountains to the west.
The first alarm on April 6 had come from a slave, sent by Mrs. H.E. Sondley, widowed mother of F.A. Sondley. Colonel Isaac Kirby’s 101st Ohio Infantry, she said, had stolen her horses (at her place Montrealla, south of Alexander) and headed south along the French Broad River.
The marauders had also taken her seven-year-old son’s Shetland pony, and then shot it.
The boy, Foster, would grow up to write the classic “A History of Buncombe County”; and “The Battle of Asheville” in a 1927 issue of the “Asheville Citizen.” He would include his painful pony memory in it. He would also explain how Asheville came to be a Confederate stronghold. “Its advantages of climate and…scenery were unsurpassed,” he declared.
“It was not wholly without reason,” Sondley wrote, “that Asheville hoped ultimately to become the capital of the Confederate States of America.”
After passing through the Sondley farm, the Ohioans came to Nicholas Woodfin’s farm (UNC Asheville land now). Nicholas was a learned lawyer, a scientific farmer, a politician and a large slave owner. He was also the older brother of Major John, who’d been killed at Warm Springs.
He got on his horse and delivered the second alarm to Asheville. A group of Union soldiers chased him and were turned back.
Back in the big house, his eldest child, Anna, age 23, lay invalid from a horseback riding accident.
Anna had been twenty when her father had headed to the State convention in 1861 to oppose secession; and had also seen him come home in support of the Confederacy, once the die had been cast.
She would come to see him rebuild Asheville after the war, and prosecute the men who had defrauded the Western North Carolina Railroad. He died in 1876. Anna, crippled throughout life, went on to found the Mission Hospital with Fanny Patton, Rose Chapman and Mrs. W.C. Carmichael.
The big house had to be sold, and it went to Dr. James Burroughs, who established a sanitarium. The agent for that sale was Lawrence Pulliam. He was 30.
He remembered hearing about Woodfin’s ride.
He remembered climbing an oak tree on Stony Hill.
If we combine the accounts we have, we can picture Pulliam coming upon the eight-man cannon crews getting ready on the hill. We envision 300 Home Guardsmen, including James Hardy Lee, 14-year-old son of Captain Stephen Lee, hauling two cannons, presumably by wagon, up Broadway, in a light rain, to a breastwork opposite where the Union regiment would take a stand.
A lot of firing resulted in no casualties at the Battle of Asheville. The sun set and, about an hour later, Kirby’s men retreated.
“The reports that a Union boot with part of a leg in it was found after the battle is just rumor,” Stroupe informed me. “What seems be the real casualty report is that a Union lieutenant, riding a horse, was drowned in the withdrawal at a crossing of the French Broad when his horse fell on top of him.”
Much horror and change was yet to come: a lawless and brutal march by Stoneman’s Raiders through Howard’s Gap to Asheville; the occupation and looting of Asheville on April 26; and what came after with Emancipation, Reconstruction, and industrialization.
The new era brought Col. Franklin Coxe, who built the Battery Park Hotel, a national sensation, atop Battery Park Hill, formerly Stony Hill. He’d lived on the Green River Plantation near Rutherfordton. His family had long roots there, as they had in Pennsylvania coal country, and the legendary Civil War story about Frank is that two soldiers he’d paid to be his substitutes for the two Armies had killed each other in the same battle.
The Coxe years
On Oct. 1, 1885, Col. Frank Coxe purchased, from Richmond Pearson, half-interest of the hill on which he would build his famous Battery Park Hotel after both had bought it from D.C. Waddell in 1883. Previously, it had been owned by Major W.W. Rollins and C.M. McCloud.
Waddell’s price for the hill had been $11,000. Pearson sold his half-a-hill for $6,160. That’s about $200,000 today.
Pearson, in his early 20s, had served as President Grant’s consul to Belgium; and then had established himself as a lawyer in St. Louis, when his father’s death called him home. Now, at age 33, he was moving again, to Raleigh, for he’d been elected to the State Assembly. He’d gotten a good offer for that wooded mound of his from someone whom he kbew was well-placed, dependable, and progressive.
The mound had once been called Stony Hill, going back to when the French Broad River had rubbed it. Then the name changed to Battery Porter Hill after Asheville’s Confederate defenders had placed cannons there in the Civil War.
