History of Asheville’s River Arts District

View of Depot Street looking North from the train depot during the flood of 1916.

The River Arts District in Asheville is renowned for the creativity of its hundreds of artists. We work in buildings that have seen numerous changes on a land that has been peopled by many along a river that is one of the oldest in the world and nestled among the oldest mountains on earth.

We celebrate this history and how it infuses the spaces in which we create.

Before the Artists

The French Broad River flows along the western boundary of the River Arts District (RAD). At 320-340 million years old, it is one of the three oldest rivers in the United States and one of the five oldest in the world.

The Cherokee lived, fished, & recreated in this area since at least 10,000 years ago. This river was integral to their livelihood and religion. The river had many names. The section of shoals and rapids that runs along the area now called the River Arts District was named Tahkeyostee (un-ta-ki-yo-sti-ye), meaning racing place. The Cherokee were displaced to the mountains west of Asheville by settlers and industry. In 1838, the Cherokee population was removed to Oklahoma on the “Trail of Tears.” Descendants remain today as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, living on a small fraction of the land they once used for their livelihood and recreation.

Early white settlers (primarily English, Scotch-Irish, and German descent) arrived in the late 1600s, with increasing numbers in the 1700s. They primarily had small family farms, although some larger farms did enslave African Americans. The 1800s brought increased white populations and commerce as roads were improved.

After the Civil War, bond funds were raised to extend the railroad from Morganton across Blue Ridge mountains into Asheville. The railroad was built largely by convicts, 85% of whom were African American. To ensure an adequate workforce, people were easily convicted of laws such as theft of any farm animal over $1 or the crime of not being employed.

The river and railroad created an ideal setting for industry. The area that is now the River Arts District was home to stockyards and the 30 buildings of the Hans Rees & Sons tanneries; the numerous buildings of the Asheville Cotton Mills producing denim and flannel; meat processing plants; factories producing shoes, furniture, and other goods; and an icehouse.

An historic flood in 1916 led to closure of some companies. Others arrived and set up businesses further up the hill, such as the Earle-Chesterfield hatchery and Farmer’s Federation egg processing plant.

The egg processing plant was later bought by Matthew Bacoate, Jr., who operated MB disposables, creating disposable textiles, such as gowns and masks used in health care. At that time, it was the largest black-owned business in Asheville. His business closed with the urban renewal movement of the 1970s. In the East Riverside area, which includes what is now the River Arts District, over 1000 homes, seven churches, and more than 60 black-owned businesses — including grocery stores, laundromats, beauty parlors, barber shops, funeral homes, cabinet shops, gas stations, a hotel, a hospital, and doctor’s offices — were condemned or demolished.

Artists Work Together to Promote the Arts

The earliest artists moved into the RAD starting in 1985. Their histories are described in the map sections below.

In 1994, Odyssey Center served as the hub for the first “Studio Stroll” inviting people into the rarely visited industrial area. Highwater Clays funded and organized strolls for the first four years before turning it over to an artist committee which called itself River District Artists.

In 2005, this mile-long section along the French Broad riverfront was officially named the River Arts District thanks to advocacy by artists and building owners.

In 2013, the approximately 80 artists of River District Artists voted to incorporate as River Arts District Artists, Inc. (RADA), a non-profit member organization which now numbers close to 300 artist members. RADA seeks to be a voice for the artists locally and regionally related to marketing as envisioning the future.

Yesterday to Today – by the RADA map sections

The Blue Section – the Tannery

In 1898, Hans Rees & Sons built 30 buildings on 22 acres as a tannery where cowhides were cured, tanned, and finished to make leather belts (e.g., huge conveyor belts) for factories. This apparently caused quite a stench as they processed 30,000 pounds of cattle hide a day.

In 1990, Helaine Green and her sister Trudy Gould rented space in one of the largest tannery buildings, built in 1902. They purchased it in 1996 for their growing business, Candle Station. In 2004, they closed the candle business and renamed the building Riverview Station, to create studios for more than 100 artists.

The buildings between Riverview Station and the railroad tracks are now collectively called “The Foundation” with Foundy Street connecting workspaces and studios for artists at Foundation Woodworks, Foundation Studios, and Marquee. Former tannery buildings also host restaurants, a brewery, a movie theater, and a skate park.

The Orange Section – Utilities

 Curve Studios and Garden was originally a distribution center for Standard Oil Company built in 1916. The three buildings were bought by artist Pattiy Torno in 1989 to open a punk rock club for all ages called Squash Pile along with live/work studios for artists. After the 2004 flood from Hurricane Francis, the spaces changed to retail/work spaces featuring Pattiy’s clothing designs, multiple artists, and Silver River Chairs & museum upstairs.

8 River Arts Place was an electric company building over Bacoate Creek. It was restored by the City of Asheville and is now leased to Black Wall Street Asheville, a non-profit organizing working to help start, grow, and support black-owned businesses

Warehouse Studios was built in 1901 as Williams Feed Company. Porge & Lewis Buck, printmaker and painter respectively, purchased it in 1987, named it Warehouse Studios and began leasing the large, sunny studios to other artists. It was purchased in 1992 by RiverLink for offices downstairs and artist studios upstairs. *Note the white brick on the corner of Warehouse Studios marking the high water mark of the 1916 flood.

