What Makes a Historic Home?

If you’re looking for property in Asheville—especially homes for sale in Montford and homes for sale in Grove Park—you’ve come across some old houses. For many, these homes, some of which date back to the 19thcentury, are the crown jewel of Asheville’s real estate market. Western North Carolina has a history unlike anywhere else, and it has produced a truly unique housing stock that represents most major movements in American architecture.

So, what separates an old house from a historic home? How do we decide which homes get preserved and which ones get knocked down to build something new? How do we keep innovation alive in the housing market while preserving Asheville’s rich history?

Well, there aren’t any easy answers to those questions, but we asked Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County Executive Director Jack Thomson to help us answer some of the burning questions around historic real estate.

jack thomson preservation society asheville buncombe county

Jack Thomson is the executive director at the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County. PSABC helps protect historic architecture, including homes in the Asheville market.

Defining Historic Real Estate

 “It’s remarkable how things come around,” Thomson says when reflecting on the way the preservation movement has evolved in Asheville. “Forty years ago everyone was into the Victorians, the painted ladies, 30 years ago the Arts & Crafts movement was embraced where earlier ‘they weren’t worth saving,’ quote unquote.”

To understand preservation real estate, we can think of history like a dog sled. Like dogs pulling a sled, we’re always moving forward at the same speed, with “the past” always a fixed distance behind us. At this point in 2019, the phrase “fifty years ago” means 1969—the height of the Atomic Age, the year of the moon landing. It follows that in 2069, 2019 will be “fifty years ago” and viewed with the same sense of distance and wonder.

“The younger generations are starting to recognize it,” Thomson says, “they recognize preservation isn’t a static movement.” While people who grew up in Post-War America may see the houses they were raised in as old and stuffy things, Millennials are ecstatic. “Today, the kids love ranch houses. The Atomic Age is hot,” Thomson says.

It’s essential to see preservation as a dynamic movement. The goal isn’t to keep Asheville’s real estate market trapped in the Victorian era, but instead to create a diverse celebration of history that we can all live in and enjoy.

The History of Home Preservation in Asheville

 Jack Thomson says the idea of preservation really took off in the 1970s, when the Bicentennial had Americans fixated on times past, extending their view anywhere from 50 to 100 years into the nation’s history. Preservationists at the time looked back and fell in love with the Victorian homes that reached their popular peak around the turn of the century.

The turn-of-the-century era should set off a lightbulb for Asheville history buffs. The Biltmore Estate was completed in 1895, and brought with it many of the skilled tradespeople and monied visitors who would put the city on the map.

Early preservationists in Asheville set their sights on the Montford district, Asheville’s oldest neighborhood. The neighborhood was in disarray at the time, subject to property abandonments and disinvestments after years of stagnant development in the Asheville economy. However, Thomson says preservationists got to work on fixing up a few properties, which lit a fire and motivated homeowners and investors to renovate and restore the area. Now, Montford is the hottest area code in Asheville thanks to its stock of beautiful historic homes.

The Future of Preservation in Asheville

Thomson says the goal of preservation is to get the culture to embrace history and learn from it, but not to be stodgy about it. “We take the view that the community needs to be a big part of determining what should be saved,” he says. “We don’t want to save everything. We want to embrace thoughtful change.”

“I tell architects all the time that I hope they will design something that I will want to preserve 50 years from now,” Thomson says. In that spirit, the Preservation Society wants to put together a tour of homes built in the past few years that exemplify the type of great design that will stand the test of time. They’ll be focusing on intentionally built designs that are unique but still show off the best in early 21stcentury design, but these upscale homes aren’t the only things the Preservation Society has their eye on.

“Part of the trick is that good design isn’t always recognized until it has been around a while,” Thomson says. “Broad design trends often aren’t recognized as good design right off the bat. They have to sit on a shelf a bit and see if the community wants to embrace it 20 or 30 years from now.”

So, what does it take for a beautiful new home to become a legendary historic home? One thing: time.

Why Buy Historic Real Estate in Asheville?

 Historic real estate presents a great opportunity for buyers in Asheville.

“Asheville has been a community of newcomers for 130 years,” Thomson says. However, long-time Asheville residents are often wary of newcomers who want to make big changes. Putting a fresh coat of paint on a Tudor will make you much more popular with the neighbors than knocking it down in many neighborhoods. “For the most part, folks who come here recognize that if they can embrace our history as it is represented through architecture, then they will become a bona-fide part of the community much quicker.”

There’s also the practical matter of resources. Many of the old homes that are still standing in Asheville are standing for a reason: they were built to last. Even if your home is a bit of a fixer upper in Asheville, some new wood fixtures and some paint require far fewer natural resources than building an entirely new home from scratch. Renovations also pump money into the local economy, supporting Asheville’s massive community of craftspeople.

Fitting into Asheville

 Asheville is a city that loves its past, but is always evolving. We celebrate all homes in the region, from the classic Tudors, to the mid-century ranches, to the ultra-modern homes destined to become iconic community staples in a few short decades.

If you’d like to become a steward of Asheville’s past, present, and future, there’s no better way than by helping to preserve one of its many architectural treasures. If you’re looking for a little help on your search, Keller Williams has Asheville real estate experts in every type of real estate on the market just waiting to help you find your perfect home.

Preservation Society of Asheville Buncombe County
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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