For years, it had been a kind of forest commons. When the Swannanoa Country Club hosted a fancy ball in Coxe’s hotel in 1890, members recalled how the club had, in years past, run fox hunts on the hill until barbed wire prevented their roaming.
Another historic moment
The time had come for Col. Coxe to enact his vision.
“My grandfather was very much interested in railroad construction and railroad development,” Col. Frank’s grandson, Frank Coxe, told UNC Asheville professor Bruce Greenawalt in 1979.
Col. Coxe had helped fund the Western North Carolina Railroad and had served as its vice-president, ensuring its long-overdue connection to Asheville and the west in 1880. The railroad has come to rank as the biggest game-changer in Asheville history.
“My grandfather,” Frank Coxe said, “had the feeling that this was destined to be a tremendous resort area … the only place to keep cool in the summer.”
Col. Coxe’s idea of making a railroad and a resort two parts of a single grand plan “was the beginning of the Battery Park Hotel.” His investment was more than money.
“The whole family (was) there, off and on, during the period,” Frank Coxe said. “My grandfather was there; he had a cottage right next to the hotel until he died in 1903,” and stayed connected to the land that had been his family’s off and on for two centuries.
In the 1680s, Col. Frank’s three-times-great-grandfather, Dr. Daniel Coxe, had bought all of “Carolana” from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Daniel had been physician to King Charles II and his court; and had married heiress Rebecca Coldham, daughter of London’s Lord Mayor.
Dr. Coxe had tried sending ships to explore his territory, but they’d failed. He bequeathed his Carolana holdings to his son, Col, Daniel Coxe IV, who moved to America and wrote “Carolana,” a description of the country and a landmark vision of a union of colonies.
Col. Daniel Coxe determined that he couldn’t deal with all the competing claims for his Carolina land; and let it go in exchange for 100,000 acres in New York.
Nearly a century later, in 1795, Col. Daniel Coxe’s grandson, Tench Coxe, bought half a million acres in Western North Carolina for resale and development. (The papers of his Speculation Land Company are held by Special Collection, Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville.)
“He bought so much and there were so many questions of title and descriptions,” great-great grandson Frank Coxe said “that he had to get rid of it in order to avoid going into bankruptcy.” With his earnings, Tench established an anthracite coal empire in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.
The coal fields became the family’s wealth. It also created a North-South double allegiance in the family.
Francis Sydney Coxe, Tench’s son and Col. Frank Coxe’s dad, moved to Rutherford County, where he married Jane McBee Alexander, a local woman. Francis had become familiar with the area on trips to help his dad settle his properties.
Eventually, the Francis Coxe family set themselves up on the Green River Plantation, south of Rutherfordton—the house and grounds are today a preserved site—and that’s where Col. Frank had been born, in 1839.
During the Civil War, he’d escaped to Europe to keep his coal fields out of contention. He’d paid two proxies to fight for him in the Union and Confederate armies.
After the war, he made his way back south, brought Asheville into the age of industry and urbanism, and became the resident genie of his hotel until his death. He was buried in the family’s church cemetery at Green River.
Ahead of the curve
Asheville at the time of the Battery Park Hotel’s construction, was experiencing a railroad bonanza. The track to Asheville extended to Paint Rock, Murphy, and Spartanburg.
The telephone arrived in 1886, ringing in the opening of the Battery Park Hotel on July 12. Water and sewer works were in the works.
“There was not a paved street in the city then,” Charles Webb wrote in his 1935 reminiscence, “Forty-Six Years in Asheville.” “There were only a few brick sidewalks in the business center. I have seen hacks, carriages and wagons mired up to their axles on Patton Avenue and on other streets.”
Four 120-foot-tall light poles, each outfitted with four large arc lights, illuminated four spots: the public square; Merrimon Ave. at Orange St.; Haywood St. at Montford Ave.; and Valley St. near the Carolina Tobacco warehouse.
While the city was hustling to provide basics, Coxe was engaging the Otis Elevator Company, musicians, marketing experts, decorators, arborists, and the Edison Electric Light Company for his hotel.
He spent money on himself and his family, too. Items indicated on his personal receipts, from January through June, 1886, included: fine shoes, dress goods and silk, jewelry, misses’ and children’s clothes, confections, wine, a tailor, Havana “Segars” and tobacco.
