“Montford is a 40-year overnight success story,” Jack Thomson says with a smile. Thomson, the executive director of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, has reason to chuckle. Located just outside the limits of Downtown Asheville, Montford is one of the most sought-after addresses in Western North Carolina.
However, Montford isn’t some hot new neighborhood with hyper-modern, trendy architecture. Far from it, in fact. Montford is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Western North Carolina, predating areas like Kenilworth and Biltmore Forest by 50 years. The neighborhood has had a wild history full of twists and turns, decadence and decay, and is now the signature historic neighborhood in the Asheville real estate market.
Montford’s Early Days
The oldest homes in Montford date back to the 1870s, late-Victorian homes with mountain flair. Thomson considers Montford the crown jewel of the city’s 19thcentury architecture. These older homes exemplify the American Queen Anne style with Dutch gables, large towers, and asymmetrical facades. The neighborhood is set apart from not only by designs, but by the quality of craftsmanship—one of the reasons so many original Montford homes are still standing today
Unlike planned neighborhoods like Grove Park, Montford also benefits from organic development. Second-generation northwestern extensions to the neighborhood like Montford Hills came about years after the initial neighborhood was already finished, creating a wide range of stylistic diversity and clear transition points throughout the area. An astute architectural history buff can walk the neighborhood and track its evolution by noting the crossroads where Arts and Crafts influence begins to creep in and replace the somewhat Addams Family-esque spires.
The Biltmore Connection
Montford’s incredible homes didn’t happen in a vacuum. Like many parts of Asheville’s early history, Montford’s development has ties to the Biltmore Estate. When George Vanderbilt set out to create his castle, he employed the best of the best. The lead architect on the Biltmore Estate was Richard Morris Hunt, one of the most notable architects in New York City. Hunt had two collaborators on the project—Richard Sharp Smith and Raphael Guastavino.
Both Guastavino and Smith remained in Asheville, with Smith in particular leaving an indelible mark on the city. Smith designed many signature downtown features like the Vance Monument, Masonic Lodge, and the E.W. Grove Office.
Smith’s signature pebbledash stucco, reminiscent of Biltmore Village, can be seen on homes like the Charles Jordan House on Montford Avenue. Smith brought the elaborate, elegant touches of the Biltmore House to Montford, giving it a signature look that is still prominent today.
Montford in Decline
Of course, the Montford we know and love today almost didn’t exist. The 20thcentury had a number of curious developments in store for Asheville, each adding another twist in the road for the famed Montford neighborhood. The first of those twists came in a year infamous to students of American history.
“The city went broke in 1929,” Thomson says. From our privileged position decades in the future, we can see that this financial trouble was a blessing and a curse for the city. The city chose not to declare bankruptcy, but instead pay off its debts, a process that took almost 50 years. Development ground to a halt during those decades between 1929 and the mid-70s.
The city’s finances meant that much of the Post-War boom passed Asheville by. The federal government’s urban renewal initiatives mostly skipped over Western North Carolina, meaning the bulldozers never came to turn the region’s old homes and farmland into suburbs and shopping centers.
While neighborhoods like Montford weren’t demolished, they also weren’t preserved. “By the early 70s, Montford was very forlon as a neighborhood,” Thomson says. Many of the grand Victorian homes in Montford fell into disrepair and decay after decades of a stagnant economy.
Preservation and a New Day
Montford’s nadir aligned with another happening in American history: the birth of the preservation movement. The American Bicentennial inspired Americans across the country to celebrate the country’s history. For many, that celebration came in the form of restoring old homes and downtown buildings to their original glory and protecting them from future development.
These early preservationists were enamored with the late 19th-century Victorian era. It just so happens that Montford had one of the most impressive selections of Victorian era homes in the entire region. The only tricky part was making them presentable and livable.
“There’s a saying among our colleagues,” Thomson says. “Preservation happens one house at a time, one block at a time, one neighborhood at a time.”
That first house was the Gudger House, a Queen Anne Victorian. The home, built by Asheville postmaster Henry Lamar Gudger in 1895, fell into disrepair and was condemned in the mid 1900s. The Preservation Society acquired the home in 1978 and set to work restoring it.
As Thomson tells it, the Gudger House was the drop that turned to a deluge. Restoration projects were launched by neighbors, then their neighbors, a whole street, a whole block, and soon a whole neighborhood. The glory of Montford was gradually restored through a community-driven effort that took decades, but in the end resulted in a beautiful corner of the city that transports visitors and residents to the vibrant early days of Asheville’s history.
Historic Homes for Sale in Asheville
Here’s the best part of the preservation boom: many of these houses are residential homes that are on the market today. Asheville’s unique layout and preservation history means you could be the steward of one of these incredible historic homes in Montford. If you’re passionate about immersing yourself in the culture of Asheville, there’s no better way than to live in a monument to the town’s fascinating history.
Of course, buying and maintaining a historic home is a daunting task. That’s where we step in. Keller Williams Asheville has the best team of realtors in the region, and many of our team members are experts in historic homes and preservation real estate. If you want to be a part of Asheville’s history, get in touch with us today and we’ll get you started on your journey into the living past.
This article was written in partnership with the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County. If you’d like to learn more about their preservation efforts and how you can get involved, visit their website to contact them today.
The cover image for this article is by Karen D. Hoffman, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 License.
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