Battery Park Hotel in the Jazz Age
by Rob Neufeld
First Battery Park Hotel opened 128 years ago
When Edwin Wiley Grove— self-made medicine magnate and visionary Asheville developer—bought the world famous Battery Park Hotel from the Coxe family in 1921, he had not intended to tear it down. Instead, he had intended to complement it with a new fireproof commercial hotel at the other end of the ten-acre hill on which the manorial, wooden structure had stood.
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.
The hill, formerly the site of a Civil War battery, contained no bedrock, but instead exhibited a great deal of rounded creek stone and Indian arrow heads, signs that it once had been an island in an ancient waterway.
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.
The original, manorial Battery Park Hotel, built by Colonel Frank Coxe, had opened on July 12, 1886.
In its heyday, the establishment qualified as one of the world’s social centers. In the late 1890s, newspapers reported, there developed a huge rush of passengers to Asheville and Hot Springs NC via the Southern Railway, the predecessor of which (the Western North Carolina Railroad) Coxe had helped finance.
As evidenced by the railway’s slogan for the region—“The Land of the Sky”—scenery was the outdoor draw. The indoor one had to do with something that might be dubbed “The Brand of Whiskey.”
“Dear Colonel Coxe,” E.P. McKissick, Battery Park’s manager, wrote on February 12, 1897, “the status of the dispensary matter at present is that no bill has been introduced for Buncombe County so far but one will be introduced by a man named Chandler who is representative of this county.”
The Florida crowd was beginning to turn toward Asheville. Dispensaries would regulate the sale of alcohol through county control, and favor the Battery Park.
“One unfortunate part of the fight against the bill,” McKissick continued, “is that the bar-keepers in Asheville are divided, that is, the higher class of bar-keepers have been arrayed against by the lowest.”
The people who stayed in the old Battery Park have contributed to its legend: George Vanderbilt, envisioning the Biltmore Estate; Thomas Raoul, consulting with Coxe about building the Manor on Charlotte Street; members of the Southern Nation Park Association, foreseeing the Great Smokies National Park.
A Jan. 22, 1889 edition of the “Asheville Citizen” reported on the “multi-millionaires” who were guests at the Battery Park Hotel that week.
They included Mrs. Moses Taylor, wife of the retired president of City Bank, and notable mention in the 1904 publication, “The Ultra-fashionable Peerage of America”; and Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton Twombly, the financial advisor to William Henry Vanderbilt and his wife, Florence Adele, Vanderbilt’s daughter.
In with the new
The old hotel went the way of the Jazz Age. Upkeep was expensive; automobile tourists supplanted train travelers.
Steam shovels carted away Asheville’s geographic prominence, directed by Grove, whose Grove Park Inn, built with Sunset Mountain stone, had opened on July 12, 1913.
George Durner, son of Augustus John “Gus” Durner, superintendent of John M. Geary Co., general contractors for the new Battery Park Hotel, related boyhood memories of the project.
“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 was…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, reported in the “Asheville Citizen,” 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.
Grove had his plasterers memorialize his workers 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.
Asheville girls shaped Arthur Murray’s life
PHOTO CAPTION: Arthur Murray poses with his wife Kathryn on the cover of their daughter Jane Heimlich’s new book
The Asheville area has always been a dancing place. Folk dancing and clogging persist in the mountains. Southside and Eastside supported African-American jazz and dance spots.
For the ballroom dancing of the 1910s and 20s, one figure and one place stand out: Arthur Murray at the old, manorial Battery Park Hotel that had once sat atop a now-vanished hill. (Battery Park Apartments now occupies the location.) persist in the mountains. Southside and Eastside were African-American club sp
In late 1914, as England was mounting its historic first aerial bombing on Germany, Arthur Murray, age nineteen, arrived at the Battery Park. As a teen, he’d started dancing as a way of getting beyond his Jewish immigrant neighborhood, the Lower East Side in New York. He discovered he had a gift.
He won a waltz contest. He taught at the Vernon and Irene Castle school. Baroness de Kuttleson, an established dance teacher there, took him under her wing. She advised him to lop off his last name, Teichman, because it sounded too German. She took him to Asheville. She charged his clients $50 per lesson, and pocketed $45 for herself.
From all accounts, Murray—tall, foreign-looking, elegant, and a great dancer—had been a huge hit.
He grew a moustache. “When Edith Vanderbilt saw him,” Jane Heimlich, his daughter, recounts, “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.”
Heimlich, author of authoritative alternative medicine books and wife of surgeon Henry Heimlich, inventor of the Heimlich Maneuver, has just published a memoir, titled, “Out of Step.” In it, she vividly recalls her father’s charm because of its connection to her mother’s suicide attempt.
