Today’s round of questions, my smart-aleck replies and the real answers:
Question: Has anyone at Watchdog heard the official, public reopening date for the new, and newly renovated, Asheville History Museum housed in the old Smith-McDowell House?
My answer: I’m assuming my invitation to the opening gala has gotten lost in the mail. It’s amazing how often that happens with my invites. That includes one to my wife’s birthday party earlier this year. Strange, that was.
Real answer: Good news for history buffs!
“We’re having an opening event gala next week — it’s all booked — and then we’re open to the public following that,” said Emily Cadmus, membership and development associate with the museum.
The museum is scheduled to open to the public starting Oct. 25, with hours running from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. The sold-out “First Look” event is Oct. 18.
“We’re literally installing exhibits today,” Anne Chesky, executive director of the Asheville Museum of History and the Western North Carolina Historical Association, told me Wednesday. “So we’re keeping our fingers crossed that the 25th continues to be the date.”
A news release on the website notes the opening fulfills “decades-long efforts to have a museum in Asheville that tells stories of the mountains, a region with a rich and diverse — and sometimes misunderstood — past.”
Honestly, it’s kind of crazy that Asheville doesn’t have a history museum, so I’m excited they’re getting this open. The home has been a “house museum” for 40-plus years, “with very few changes,” Chesky said, and it also had a lot of deferred maintenance.
The WNC Historical Association, which has promoted regional history for more than 70 years, is behind the museum, located in the Smith-McDowell House at 283 Victoria Road next to Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.
The house dates to 1840, and it needed a lot of work. The news release on the opening notes the home has “undergone extensive repairs and renovations during the past two years and will now provide gallery spaces for permanent and changing exhibits as well as programs and other meetings.” Guided behind-the-scenes tours also will be available.
The museum will feature a permanent, interactive timeline to “give visitors a broad overview of our regional history using stories, photographs, and artifacts,” according to the release.
The first temporary exhibit will showcase noted architect Rafael Guastavino, who designed the Basilica of St. Lawrence Catholic church downtown and worked on the Biltmore Estate, Chesky said.
The restoration work alone cost about $500,000, Chesky said, and included a new roof, an upgraded HVAC system, plaster repairs, exterior and interior painting, a new bathroom, and accessible parking. The museum has received a variety of grants and a bequest from Virginia McDowell Colwell, a descendant of the original owners of the house.
The museum also has new lighting and gallery designs.
The home previously had a Victorian look, but Chesky said the restoration takes the home back to how it appeared between about 1840 and 1880. That includes white walls and black baseboards, which happens to work very well for museum gallery space.
“Basically, we’ve opened the entire first floor, and there’s a lot of space,” Chesky said. “We’ve got four gallery rooms, with the timeline and an ADA accessible bathroom.”
They’ll have one permanent display on the occupants of the house, but not just the owners.
“We will do some guided, behind-the-scenes tours, and we want to be able to tell the stories of the house and all the people who’ve been here —- not just the owners but the people who were enslaved here prior to 1865, and people who were servants here after 1865,” Chesky said.
The museum will have a period room in the basement, the “winter kitchen,” which “was used by the enslaved people there,” Chesky said. It also will have a period bedroom on the second floor that will have “a lot of interesting pieces from the Smith and McDowell families,” Chesky said.
The house/museum will really be a “microcosm of Asheville and Western North Carolina during the time of the Civil War,” and the decades surrounding it, Chesky said.
“It is a major change to how we’ve been using the house for interpretation,” she added.
Before the pandemic shut the world down, visitation had really dropped off at the Smith-McDowell House, falling below 1,500 a year, and its budget was under $50,000. The operation also lost some volunteers and was no longer able to offer guided tours.
So the new museum is a chance for revitalization.
“It was really an effort to not only serve the community better, but to make ourselves relevant and attractive to both visitors and people who live here — new residents and people who’ve been here a long time,” Chesky said. “We definitely needed to do something and rethink the way that we were operating.”
Admission will be $5 for adults, $2 for children, Chesky said. Wednesdays will be called “WNC Wednesdays,” and entry will be free for those showing a driver’s license or utility bill that identifies them as being from any of the 23 counties in Western North Carolina, she added.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Got a question? Send it to John Boyle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-337-0941. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.