He paid up his membership with The Philadelphia Club; and bought the Asheville paper.
On April 17, 1886, he would have read that the City of Asheville was borrowing $100,000 to create a water system; abundant roses were available at Asheville Greenhouses; tobacco was booming locally; and lots were for sale opposite Sam Chedester’s store and hotel at 19 Patton Ave. (today’s Kress Building site).
Society news provided glimpses into Battery Park high society. For example, the Jan. 22, 1889 edition of the “Asheville Citizen” reported that among the guests were Mrs. Moses Taylor (wife of the retired president of City Bank, and a member of “The Ultra-Fashionable Peerage of America”); and Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton Twombly (financial advisor to William Henry Vanderbilt and his wife, Florence Adele, Vanderbilt’s daughter).
The same paper reported that a “test trial of the Asheville Electric Street Railway was made at 10:45 last night from court square to the depot, a mile in eight minutes.”
The Civil War continued to reverberate. There were many maimed Confederate veterans around. Republicans and Democrats fought with righteous passion. The Battery Park Hotel operated above the fray.
On Jan. 31, 1889 the first wedding at the hotel took place between Albert Fabel of New York, then a railroad clerk in Savannah, and Adelaide Bullen Smith of New York, then a telegraph operator at the Battery Park.
The Twombleys attended, as did Dr. Westray Battle, who was George Washington Vanderbilt’s mom’s doctor when she’d come to Asheville for her health and George had gotten his apocryphal first sighting—from the Battery Park Hotel—of the Pisgah land where he would build his estate.
Col. Frank was at the peak of his career in the 1890s. His business correspondence shows that he was buying properties in several states; fending off people with investment schemes; giving to charities; and getting many offers to attend picnics.
William Greene Raoul, a railroad builder like Coxe, came by to see Coxe at his hotel for some advice in 1897.
Raoul had come a decade earlier, with his large family, looking for a boarding house; and had famously told a landlady who’d been put off by his number of his children, “Well, Madam, just tell me how many you will take, and I will kill the balance!”
At that time, his wife and seven children had walked up to the Reuben Deaver farm on Charlotte St. and fallen in love with it. Coxe had persuaded Raoul to buy it.
Business had taken Raoul away from the area for ten years, but he was back. His 20-year-old son Thomas, struck with tuberculosis, was going to help him develop the Deaver property.
The result was the Manor Inn and Albemarle Park, surviving gems of that era.
Turn of the century
The economy was not good in 1897. The railroad-inspired investment bubble had burst. Banks were failing.
“I understand that at Palm Beach Hotel last Wednesday there were just twenty people,” the Battery Park’s manager, E. P. McKissick wrote Col. Coxe on February 3, 1896, “but…I believe that the tide of travel is changing…and that we will have a bigger season than ever.”
Alcohol played a part in that. The Nov. 27 1899 paper reported that Deputy Collector J. Wiley Shook had sold McKissick a barrel of mountain dew captured while running the blockade. It was the No. 1 corn whiskey of Wilkes County, “made without the supervision of storekeeper, gauger or other revenue officer … guaranteed pure and possessed of the highest medicinal properties held by the juice of the nubbin [stunted ear of corn]."
It may be a coincidence that the Southern National Park Association (to be renamed the Appalachian National Park Association) had just gotten into town to hold their conference at the Battery Park.
Guests received souvenir badges in the shape of rhododendron leaves.
The Hon. Locke Craig said, “It would be reckless stupidity … if a portion of this grand and picturesque region be not preserved in its original, natural condition for the enjoyment and welfare of the people. There is only one feasible way to accomplish this and that is by government ownership.”
State Senator Marion Butler’s enthusiasm for the Southern park took the form of a slap at another one.
“When you take out of the Yellowstone National Park a few geysers, which spout so seldom that many visitors there never see them, and the yellowstone canyon, there is very little interest there.”
Three years later, McKissick died a sudden early death in 1902, attacked by a stroke.
One of the last weddings before Coxe’s death the next year was that of Henrietta C. Wolfe of Providence R.I. and John M. Gibson, who had arrived at Asheville’s Winyah Sanitarium several months before to treat his consumption, and was being urged to marry a few days before his expected death.
