The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age

The last decades of the 1800s were dubbed “The Gilded Age” by Mark Twain because they were often marked by extravagance. And the use of the land in the mountains began to change yet again. While farming and land speculation continued, railroads brought new industries, commerce, and people to western North Carolina. Americans made wealthy by the industrial revolution – the country’s uncrowned aristocracy – flocked to the Asheville area for recreation as well as business opportunities. Some built impressive summer homes while others frequented the area’s new luxury hotels. With these changes came changes in the region’s environment and social structure. The farmland by the river where Daniel Smith had first settled was now covered by railroad yards, factories, and warehouses. And many of the local residents, both in town and in the countryside, felt marginalized by the area’s growth and by the money and power of the new social elite.

Garrett Family Asheville, NC



Alexander and Elizabeth Garrett bought this house from the McDowells in 1881. The Garretts, along with their son Robert, his wife Mary Frances, and six-year-old granddaughter Alexandra, moved from St. Louis to take up residence in Asheville. The family had originally emigrated from Ireland to America in 1847, and Alexander Garrett had amassed a sizeable fortune as a businessman in the Midwest. He retired to Asheville to enjoy the climate and to try his hand in land speculation.


One reason the Garretts moved to Asheville from St. Louis was their hope of curing Mary Frances Garrett of tuberculosis. By the 1880s this disease was the leading cause of death in the United States. While victims of tuberculosis had from early days found relief in the area’s mountains and “ozoniferous climate,” it was not until the coming of the railroad that Asheville developed into a major center for respiratory research and medical treatment. By 1900 tuberculosis hospitals dotted the countryside and boarding houses lined the streets of Asheville. Unfortunately, Mary Frances Garrett did not regain her health. She died in 1884.


Smith-McDowell HouseIn keeping with the extravagance of the era, Alexander and Elizabeth Garrett made every attempt to transform this house into a Victorian showplace. The modest central staircase was replaced with a much more dramatic set of stairs. Extensions to the back of the house contained two bathrooms with the latest indoor plumbing, a back stairway for servants, and a butler’s pantry. The original detached kitchen was connected to the house and thoroughly modernized. Other major additions were a carriage entrance on the north side of the house and a solarium on the south side.




Pair of Porcelain Figurines. Made by Jacob Petit, France, 19th Century. Expensive decorative objects from Europe became the mark of sophistication and luxury for wealthy 19th century Americans such as the Garretts.