February 1980: The Demoliton of an Entire City Block

As the North Carolina Room prepares to launch a 6 part series on Asheville in the 1980s with the first program April 27, 2016 on the fight to save 11 acres from being demolished for a mall, we wanted to take a look at what preceded that duel. Right before the Strouse, Greenberg and Co. mid-city mall proposal in March of 1980, there was the demolition of a full block of 1880s era historical buildings on Patton Avenue.

Below is a 1960s photo showing that block, usually referred to as the Imperial Theater block. It stretched from the Sondley Building at the corner of Patton and Church and included all the buildings down to the Man’s store at the corner of Patton and South Lexington.

Some Asheville residents tried to stop it, but most recall that it “happened so quickly–it seemed like a done deal.” Some people who were here at that time say they recall hearing a “theory that the block on Patton was a dry run for how fast the (Strouse-Greenberg) mall area could be torn down.”

Rainy day view, east along Patton Ave from at Church Street towards Pack Sq. On the right (R to L): Fields Inc. men’s clothing store in the Sondley AKA Bank Bldg. #44, Belk’s Department Store #36, Imperial Theater #32; Lee’s Jewelers #30, Efird’s Department Store #28, and the Man Store #22 before South Lexington Avenue. Photo by John Basba, 1963-64.

The buildings were purchased in 1979 by two Asheville banks, Asheville Federal Savings & Loan and the First Citizens Bank & Trust Company. They wanted the property for parking and announced the old store fronts were too old to renovate.

Michael Southern, Western Representative Archaeology and Historic Preservation, wrote on behalf of the newly established Historical Resourses Commission of Asheville, to the president of Asheville Federal Savings bank, William Prescott on November 16, 1979. “Many  citizens feel that these building are an integral part of the architectural and historic character of the downtown district, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and that care should be taken to consider every feasible alternative before the structures are removed forever.” Mr. Southern suggested federal funding available for historic preservation work including funding for evaluating costs of rehabilitation.

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Site of the Imperial Theater block looking west towards the Drhumor Building. The dark brick Sondley building past the theater barely in view. Photograph taken February 1980 before demolition by Peggy Gardner.

The Sondley building was built for attorney and historian Foster A. Sondley and was the building that O. Henry had an office in during his short stay in Asheville after the turn of the century. Built in 1891 as a four-story building it was later expanded in 1900 to six. In 1980 it housed J. Pressley Ltd.

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View looking up Church Street towards the Sondley building at the corner of Patton. Photo by Peggy Gardner, February 1980.


Architectural detail of the Sondley building. Photo by Peggy Gardner, February, 1980. [MS305.001 image 081]
 At the opposite end of the block was the Grand Central Hotel Annex built in 1880 by S.H. Chedester who owned the Grand Central Hotel on the opposite side of the street, where the Kress Building now stands. The Annex was connected to the original hotel by an iron bridge that spanned Patton Avenue.

Historic Resources Commission photograph by David Black of the Grand Central Hotel Annex building, 1977. [N115-5.]


Pen & ink drawing of the Grand Central Hotel, built by father and son, Newton Pearce Chedester and Samuel Hall Chedester. The iron bridge dates from 1888 to 1894. [A738-5]
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Architectural detail of the Grand Central Hotel Annex building. Photo by Peggy Gardner, February, 1980. [MS305.001 image 063]
Asheville architect and city planner Jim Samsel wrote an editorial that was published in both the morning and evening newspapers, giving harsh criticism to the Asheville Revitalization Committee and the city council for their inaction on this key issue. “Both the property owners and the ARC are extremely shortsighted in this action . . .of the wholesale destruction of an entire block of Patton Avenue for a single-level parking lot. Anymore “missing teeth” in our streetscape and downtown will end up looking like it needs dentures.” January 1, 1980.

Bob Terrell also wrote about the demolition of the block in the Asheville Citizen, “Destruction of History.”  “When the wrecking ball smashes into the Grand Central Annex within the next few days, a lot of history will tumble into rubble.” The irony was not lost on him either that the history was being lost for a parking lot.  2/1/1980.

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Demolition photo by Peggy Gardner, 1980. [MS305.001A image 072]
MS305_001A image 074
Demolition photo by Peggy Gardner, 1980. [MS305.001A image 074]


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Demolition photo by Peggy Gardner, 1980. [MS305.001A image 087]
On Wednesday, March 5, 1980, as walls were tumbling down, The Asheville Citizen recorded bystanders watching a workman who had walked to the top of a crane stretched up to an open sided, second story of a building “as if they thought he was a superhero making a triumphant rescue atop a downtown building. But no superheroes intervened in the process these folks were watching. . . Even a superhero couldn’t have stopped the tide of progress.”

Parking lot
Google maps image of Asheville Savings parking lot between Church Street and South Lexington.

The North Carolina Room is grateful to Peggy Gardner for her recent donation (and her dogged determination at uncovering them) of these 1980 photographs, MS305.

Asheville in the 1980s:  A  Formative Decade Told by Those Who Shaped It
These programs are comprised of panelists and two moderators, all of whom were involved in their subject area in Asheville during this decade.  All are on the last Wednesday of the month, 6:00 pm-7:30 pm. We hope you will join us. All events are free and open to the public. This series is sponsored by the Friends of the North Carolina Room.

April 27: Save Downtown Asheville & the Wrap
May 25: Businesses, Restaurants and Food Stores
June 29: Social Activism & Social Agencies
July 27: Arts, Theater & Music
August 31: Downtown Housing & the State of Buildings
September 28: Politics and Civic Engagement

Post by Zoe Rhine, Librarian

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