Ahead for the Battery Park was new management and the World War I era, highlighted by dance teacher Arthur Murray.
Partying until WWI
Asheville’s social event of the year in 1913 was a “midsummer german” at the Battery Park Hotel.
There were waltzes, polkas and mazurkas; and there were also party games—ritualized taunts and dominations in which men and women were equals.
The “grand march” part of the 1913 event had been headed by Mr. and Mrs. John J. Seibles, who, in their early forties, had been at the top of high society in Columbia, S.C. John and his older brother Edwin ran the city’s leading insurance business.
Two months before, the “Wilmington Dispatch” reported, John had been “surf bathing” at the Seashore Hotel, and had sprained his foot.
Murray from Manhattan
Battery Park’s status as a highlife hot spot got a boost, at the end of 1914, when the Baroness de Kuttleson from the Vernon and Irene Castle dancing school arrived with her dashing, 19-year-old, Jewish dance master Arthur Murray.
The official date for Murray’s arrival is Nov. 28, based on an “Asheville Citizen” announcement the next day. The news item did not mention the Baroness’ name. She was Murray’s manager; Murray was the star.
As a youngster attending settlement house dances, Murray had discovered his talent and had used it to lift him out of his Lower East Side, NY ghetto. He’d gotten a job at “Castle House.” The Baroness, an established dance teacher there, had started a touring business, and taken Murray to Asheville.
A quarter century later, Murray would reign over a national chain of 500 dance studios and, in 1950, begin televising “The Arthur Murray Dance Party.”
“Dance Party” engaged celebrity guests, such as actress Helen Hayes and comedian Milton Berle, in dance contests. Johnny Carson got his TV start on Murray’s show.
But in Asheville in 1914, Murray was still a new talent. The Baroness advised him to shed his last name, Teichman, because of rising anti-German sentiment. She charged his clients $50 per lesson, and retained $45.
Murray was a hit in the mountains. He grew a moustache.
“When Edith Vanderbilt saw him,” Jane Heimlich, his daughter, told me in 2004, while working on her memoir, Out of Step, she “instructed him to take that fool thing off. He was quick to do so. She was one of his staunchest supporters, and often invited him to the Biltmore House to give lessons.”
Murray falls into a list of prodigies from diverse backgrounds who have been lifted high by the cultural elite here. The list also includes George Masa and Nina Simone.
Murray had been a favorite of Mrs. Vanderbilt. “Dear Mr. Murray,” she wrote him on Dec. 24, 1914, “I have been requested…to ask you if you would be kind enough to perform an exhibition dance at the ball tomorrow, Tuesday evening, Dec. 25.”
There was no big community Christmas Party at the Estate that year, out of respect to Edith’s husband, George Washington Vanderbilt, who had died in March.
Edith asked gift-sharers to send their money to “the war sufferers in Europe.”
Five months earlier, Germany had declared war on France; and Great Britain on Germany. Belgium, Austria-Hungary, Poland, Russia, Turkey, and Japan (as a British ally) got involved. After the First Battle of Ypres in Flanders in October, trench warfare had started in Europe.
Ashevillians were reading the headlines.
The Battle of Flanders, “which was brought about by the German attempt to advance to Dunkirk and Calais,” news agencies reported on Nov. 15, “commenced just four weeks ago today and despite terrific fighting and the sacrifice of thousands of lives, the two armies still hold virtually the same positions as when the first shot was fired.”
Edith Vanderbilt, nevertheless, had ladies to match up. “I understand there is a young lady in Asheville who would dance with you,” she wrote Murray, “and I will ask you to please extend to her this invitation.”
Mrs. Vanderbilt made things happen.
The previous year, she’d been attending a send-off party for her and her 12-year-old daughter, Cornelia. They’d been about to drive to California in Edith’s white 1913 Stevens-Duryea “C-Six.”
Guests had discovered that their mint juleps were salty because someone had used ice from the dairy.
It was Prohibition time in North Carolina. A last-minute call was made to get an emergency supply from a bootlegger.
The secret to popularity
Party-hosting and match-making were two plays in the high society game of popularity.
Murray, we know from newspaper reports in 1914, had been matched as a dancer with Misses Dorothy Lytle, Jeanette Hartzog, Doris Davenport, Louise Wise and Eustice Hudley.
