Today’s round of questions, my smart-aleck replies and the real answers:
Question: Why are there ramps at the north end of the Grove Arcade? I have seen historic pictures with old model cars up on the roof there but can’t imagine how they made that sharp U-turn midway up the ramp. Was parking intended there?
My answer: I’m pretty sure this was the original purpose of the winged lions at the base of the ramps — heavy lifting. By the way, don’t call these creatures “griffins,” unless you want a flood of emails from historians and architects.
Real answer: First it was the “Wahm-boldt”/“Wham-boldt” historical puzzler, and now this.
If you’ve been downtown, you most likely are familiar with these ramps, located on the north end of the historic Grove Arcade building and guarded on each side by a pair of winged lions. For the record, a griffin is a mythical creature that has the head and talons of an eagle atop a lion’s body, so the sticklers are correct in that the Arcade’s critters are not griffins.
But back to the ramps, which are indeed pretty narrow and steep. And yes, that turn at the top is really tight.
Besides the reader who’s seen the picture, I also talked with Ruth Summers, executive director of the Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation, which holds the arcade’s master lease with the City of Asheville.
“It is true they drove up the ramp,” Summers told me. “I think the photo is in the North Carolina Collection at UNC Asheville. I have seen the photo but do not think I have a copy.”
Neither did UNC Asheville’s Special Collections, according to assistant Ashley McGhee Whittle.
“I haven’t found any photos of Grove Arcade with Model T’s on top,” Whittle said. “Have you checked with Buncombe County Special Collections?”
That was my next stop. Jenny G. Bowen, Buncombe County Special Collections library assistant, did some very thorough research on this case.
“I checked our archives here at the Buncombe County Special Collections, the Special Collections at UNC-Asheville, and the Western Regional Archives and I can find no records or images of cars being on the roof of the Grove Arcade building,” Bowen told me via email. “We found a 1929 advert for the building that calls those ramps on the north side strictly ornamental — so I don’t think anything has ever driven up them.”
Bowen said the Arcade, which opened in 1929, did host an auto show once, “but those vehicles were either shown in the basement or ground floor of the building.”
Summers said the building definitely has no freight elevator to the roof, “and no secret underground passages, either,” in case you were curious. So the cars must’ve been driven up there.
Local historian Kevan Frazier said he’d never heard of cars being driven up there, and he joked that even for a relatively small Ford Model T or Model A it would’ve been a “64-point turn” to get up the ramp and on the roof.
“I’ve never heard anything (suggesting) that it was intended for parking,” Frazier said, noting that the building does have a parking garage below, quite an innovation for the late 1920s. “E.W. Grove thought the car was going to change everything.”
He was correct on that front.
Grove, who died in 1927, was the visionary developer behind the arcade, as well as the nearby Battery Park Hotel, and the Grove Park Inn in North Asheville.
I did scan through the original drawings for the Grove Arcade, which you can find on the Buncombe County Special Collections site, and while they’re cool and show plans for a 14-story tower atop the building that was never built, they don’t offer any clues about the ramps.
The architect, Charles Parker, “had moved to Asheville in 1904 at age 18 to work in the office of Architect Richard Sharp Smith, who supervised the construction of the Biltmore Estate and then established his own practice,” according to the GroveArcade.com history page. “Later, Parker designed houses in the Grove Park subdivision, and his flair landed him the Arcade job.”
As far as the ramps, which are still there today but are blocked off by gates, the arcade’s history page notes that Parker borrowed the idea from the Biltmore Estate’s “Rampe Douce, French for ‘gentle incline.’”
“The ramps were designed to enable pedestrians — including mothers with strollers — to ascend to a roof garden that included a band shell,” the history states.
Frazier pointed out that some remnants of the original band shell are still visible, as it’s been incorporated into one of the apartment’s balconies.
Originally opened as “Asheville’s Original Mall,” as the history states, the Arcade “included candy and cigar stores, a haberdashery, a public stenography office, fruit stands, millinery shops, beauty parlors and barbershops, a photography center, bookstalls and specialty groceries.”
That lasted until 1942, when the federal government took over the building during World War II. In 1951, the building became the headquarters of the National Climatic Data Center.
The center moved to the new federal building nearby in 1995, and in 1997 the City of Asheville acquired the building’s title and has a 99-year lease with the Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation.
After an extensive renovation, including removing the hideous yellow bricks the feds used to enclose the first floor’s exterior, the Grove Arcade reopened in 2002, with retail on the first floor and offices and apartments on the upper floors.
But back to the cars. Clearly, some reliable folks remember seeing the photo of cars on the building’s roof, leading me to believe it’s out there somewhere.
If you have it, or know where I can get, please give me a shout. Actually, just call or email. I hear enough shouting in regular life.
Got a question? Send it to John Boyle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-337-0941.