Her mother, Kathryn, whom Arthur had married in 1925, would go on to be as big a star as he on the TV show, “The Arthur Murray Party” (a popular variety show, on which young comic Johnny Carson had gotten his TV break).
But in 1930, Arthur, who had already established a world famous dance-by-mail business, further wedded himself to his work by starting a chain of dance studios. He travelled from his suburban home to his founding studio in Manhattan and spent days and nights with young female teachers and socialites.
“The women were like the Southern girls that Arthur had admired so much in Asheville,” Heimlich writes.
Murray published a book, “The Secret of Popularity.”
Kathryn, who had enjoyed the life of a flapper, but who did not dance, went to parties and drank bathtub gin, Heimlich relates. A hired woman took care of the house, which included the Murrays’ twin daughters. One night, Kathryn climbed out a window, dropped, and broke her spine.
Asheville had its own tragic post-Crash jumps. But in 1914, the city had been flying high. The Great Gatsby, if he’d been here, would have been drawn to Battery Park Hotel dances like an outsider to the glow of the good life.
Murray’s path to high society involved wooing rather than the takeover approach of the fictional Gatsby. In 1914, charming Arthur received a letter from Edith Vanderbilt, who stated she was in charge of arrangements for the Christmas Ball.
“Dear Mr. Murray,” she wrote, “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. I understand there is a young lady in Asheville who would dance with you, and I will ask you to please extend to her this invitation.”
At future dances, Murray partnered with such local lasses as Misses Dorothy Lytle, Jeanette Hartzog, Doris Davenport, Louise Wise and Eustice Hudley. On Saturday afternoons, he gave classes to children.
“To dance smartly, as society girls must,” Murray wrote in a brochure, “it is necessary to learn from well-bred teachers who are reared in an atmosphere of culture.”
Information in this article has been drawn from Jane Murray Heimlich’s new book, “Out of Step” (Orange Frazer Press); an interview with her; and “Encyclopedia of World Biography (Advameg).
More about the Arthur Murray era
“My father’s happiest years were in Asheville,” says Jane Heimlich about her father, Arthur Murray, the world famous dance instructor. “He didn’t like to talk about his past that much, but he loved to rhapsodize about Asheville’s well bred society girls—and he got misty eyed.”
Murray was only nineteen years old when he came to the original Battery Park Hotel in the fall of 1914 with Baroness de Kuttleston, his partner at Irene and Vernon Castle’s Castle House in New York. To make himself look older, he grew a moustache. “When Edith Vanderbilt saw him,” Heimlich recounts, “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.”
Heimlich, author of “What Your Doctor Won’t Tell You” and wife of Dr. Henry Heimlich, developer of the Heimlich Maneuver, is writing a memoir about her father. Dipping into his yellowed scrapbook, she retrieves a note from Mrs. Vanderbilt.
“Dear Mr. Murray,” the note reads, “I have been requested, as a member of the committee in charge of arrangements…to ask you if you would be kind enough to perform an exhibition dance at the ball tomorrow, Tuesday evening, Dec. 25. I understand there is a young lady in Asheville who would dance with you, and I will ask you to please extend to her this invitation.”
Arthur Murray had been the toast of the town. On Saturday afternoons, he gave classes to children. At exhibitions, he partnered with such local lasses as Misses Dorothy Lytle, Jeanette Hartzog, Doris Davenport, Louise Wise and Eustice Hudley.
In 1914 and 1915, the practice of giving private dance instruction was only a couple of years old. Dancing, prohibited by many local churches, had barely evolved in the nation from the polka to ragtime, and then had suddenly been overtaken by the fox trot and the tango. While news of England’s war with Germany dominated headlines and typhoid swept through Asheville, business boomed, women gained the right to vote, and society emulated the movies.
It was the Asheville of Thomas Wolfe’s adolescence. An advertisement for homes in Forest Hill, a restricted residential park on Biltmore Avenue, blared: “More money made in real estate in the Asheville section in the past five years than anywhere in the South.”
Above the fray, Arthur Murray’s newly embraced world sparkled. The old Battery Park Hotel stood atop a now demolished hill, lit up by a thousand lights and skirted by verandas. In the spring of 1915, when Murray and Baroness de Kuttleston supervised an Easter ball at the hotel, a southern mockingbird had taken to visiting the hotel owner’s wife, Mrs. C.E. Railing, waking up guests at 6:30 a.m. with its song, and inspiring, according to reports, other early morning activities.
Hundreds of Easter lilies and many stately palms decorated the ballroom, the society page noted on the day after the ball. To conclude the exhibition, Murray and the baroness, lavishly costumed, danced the ancient Chinese Ta-Tao.
Eventually Murray split from his partner, whom he thought charged too much. He went on to teach dancing at the Georgian Terrace in Atlanta and then to transmit lessons via the radio and the mail, using kinetoscope pictures. He developed the footprint method of instruction and moved his business to New York. By 1925, more than five million Americans had learned to dance with Arthur Murray, long distance.
