There is a prominent sign made of an oak plank with brass letters on one of the columns on the main floor of Pack Memorial Library. The sign reads “Sondley Reference Library.” It is one of the few remaining visible markers of the library’s long association with the legacy of one of Asheville’s most noteworthy citizens, Foster Alexander Sondley.
Foster Sondley was a Buncombe County native, born in the Alexander community a few years before the Civil War, 1857,to be exact. Sondley graduated from Wofford College, studied the law and went on to become one of the preeminent lawyers in this part of the country. Real estate was one of his primary areas of expertise and he did much of the legal work for George Vanderbilt as the Biltmore Estate was being created. Sondley never married, living with his mother on Asheville’s Cherry Street until her death in 1897. Following her death, Sondley moved to a massive home he constructed at the head of Haw Creek. “Finis Viae” he called it, Latin for “end of the road” and the house stands today incorporated into a housing development at the end of New Haw Creek Road. Sondley was widely read, but disinclined to travel, and perhaps in compensation, built a personal library of some 40,000 volumes. He was an avid collector and acquired substantial collections of gems and minerals, Native American artifacts, birds’ eggs and firearms.
Pack Memorial Library’s association with Sondley began with his death in 1931 and his will, which left his library and collections to the City of Asheville to be placed in the then new Pack Memorial Library on Pack Square.
Nan Erwin, Pack’s Head Librarian and George Wright, the Chairman of the Library Board wanted the collection and Miss Erwin believed that Pack Memorial Library had the capacity to house it. Others, relations and friends of Dr. Sondley, most notably, A.C. Reynolds, wanted the collection maintained as a separate library and housed in City Hall. Ultimately, the second group prevailed, and the Sondley Library was opened on the seventh floor of City Hall. University of North Carolina President Frank Porter Graham gave the dedicatory address on October 1, 1935, saying “This is literally the bequest of a man’s life work … it requires some sacrifice, energy, discriminating scholarship, a willingness to love books, to collect such a library.”
This arrangement lasted, at times uneasily, as the City of Asheville’s precarious Depression era finances kept the idea of moving the Sondley Collection into Pack Library alive. In 1943, in the midst of The Second World War, the United States Army Air Corps Flight Command leased Asheville’s City Hall and the Sondley Library was hastily moved to Pack Library. By this time, there was less enthusiasm among the staff and Board of Trustees of Pack Library for the incorporation of the Sondley Library. For more than forty years, housing the Sondley collections amounted to a distortion of the mission of the public library. Little in the collections was appropriate for a public library and the perpetuities established in Sondley’s will created space shortages and illogical shelving arrangements until the new Pack Memorial Library Building was erected on Haywood Street in 1978. In the late 1980’s, the Library Board of Trustees sought the Court’s permission to break the will in order to sell those portions of the Sondley Library that were not relevant to the public library’s purposes. Sondley’s materials that pertained to local and regional history were retained in the Pack Library collection. The proceeds from that sale today form the corpus of a trust fund that supports Pack Memorial Library’s North Carolina Collection. Thus, at least a part of Sondley’s legacy lives on and hopefully in a fashion he would have found to be acceptable.
Post by Ed Sheary, retired director Buncombe County Public Libraries