WNCHA’s Historic Home

Just a few miles north of George Vanderbilt’s grand Biltmore Estate is a different kind of mansion–one that was nearly 50 years old when Vanderbilt’s crew began construction in 1895. This house is now home to the Western North Carolina Historical Association.

In the 1840s, James McConnell Smith, who was rumored to be the first white baby born west of the Blue Ridge in North Carolina, broke ground on a large brick country house on his property overlooking the confluence of the Swannanoa and French Broad Rivers–just one tract of the more than 30,000 acres in the county he would eventually own.

Building with brick was almost unheard of at the time in western North Carolina. It was a signifier of Smith’s wealth, which came from his family as well as his many business ventures, including a toll bridge over the French Broad River, a general store, a blacksmith shop, a tannery, a lumber yard, a gold mine, and a hotel.

Smith paid few people to build his house or run his businesses. Rather he purchased people, whom he would enslave, to perform the work. By the 1840s, when this house was being constructed, Smith enslaved at least 70 people.

Once the house was complete, the Smiths used the property as a vacation destination from their main residence in Asheville, about two miles away. The house only became a full-time residence for a family when James’ daughter, Sarah, and her husband, William McDowell, purchased the house at auction in 1857 from her brother’s estate. The McDowells continued to hold people captive on the property, which contained numerous outbuildings, including at least six “slave houses,” until April 1865 when freedom finally came to enslaved people in Asheville.

The McDowells lived in the house until 1881, when, in debt from losing the war, they sold the property. From that date on, the house saw a rotating series of occupants resulting in periods of grand renovations and serious neglect, that have added new chapters to the history that it holds.

The earliest known photograph of the exterior of the house, 1875.