Dorothy Lytle was constantly in the “Society and Personal” news. On April 20, 1916, she attended the patriotic party Mrs. Tench Coxe threw at the Asheville Country Club.
On Aug. 1, she hosted a bridge party on the west terrace of the newly built Grove Park Inn; and presented the winner with a hand-hammered silver vase and a beautifully bound copy of the poems of Robert W. Service.
In 1916, Service published “Rhymes of a Red-Cross Man,” and dedicated it to his brother, Lt. Albert Service, Canadian Infantry, killed in action, France, August, 1916.
By August 1916, the Battle of the Somme had killed a million soldiers in a long stalemate.
Aerial warfare had begun, and Kiffin Rockwell of Asheville had become the first American to shoot down an enemy plane. He’d been flying for the French Army’s Lafayette Escadrille.
Arthur Murray was in his third year teaching and performing at the Battery Park. He had come to love Southern girls, as his daughter noted in her memoir.
“The secret to popularity,” he’d revealed, is “ballroom dancing.”
Since C.E. Railing brought Arthur Murray to Asheville in 1914, the “Asheville Citizen” reported on Oct. 20, 1920, “the management of the Battery Park has changed hands three times, but Mr. Murray (has) continued to conduct the dances and also has charge of the Manor entertainments.”
By 1920, Murray had come to the Battery Park for his sixth consecutive summer. He had, by that time, started his chain of studios and had become the highest-paid syndicated writer about dance in the country. Now, the article announced, he’d just made a deal with Columbia Gramophone Company to produce dance-teaching records.
Rogers Book Store at 39 Patton Ave. (the site next to the present day Lobster Trap) advertised that it was giving away a free Movie Machine with each sale of Arthur Murray’s dancing course. “You merely study the easy directions and look into the movie machine to see how the steps are done.”
When Edwin Wiley Grove bought the Battery Park Hotel in 1921, and tore it down in 1924, Murray continued to make Asheville one of his stops, setting up at the Kenilworth Inn. But by 1925, Murray was gone for good. One of his New York students, Miss Melva Paxton, picked up the demand for ballroom dancing with classes at 7½ West Pack Square (which I do not find in the city directory, but was apparently associated with the Western Hotel).
By the end of WWI, the Battery Park era had already begun to end, and it wasn’t just the dancing and Arthur Murray. It was motor parties to such scenic locations as Esmerelda Inn via Hickory Nut Gap; and to Pisgah Forest, which Edith Vanderbilt had sold to the U.S. and to which a new road had been built.
It was conventions, meals, flowers (there was a nursery at the hotel), summer vacations, lawn games, fundraisers (such as for the Red Cross), and graduations. People weren’t coming so much anymore for long, leisurely seasons; or for Edwardian social affairs.
A mockingbird sang a swan song. In 1915, the bird had made a routine of coming to the Battery Park and singing at 6:30 a.m., and then came no more.
“The guests of the hotel declare that the warbler flies clear around the hotel, singing as he flies, and pleasantly waking each guest with his melodious notes,” the manager’s wife, Mrs. Railing, noted. It had become a fad to have an early breakfast and hear the concert.
Edwin Wiley Grove had not intended to tear down Coxe’s Battery Park Hotel when he’d bought it. Instead, he had intended to complement it with a new fireproof commercial hotel at the bottom of the hill.
In a letter to Tench C. Coxe dated July 25, 1922, Grove stated: “It is my idea to continue Battery Park Hotel as a strictly resort hotel keeping it open only for the winter and summer seasons, but to keep the new commercial hotel open throughout the year.”
By December of 1922, Grove had hired two local contractors—Julian A. Woodcock and Clyde S. Reed—to excavate the hill, which rose to eighty feet above Haywood Street at the north end. Excavation was soon followed by news of changed plans. The old Battery Park Hotel would not be saved. The new commercial hotel would go up on the hill’s leveled site. A fire in a watchman’s shanty spread to the old hotel and sped its destruction.
Old yields to new, 1922
PHOTO CAPTION: The original Battery Park Hotel is shown in this E.M. Ball photo, taken at the end of 1923 or start of 1924, after the hill was mostly excavated and the structure dismantled. Photo credit, Ramsey Library Special Collections, UNC Asheville.