A walk through Asheville, spring 1916
You will be impressed by how clean the streets are. It wasn’t that way twenty years earlier, when Patton Ave. got muddy in wet weather; horses had to be swept after; and women feared going downtown because their long skirts picked up dust.
But then the streetcars came, mostly displacing the horses. Women started driving automobiles. Advertisers targeted the ladies, printing pictures of them with scarves flying behind steering wheels.
The city started picking up garbage, to be incinerated; and blasting the paved streets with high pressure hoses. There’s a new law against spitting!
Watch out! The traffic.
Everyone seems giddy with prosperity these days. You wouldn’t know there’s a war going on in Europe, or maybe you would.
Kids go joyriding—at night they open their mufflers and honk their horns, coming from parties. Delivery boys on bicycles go 25 miles per hour, weaving in and out.
Oh, you seem to be enjoying yourself. Okay, maybe you’re heading to the Battery Park Hotel tonight for a party of your own. Drink some whiskey.
Yeah, it’s dry here, been so since 1908, but that doesn’t stop these fancy places from getting liquor from across state lines. Or anyone from finding a bootlegger.
I’ll tell you some stories about that sometime, if you want to keep me on. Well, here’s one story you’ll appreciate.
Mrs. Vanderbilt—you know of the Vanderbilts, of course—well, she was going to take a motor trip in her touring car—she had a white 1913 Stevens-Duryea “C-Six” seven-passenger car. She was going with Cornelia to California, and people threw a send-off party for them.
They made the mistake of using ice from the dairy in the mint juleps, and the ice had ice cream salt in it, and the liquor was spoiled. An emergency call went out to a bootlegger. I don’t know who had the connection, but it wasn’t too hard.
As I said, everyone was partying.
I heard a fellow over at the Swannanoa-Berkeley the other day, saying to his friend, “I have lost $2,500 in the last three nights—every dollar I have made in the last year in my law practice. I promised my mother on her death-bed that I would not gamble. I promised Miriam, my girl, I would not drink. And the more I drink, the more reproachful my conscience becomes.”
Where are you staying—at the Langren? That’s brand new, built fireproof. There were a lot of fires here last year, mostly from chimney sparks.
I’ll tell you something, they say Asheville is a haven for people with lung ailments, but it isn’t as pretty a picture as you’d think. You don’t see it right now, but in the winter, smoke is pouring out the chimneys—coal smoke.
The day after a big snow, and you’ve got a gray-capped cityscape.
Thomas Wadley Raoul—he built the Manor—headed up a smoke committee and, just a few months ago, hired an engineer to come up with a way to make furnaces smokeless.
You want clean air, go to the mountains.
The boardinghouses in the city will put you out on the street if they think you carry germs; and the city will come along and disinfect.
I might get you to meet Mr. Raoul. He and Vance Brown and a Mr. Patterson have just gotten a new building put up for the Asheville Club at Broadway and Walnut. Charlton Millard’s place—he has shops on the street level, and the club has the top two floors.
It’s not quite what your guy had planned. Your guy—Gay Green, he built the hotel you’re staying in. He also proposed to put up a Shangri-La for the Asheville Club on College Street—29 bedrooms, a swimming pool, three private dining rooms, with his furniture store on the main level. Didn’t fly.
Hey, let’s grab a paper and a cigar and I’ll tell you more, as we watch the traffic go by. You need another pad to write your notes in?
No? Don’t stand by the Sondley Building. That’s where O. Henry couldn’t write and kept crumbling up his pages in 1909.
I’ve got lots of stories. Here’s the main thing. Asheville is booming, construction has tripled in five years.
Mr. Edwin Wiley Grove has come along, and now no more livestock will legally roam free within city limits.
Livestock? Dogs! Asheville’s got itself a dog catcher and he’ll nab your dog if he’s not muzzled. He nabbed Buster, and nearly got mobbed by people because Buster’s the city’s official rat catcher. So now Buster has dispensation from the muzzle law. That’s how things work, if you have connections.
The Vanderbilt story was told me by Jane Bingham in 2000. The story about the gambler comes from “Azure-Lure: A Romance of the Mountains” by Harvey Holleman (1924). Streetcar information came in part from “Trolleys in the Land of the Sky” by David Bailey et al. Information about other items comes from news articles of the time, reports, and directories.
I notice one of the local ladies who danced with Mr. Murray was Doris Davenport. I would assume this is the same lady who went on to marry Chester Pierce Munroe and lived for years on Edgemont Rd in Grove Park. Pack Library just received a collection of her papers last year which had ended up in the care of her neighbor after her death. The photo album, available online, is amazing and I can't wait to read the letters between her children, her end of the correspondence returned to her when they both died young.