Swannanoa Valley Museum exhibit dives into diverging worlds

Melanie English
Special to The Black Mountain News

Between 1920 and 1923 in Black Mountain, New York architect Frank E. Wallis oversaw construction of the second largest private home in North Carolina.

Wallis was assistant to Richard Morris Hunt, supervising architect of the Biltmore Estate (the largest home, by far). Wallis' work on In the Oaks, the estate built for a General Electric vice president and his second wife (and cousin), is the subject of one of the two new exhibits this year at the Swannanoa Valley Museum. The museum reopens for the season April 1 with this and another exhibit that examines the North Fork Valley, a historic community displaced by the city of Asheville Watershed.

The "In the Oaks" exhibit features artifacts from the Roaring Twenties estate, which Wallis built for industrialist and GE vice president Franklin S. Terry and Lillian Emerson. The 24,755-square-foot home had 67 rooms and 12 full or half bathrooms. While Biltmore may be showier, the Prohibition-era In The Oaks, was built for fun and included a secret wine cellar for entertaining.

Recreational amenities included a golf course, tennis court, gymnasium, swimming pool and bowling alley. The estate also claimed a formal garden designed by Chauncey Beadle of both Biltmore Estate and Tryon Palace. The family bequeathed the estate to the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina in 1957. As a conference center, the estate hosted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967 and served as the home of Camp Henry. Montreat College acquired the property in 2001. Through objects and photographs, the museum's exhibit will highlight the everyday life of the Terrys in the 1920s .

In contrast to the Terrys' opulent lifestyle, the museum's second major exhibit illuminates the bittersweet story of the historic North Fork Valley now submerged in the Asheville watershed. This ecologically diverse valley, located in the shadow of the Craggy Mountains around the westward-flowing Swannanoa River, was once the dominion of American Indian hunter-gatherers and enticed white settlers following the American Revolution. By the 1850s, the self-sufficient community encompassed more than 50 families and included two churches, a law school, businesses and boarding houses for naturalists, explorers, and tourists en route to Mount Mitchell. In the 1880s, North Carolina Civil War governor Zebulon Vance built his Victorian summer home, Gombroon, on a knoll overlooking the valley.

Through purchase and eminent domain, the city of Asheville in 1903 began acquiring property in the North Fork Valley, eventually amassing 22,000 acres, for a water supply for its burgeoning population. Fulfillment of Asheville's water needs entailed great human sacrifice. Ultimately, the city removed more than 50 families from their land. Homes and community gathering places were submerged underwater, and today only architectural ruins remain, overtaken by wilderness.

The museum's exhibit will explore the historic role humans have played in using and changing this now restricted-use watershed. The exhibit coincides with the museum's exclusive tours of the watershed's west side on March 28. Spaces remain for the morning tour, departing at 7:30 a.m. from Black Mountain Savings Bank, 200 E. State St. The tour costs $75 for museum members, $100 nonmembers. Pre-registration is required at history.swannanoavalleymuseum.org/events/march/.

New season begins

What: Swannanoa Valley Museum 2015 season

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturdays, April through October

Address: 223 W. State St., Black Mountain

Info: swannanoavalleymuseum.org, 669-9566