Contrary to the economic prosperity and growth of the 1920s, the Great Depression of the 1930s devastated the lives of the people of Asheville. With a number of new public improvements, including a brand new City Hall, a 16-story County Courthouse, and the relocation of Pack Memorial Library, the stock market crash left Asheville with the highest per capita debt in the nation. Rather than file bankruptcy, Asheville's public leaders chose to pay every penny back. With a weary economy and public funds tied up in debt, Asheville's growth came to a standstill.
Despite Asheville's misfortune, the Depression era provided some advantage. Many of Asheville's buildings avoided demolition as the popular “urban renewal” of the 1950s and 1960s sought to replace the old and to build new in other cities. As the city and county diligently repaid its debt, Asheville lay dormant for almost 50 years with little new construction and only minor renovations including cladding original facades with metal and screen. The thinly veiled buildings awaited better fortune until 1976 when the city paid and ceremoniously burned its last bond.
Shortly following the city's repayment, the Asheville Revitalization Commission was created with the goal of revitalizing downtown. The Commission developed a plan called “A Revitalized Downtown,” for making downtown more livable and developing its strengths as an established neighborhood.
In 1979, the Strouse Greenberg Company proposed to build a shopping mall that would demolish and replace 11 blocks in the heart of downtown. The proposal was controversial and deeply divided the community. The project came to an end when a public referendum in November 1981 defeated it by a margin of two to one. The defeat served to galvanize the community and sparked renewed interest in Downtown revitalization and historic preservation.
Local organizations like the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, the Historic Resources Commission of Asheville and Buncombe County and the Downtown Commission, a City Council appointed board, provided the much needed leadership in local efforts to rehabilitate Asheville's abundant supply of historic buildings. The establishment of the Historic Resources Commission in 1979 was crucial in designating local historic districts with specific ordinances adopted to protect each district's buildings as well as the surrounding landscape. The designated local districts include the Montford Historic District, Biltmore Village Historic District and Albemarle Park.
The groundswell of interest in preservation and the success of downtown revitalization efforts in the late 1980s and early 1990s supported a new trend in acquiring and renovating old buildings, especially those available for historic preservation tax credits. Asheville has since become one of the leading cities in the number of Federal and State historic preservation tax credit projects in North Carolina.
The promotion of heritage tourism has had tremendous success in drawing visitors to Asheville and Buncombe County and preserving historic buildings throughout the area. Numerous partnerships have formed to educate the public about historic preservation, to design tourism programs and to secure funding and lead often painstakingly detailed restoration projects that have all encouraged and preserved the area's unique sense of place. Collaborations between the public and private sectors have accomplished extensive restorations, preserving such important buildings as the Grove Arcade public market and the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, which had attracted 30,000 visitors a year before it was damaged by fire in 1998. The state of North Carolina, owner and operator of this National Historic Landmark where American writer Thomas Wolfe once lived, spent six years and $2.4 million to meticulously restore it to its former grandeur, reopening the memorial in 2004.
Much of Asheville and Buncombe County's appeal is in the long history of architectural craftsmanship in the buildings, as well as the history of the people and lives that occupied the area. Asheville and Buncombe County have found historic preservation to be a useful economic and quality-of-life tool. Preservation has been able to stabilize property values and stimulate new investment in older residential neighborhoods and commercial areas. More than 80 buildings in Buncombe County have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and even more are included in locally registered historic districts. With increased tourism, commercial activity and improved appearance, Asheville is now in a new heyday nearly a century later; a renaissance fostered by the preservation of Asheville and Buncombe County's special built environment.