After World War I, people continued having big times at the grand, old Battery Park Hotel, built atop sloping Battery Park Hill by Col. Frank Coxe in 1886. The wooden, manorial inn was still useful, though needing maintenance; and it provided a picturesque setting above a bustling burg.
Automobiles had changed the roads and brought new kinds of tourists. Still, Arthur Murray continued to make the Battery Park a lengthy stop on his dance education tour.
On June 3, 1921, the hotel hosted a gala ball in honor of Jefferson Davis’ birthday. Prof. Herman Arnold was the special guest. His transcription of Dan Emmett’s song, “Dixie,” had made it one of the best-known songs of all time.
Arnold and his wife lived in Hendersonville.
On the schedule to perform at the ball were Miss Helen Renstrom, a nationally touring lyric soprano; and dancer Pauline Biggs, an Asheville girl who’d been traveling the world with her mother for two years.
The old leisure class era of the Battery Park, with its intoxicating mix of Southern culture and Northern patronage, was about to come to an end. On Nov. 28, 1922, the Asheville Citizen announced in a big, front-page headline: “New 200 Room Commercial Hotel to Replace the Battery Park; Begin Developments at Once.”
Edwin Wiley Grove, maker of “Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic,” was buying the hotel to modernize downtown Asheville.
He had begun visiting the area in 1900, and had moved here in 1905. Since then, he’d built the Grove Park Inn; created the Grove Park neighborhood; developed various residential properties; and established the Grove Sand and Gravel Co. in Swannanoa.
He’d bought up sanitaria in order to get rid of them, ending the health resort business in favor of the more lucrative tourist one.
He’d made an agreement with Col. Frank Coxe’s son, Tench Coxe, when he’d bought Battery Park Hill, to move dirt into Coxe’s “canyon” or “gully,” as it was alternately called, and create what would become an automobile showroom district on Coxe Ave.
In a letter to Tench Coxe, dated July 25, 1922, Grove stated: “It is my idea to continue Battery Park Hotel as a strictly resort hotel keeping it open only for the winter and summer seasons, but to keep the new commercial hotel open throughout the year.”
In September, Grove started selling off the blue grass sod from the Battery Park lawn, making way for the centerpiece of his retail complex, the building he’d lease to Bon Marche for its new location.
At the beginning of October, he told an Asheville Citizen reporter that Asheville’s rapid growth demanded not only expansion of residential subdivisions but also of business districts. Developing his downtown quadrant “would solve the fastest-growing business needs.”
In late November, Grove responded to preservationists attuned to the grand hotel’s architectural value by saying he shared their sentiment, but the hotel was “rapidly outgrowing its period of usefulness.”
By December 1922, Grove was excavating the hill, which rose to 80 feet above Haywood Street. The ten-acre plot was active with steam shovels, African-American workers, mules and pans, and steer and wagons to cart dirt to Coxe Ave. Streets were being widened to allow for parking.
Grove’s diggers encountered creekstone and sand, evidence of the hill having once risen within the French Broad River flood zone.
It was around this time that there had been a fire, according to a couple of sources. The fire allegedly had spread from a watchman’s shack to the hotel, sealing its fate.
I find no newspaper corroboration of this fire. There is evidence of the hotel having been taken down methodically.
“We are wrecking the Battery Park Hotel now,” Byram’s Real Estate Exchange stated in an Oct. 7, 1923 ad. Doors, windows, flooring, elevators, electric light fixtures, marble, brick, stone and stairways were some of the offerings.
On Jan. 31, 1924, Tench Coxe wrote Grove, “I walked over the top of the Battery Park Hill … and it is certainly wonderful to see how the operation is working out.” No sense of regret.
Some people commented that Grove’s new hotel “would impress anyone as having been built for a city of half a million people,” the “Manufacturer’s Record” related in Dec. 1924. Grove replied that indeed “the hotel was built for a city of half a million people and Asheville would soon build a city to correspond with the hotel.”
“National Magazine” reported, in July 1926, that “a mammoth structure covering the entire Battery Park Plaza is being built now by Mr. Grove.” It would include an arcade, a roof garden, “ornamental ramps,” and a 60-foot-square, nine-story tower that would harbor a large restaurant, a bandstand, and a small hotel with a club.
