Engraved into the cornerstone of the Swannanoa Valley Museum is the date 1921, signaling to passersby that not only are the artifacts historic inside this two-story red brick building but also that the building itself has many stories to tell.
The first one begins with its construction.
In February 1921, the Black Mountain Fire Department purchased the lot between the present-day Dripolator and Black Mountain Center for the Arts. It bought it from George Adams for $425, putting $25 down and then paying $80 a year for the next five years until the lot was paid in full.
About a month later, the fire department appointed a building committee and began fundraising to erect a building on the lot. Most fire department members pledged between $25 and $50 towards the project, dropping off $5 each week toward paying off their pledge. On top of their financial contributions, many members also volunteered their labor or donated materials.
To encourage donations and keep the community abreast of their progress, leaders of the building fund drive placed a blackboard in the window of the nearby Commonwealth Bank. Each day they chalked in incoming monies.
The advertising may have worked. Just two weeks later, Franklin Silas Terry, who was finishing construction on his lavish 24,000-square-foot, wood-built (and flammable) estate In-the-Oaks, a half mile from the fire department site, donated $1,000. Terry was promptly elected an honorary lifetime member of the fire department.
Donations continued to role in, enough so that the department was able to purchase the adjoining lot from W.B. Gregg for $600. On July 4, the fire department put on the first of a series of fundraisers. The townwide festival included a parade, sporting competitions, music, dancing, a picnic lunch and a number of booths — all set up to raise money for the project.
Each week throughout the summer, ticket revenues from a series of plays and concerts bolstered the building fund — so much so that the Gregg lot was paid off.
With $2106.82 in the building fund, it was time to design the town’s new fire house.
In October, Richard Sharp Smith, the supervising architect for the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, was commissioned to draw up the plans for the building. The cost of the project was estimated at $6,000 (Smith provided the windows for the station in the “approved patterns” at no markup). But because of rising construction costs, ground needed to be broken as soon as possible. With only $2,100 on hand and an additional $1,300 in subscriptions, the department took out a loan of $2,500 from Commonwealth Bank.
W.C. Greene was placed in “absolute charge of construction,” according to fire department meeting minutes. Volunteers who wished to donate their labor reported to him for their assignments.
Fire Chief Robert E. Currier was put in charge of procuring a brass pole for the station and even flew to Asheville from Black Mountain’s airport to purchase the cornerstone engraved “1921.” Today, rumor has it, when the station was vacated, the brass pole was taken down to be used as a banister in an area home.
Construction on the building began Dec. 9 and continued until March 1922. On March 21, 1922, Smith came for one final inspection of the building and pronounced his “thorough approval of the structure and declared it to be absolutely OK in every particular.”
On May 2, 1922, the first anniversary of the fundraising drive, approximately 400 people celebrated the formal opening of the building. For the next 65 years, the building housed the town’s fire department.
In 1987, the fire department moved to its present location on Town Square. Two years later, the town board voted to let the newly formed Swannanoa Valley Museum utilize the vacant station to preserve and display the history of this unique valley.
Nearly 95 years later, the Swannanoa Valley Museum is renovating the fire house’s interior - a project that has many similarities to the original.
Thanks to Richard Sharp Smith’s original blueprints, which are archived through a partnership with the Asheville Art Museum and the N.C. Collection at Pack Library in downtown Asheville, much of the current project is an effort to restore the building to its original design.
Drawn into the plans was the original window design. Using these sketches, energy-efficient windows similar to those provided by Smith at no cost to the station in 1921 were located and installed, many in areas that had previously been sealed off.
The original brick walls, which at some time were covered with plaster, drywall and wood paneling, have revealed to have three large wooden box trusses in the second floor’s cathedral ceiling. Behind the walls were windows and a door opening that had to be bricked up in 1923 when the city hall was built abutting the fire house.
Besides working to restore the building to its original design, the museum’s fire house renovation has relied on community donations to fund the bulk of the project, much as was done in 1921.
To date, hundreds of people have given gifts ranging from $25 to $50,000 to support this much-needed renovation. Building the original fire house cost about $6,000. Renovation of the same space in 2016 is more than 100 times that amount.
Much like the members of the fire department who made the leap of faith to begin construction with only a portion of the needed funds, the Swannanoa Valley Museum’s board of directors made its own leap of faith. With almost $500,000 in hand, the museum is seeking to raise $100,000 to complete the renovation debt-free.
To find out more about the project or to donate, visit swannanoavalleymuseum.org. Or send a check to PO Box 306, Black Mountain, NC 28711.
Anne Chesky Smith is director of the Swannanoa Valley Museum.