The Green Section – The Cotton Mill & Village

The Cotton Mill was built in 1887 for the production of denim and flannel. There were originally multiple buildings owned by C.E. Graham. The mill was later bought by Moses and Cesar Cone who sold quality to denim to companies such as Levi’s. They shut the mill in 1953 and a fire in 1995 destroyed about two-thirds of the vacant building. In 2003, Marty & Eileen Black bought the building for their ceramics business and opened spaces to other artists. It has changed hands twice since, currently owned by Jannette Montenegro & Rich Patino. It is home to Guitar Bar, an art bar, and a half dozen artists and art businesses.

The cotton mills required a large workforce, which settled in the area earning the nickname “Chicken Hill” because families brought their small farm animals with them when they came to Asheville to work at the mill.

99 Riverside was built in 1958 as a storage warehouse.

An old smokestack remains as the last vestiges of an ice house which offered cold storage and sold ice from Mount Mitchell.

Riverside Studios appears on an 1891 map as a general store. It was replaced by a new building in 1940. It was restored after the big flood of 2004 by sculptor Jim Richbourg as artist and sculpture studios.

The Hatchery was built in 1955 as part of the Earle-Chesterfield Mill Company. Earlier mill and silo buildings in that area date to 1905. The Hatchery was repurposed in 2011 for artists and a restaurant.

The Red Section – Eggs & Groceries

The Kent Building at 95 Roberts Street was built in 1923 as the Kent & Ebbs grocery distributorship. It is currently being renovated as the RADical hotel.

The Phil Mechanic Building was built in 1920 as a cold storage warehouse. It was repurposed in 1998 by Jolene and Mitch Mechanic for art studios and a non-profit gallery.

The Wedge is now home to scores of artists on three floors from street level up and a lower level with the original home of Wedge brewery, a restaurant, and other businesses. It was built in 1916 as the Farmer’s Federated Agricultural Co-op, and was later MB disposables, described earlier. The building became available after urban renewal, purchased by Bill Goacher in the 1980s and sold to sculptor John Payne, a mentor to many artists. His large steel works are still visible as the fence and stairway to the lower level and the dinosaur sculpture hanging from the building above the wine bar.

140 Roberts St. hosts Joseph Ransmeier woodworks, one of the earlier artists in the RAD, and North Carolina Glass Center, a non-profit dedicated to the advancement of education, exploration, and collaboration in all forms of glass.

Odyssey Center for Ceramic Arts was purchased by Brian & Gail McCarthy in 1995 as a space for clay artists to learn, work, and sell. They had already been renting space in the RAD since 1985 for their business Highwater Clays and wanted to expand. The center offers classes, rental equipment for clay artists, and retail outlets.

The Purple Section – the Railroad and Depot

Many of the buildings along Depot Street supported the railroad, including a former depot built in 1905 and demolished in 1968 at the south end of Depot Street.

The railroad from Morganton across the Blue Ridge Mountains into Asheville was built after the Civil War. It was built largely by convicts, 85% of whom were African Americans who were easily convicted of laws such as theft of any farm animal over $1 or the crime of loitering in order to bolster the number of laborers.

Across the street from the depot was the Glen Rock Hotel, which also had a huge safe to hold the payroll for the railroad. You can see it now in Local Cloth, a nonprofit to support local fiber industry including farmers, fiber artists, suppliers, designers, sewists, educators, students, and small scale fiber mills.

The former Armor Meat Packing Plant, built in 1910, was purchased by photographer Steven Keull in 1987 for his commercial photography business, making it one of the first art studios in the RAD. 375 Depot is now home to artists and a local theatre.

A new building houses ArtPlay, where visitors have opportunities to dig into art materials and projects.

362 Depot was built in early 1900s as a General Store and Meat Processing Plant, now home to 10 artists.

Northlight was a 1904 tannery building, bought by artist Wendy Whitson and her husband in 2011 to create studio spaces and now creative space for 5 artists.

The National Biscuit Company, built in 1907, had a huge open elevator between the floors. When the building was purchased by Daniel McClendon in 2011 for his fine art studio, he named it The Lift.

Pink Dog Creative was a textile warehouse purchased by artists Hedy Fischer and Randy Shull in 2010 and repurposed for art studios, restaurants, and a coffee shop. They also own the container project in the parking lot across the street which rotates large scale art.

The River Today

Great efforts have been made to restore the river from run-off and pollution to its current source of water adventures – floating, paddle-boarding, kayaking, etc. In the late 2010s, a large transportation project improved the roads and sidewalks of the RAD and helped create walkable connections among the buildings of the RAD.

The greenways are part of a larger outdoor recreation system. Many sections are named for those who have led the movement to help restore the river and watershed. The section along Lyman Avenue that runs past Riverside Studios is the Wilma Dykeman Greenway, in recognition of her lifetime of advocacy including the power of her book “The French Broad” to bring attention to the river, its history, and its value.

The park across from Cotton Mill is named for Jean Webb, the first director of Asheville Greenworks –a tenacious advocate for cleanup and revitalization of the French Broad River. Across the river is Karen Cragnolin park. Karen was a long-time director of RiverLink, which arose from citizen action to prevent the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) from damming the upper river, which would have impacted many counties including the area that is now the RAD.

The Arts Today and Tomorrow

Today the RAD is undergoing improvements envisioned by community leaders, artists, residents, and business partners to create a vibrant, long-term urban plan. Throughout this newest evolution, we are committed to ART being heART of the River Arts District.

Artists are a voice for society and we plan to be here in the RAD sharing our creativity, celebrating diversity, and caring for one another for many years to come.