The rooftop garden had been a concession to the city for not having to carve out park space on the ground.
Grove would die in 1927, and others would finish the Grove Arcade minus the rooftop park and tower.
Grove had been a big employer. He brought in Italian masons for tilework. He hired Cherokee waiters at the Grove Park Inn. He bought all of his furniture—17 train car loads—from North Carolina manufacturers.
The crews who blasted earth, moved dirt and rocks, graded surfaces, demolished structures, maintained the work site, drove vehicles, laid brick, constructed framing and did other jobs were mostly composed of African-American men.
One of them was Jim Brown, a truck driver. He worked for Gus Durner, superintendent of John M. Geary Co., general contractors for the new Battery Park Hotel.
Durner’s son, George, recalls how when he was five, Brown had taken him under his wing. He’d introduced George to the world of black laborers, skilled and unskilled.
When the Battery Park Hotel and the Grove Arcade were being built,” Durner recalled, “you had a number of black laborers that were digging ditches. They always would be singing a chant. If you were in my father’s office with him on Haywood Street, you could hear this hum, and all of a sudden it would stop, and when it did, he would run like mad to the job because he knew there (had been) an accident that had happened.”
The workers also sang to their mules to keep them going without having to whip them. A song would be punctuated by “Gee” and “Haw”—go right and left—as the mules dragged pans.
A water boy provided drinkable water, kept free of dust.
Skilled laborers built Grove’s Battery Park Hotel with reinforced concrete, wooden studs, and brick cladding. Dynamite was used to blast apart hills.
Durner reported that one blast, set off by an overlarge charge, caused a crack in the vestibule of the St. Lawrence Church.
Another blast, the Asheville Citizen reported on February 13, 1923, killed Pomp Jenkins, a black laborer buried alive when a charge was set off before he’d cleared away from the area. A steam shovel was blown back ten feet and two other men were thrown by the blast.
Grove memorialized steam shovel operators and other tradesmen in sculptural reliefs above the ramps of the Grove Arcade, across the street. You can see them today: medieval-style icons representing an architect, a surveyor, a painter, a mason, a carpenter, and a steam shovel operator.
“They brought the mountain down,” Grove’s grandson, Fred Loring Seely Jr. said about the workers. He was speaking to Laura Shackleford and Bill Weinberg for their 1988 book, Our Appalachia.”
“And they built a ten-story hotel,” he added, “not a resort hotel,” but one meant “to serve the commercial needs because they had plans for industry, and we had no first-class commercial type hotel.”
Seely marveled at the idea of a next-door Arcade—with its own parking garage underground—and noted that it had once been in the plans to connect the Arcade’s tower hotel and the new Battery Park Hotel with a bridge.
In 1926, Tench Coxe constructed a sidewalk connecting Wall Street to his Patton Avenue establishments, creating a kind of Greenwich Village.
A few years later, the stock market crashed. Tench’s son, Franklin, witnessed the demoralization of the older generation. “We were whipped, psychologically,” Coxe reflected. “Our older businessmen just seemed to give up. Younger people were told, you can’t do it in Asheville.”
After World War II, Asheville rebounded. Coxe founded the Asheville Industrial Council. In the Council’s “Facts for Industry,” Coxe wrote about everything from climate to the labor pool.
“There are no hot, sultry, suffocating nights when sleep is impossible,” Coxe averred. “Nearly every night throughout the summer one sleeps beneath a blanket. Tests have shown that restful nights result in increased daily efficiency.”
Grove’s Battery Park Hotel lasted through the post-war period, but not into modern times. On Oct. 30, 1972, the last guest checked out, Bob Terrell noted in an elegiac column for the Asheville Citizen-Times.
He listed famous people who had stayed at either Coxe’s or Grove’s establishment. You can read more names on the bronze hotel register at the Battery Park Hotel Urban Trail marker on Page Ave.
Terrell toured the ghost hotel and noted cryptically that the elevator bore a sign that read, “Ring Up For Down.”
Billy Shadrick of Housing Projects Inc. of Thomasville converted the hotel into subsidized housing for the elderly in 1979; and preserved the exterior thanks in part to preservation tax credits.