Swannanoa Valley Museum shows secrets during renovations

Tom Flynn
Special to The Black Mountain News

During this brief winter period when the Swannanoa Valley Museum is closed for work, the people doing the renovations are learning a quieter portion of the Valley’s history. But getting there, literally and figuratively, hasn’t been easy.

With the museum’s front doors locked, entering the building - the town’s old firehouse - on a recent bitterly cold day meant going through the space where once stood its back doors. That approach from the south quickly revealed the break in time between the original 1921 brick structure and a major 1964 (or so) expansion.

“There was enough additional room here for two fire truck bays,” said Bill Hamby, the chair of the museum’s construction committee. The floor and foundation temporarily removed, an angry upheaval of dirt and concrete sat where, for about two decades, the fire trucks were housed.

“The original doors out front that we had replacements made for, they were pocket doors,” Hamby said. “We assume that was the case here for the back doors as well. Next door was the town hall. It had the town administration. The library was over there,” he said, pointing to his left. “The police - and the jail - were there in the basement.”

Once the museum’s renovations are finished, people will be able to see the building “much as it would have been in 1921 when it was first built as a firehouse,” museum director Anne Chesky Smith said. “We’re doing our best to restore the building to as close to Richard Sharp Smith’s original design as possible,” she added.

The Smith to whom Smith alludes was the overseeing architect on the Biltmore Estate. Along with an addition that included a bowling alley and a pool to what is now Montreat College’s Manor House, the firehouse is the accomplished architect’s only known work in the Valley. “He had blueprints for some other houses, but to my knowledge they were never built,” said Smith.

Walking from the 1960s addition to the main part of the museum, Hamby revealed a feature of the firehouse that never made it as far as Smith’s blueprint.

“Those were the original windows that were west-facing,” he said, pointing to window openings long ago bricked over and now part of the wall adjoining the Black Mountain Center for the Arts (the center is housed in the old town hall, constructed in 1923). Because of the addition, the former windows to which he pointed had less than three years of active duty.

“Now, here’s the surprise,” he said. “The town basically used this wall and built a three-walled addition around it, which we knew. But there’s a doorway here that wasn’t on the original plans.”

Clearly outlined, much like the windows, is an arched doorway. It revealed a decision made, maybe by a foreman on a warm afternoon in 1921, and then conveyed to a mason and carpenter. Plastered over for the town hall, the results of that decision have been lost for nine decades.

It’s a small piece of history, but it reveals something about the lives of the building’s former inhabitants - corked beer bottles, a billiard ball (#2) and the stump of a fireman’s pole that once whisked the Valley’s firefighters down from the second floor.

Workers found where the old pole had been when they tore up the floor to re-pour the concrete. “There’s a length of it in the trunk of my car right now,” Smith said, laughing.

John Corkran, the chairman of the museum’s capital campaign, also braved the cold during the recent visit. He pointed out a metal vertical brace near where the fireman’s pole was mounted. “That brace was not something that we knew was here, either. The inside of the building is going to be re-braced, so this will not be a structural member. But the feeling is we’ll leave it as emblematic of what was here before,” Corkran said.

As part of the re-pouring of the floor, new posts and beams will be added to relieve the original post of active service. “The problem was that before we started the renovation we were only able to have exhibits on this level,” said Hamby. The museum could not use the upstairs for exhibits, as it didn’t meet the state’s building code.

Along with the structural improvements will come both expanded exhibit space and new exhibits for visitors.

“When it’s reopened, the museum will have updated the permanent ‘Pathways’ exhibit that explores the Valley’s human inhabitants and the pathways they once used to travel into the area and settle it,” Smith said. The exhibit will be housed in the new upstairs gallery space.

Additional new exhibits will greet guests this summer, including one showing the connection of Mount Mitchell State Park to the Swannanoa Valley. The park celebrates it 100th anniversary this year.

“Another will include the photography of Edward DuPuy, showcasing never-before-seen photos taken for his book, ‘Artisans of the Appalachians,’” Smith said.

Yet another “exhibit” will be a visual extension of the renovation into the history of the museum. Artifacts, like the mount for the original fire pole, will be on display. There are also plans for hosting traveling exhibits from across the state and region as well.

“The exhibits will continue to change so visitors can visit all year, including through the winter,” Smith said. “We used to be closed in the winter, pretty much from the end of October until the beginning of to mid-April because it was very cold in this building. But now with the upgraded heat systems and insulation, we’ll be able to be open most of the year.”

Unlocking the front door to exit on West State Street, Hamby and Corkran pointed out that the current work is a continuation of an ongoing upgrade of the building.

“We put in the door and the windows on the front, plus the mahogany door,” Hamby said. “I like to think it’s the best-looking door in Black Mountain. That was in 2008, and a local guy, Mike Roberts, made it for us.”