Established in 1797 as the trading center and seat of the newly created Buncombe County, Asheville (then called Morristown) grew steadily through the 19th century as the economic and government center of western North Carolina. Following the arrival of the railroad in 1880, Asheville became increasingly cosmopolitan and grew rapidly as a tourist destination known for its beautiful natural setting and its first class resorts and health facilities. Downtown Asheville also developed rapidly through the late 19th and early 20th centuries when it experienced a sustained boom in population and real estate speculation that ended with the failure of the Central Bank and Trust Company, Asheville's largest financial institution, at the onset of the Great Depression.
The central business district and associated governmental and institutional areas comprise the core of the Downtown Asheville Historic District. The commercial buildings primarily date from the end of the 19th century to the 1940s along with several churches from the same period and 1920s governmental buildings. The downtown buildings range from small, one-story buildings to modest skyscrapers, and incorporate representative examples of popular architectural styles including Romanesque Revival, late Victorian, Neo-Gothic, Neo-Georgian, Classical Revival and Art Deco. Also within the district are three public spaces: Pack Square, City-County Plaza and Pritchard Park.
The architectural development of Asheville represents a layering of different building periods as bits and pieces of earlier fabric have survived each subsequent redevelopment. The oldest surviving building in the downtown area is the former Ravenscroft School, built as a residence in 1840. The finest late 19th-century building is the boldly detailed, Romanesque Revival style Drhumor Building constructed in 1895. The downtown district contains many early 20th-century examples of the work of prominent local architect Richard Sharp Smith, whose distinctive style lends much to the character of Asheville's architectural heritage. The 1920s period is represented by a large collection of fine buildings by prominent local and national architects culminating with Douglas Ellington's idiomatic Art Deco masterpieces: the City Building and the jewel-like S&W Cafeteria.
The Downtown Asheville Historic District encompasses the finest collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century urban architecture in North Carolina. With increasing preservation awareness and the availability of rehabilitation tax credits, downtown Asheville has enjoyed a striking resurgence over the past decade with a cultural diversity and social vibrancy to complement its rich architectural heritage.
The Downtown Asheville Historic District is roughly bounded by 1240 Valley St., Hilliard Ave., and Broad Ave. For more information travelers can visit the Chamber of Commerce's website or stop in the Asheville Visitor Center, at 151 Haywood St. (exit 4-C off of I-240), open Monday-Friday, 8:30am to 5:30pm and Saturday-Sunday, 9:00am to 5:00pm, with extended hours in October on Friday & Saturday until 7:00pm; closed on major holidays.