On this day in WNC history: Popularly known as Asheville’s oldest gay bar, O.Henry’s (initially called the Skylight Room) opened on this day in 1976 at 59 Haywood Street.
The bar and restaurant, the first to stay open past midnight downtown, was also one of the first places local residents noted they could get a glass of wine. It was decorated with Victorian antiques, pictures of famous writers, and played Billie Holiday and jazz during the day, attracting employees of nearby hotels and businesses at lunch. Interviewed by the Asheville Citizen in 1977, owners and partners J.P. Bentley and Tony De Rose expressed their belief that the business was a step in the right direction, bringing in a night crowd and hopefully revitalizing a depleted downtown. While it was not overtly intended to be a gay bar, The Skylight Room gained the unofficial reputation as a safe space after it began playing disco music after 8PM sometime in 1977, filling up on Friday and Saturday nights according to patrons. In 1978, the owners drew on Asheville’s literary heritage and rebranded as O.Henry’s.
Before this time, several short-lived unofficial gay-friendly bars opened in WNC, dating back to the mid-1960s, with Joe’s Candlelight Lounge in Candler, and Flaming Embers on Patton Avenue possibly the first. In the early 1970s, members of the LGBTQ+ community—some from as far away as Western Carolina University—would drive to Asheville’s After Dark night club to dance, parking far away and quickly ducking inside according to an interview with Roseanne Coates. After Dark was destroyed by its owner in an act of arson late in late 1978 and its reputation as a gay bar made public during the trial. O.Henry’s helped fill the resulting void and many patrons began bar hopping between there and the nearby Cabaret Act Two at 45 Cherry Street to see drag shows. Coates notes that the LGBTQ+ community began to grow in Asheville, but that in the late 1970s-early 1980s, “the only out that anybody really lived was in the bars.” Soon though, several new LGBTQ+ owned or friendly businesses began to open in the upper Haywood Street block around O.Henry’s, revitalizing the neighborhood and attracting tourists and locals alike. O.Henry’s has undergone changes in management and location since 1976, witnessing the burgeoning of several LGBTQ+ businesses in downtown, but has continued to play a critical role in creating a vibrant and inclusive community for nearly half a century.
Oral History with Roseanne Coates, UNCA Special Collections:
O.Henry’s patrons, undated, courtesy Buncombe County Special Collections
Asheville Citizen, Nov 2, 1977
Asheville Citizen, Aug 4, 1978