Responsibly paying off debts is the generally perceived honorable thing to do, and at times it can have far reaching, and unintended consequences. In the 1929 stock market crash, Asheville was hard hit. Some calculate that it shouldered one of the highest per capital debt burdens in the country. By 1930, Asheville’s largest bank and 5 other financial institutions closed, and the local municipalities had lost around 8 million dollars ($111 million in 2015 values).
While many other cities opted to default on their Depression-era debts, local Asheville leaders chose to pay back their obligations in full. It took until 1976 to fully pay off the obligations that the city had incurred 47 years earlier. During that nearly half century, the city was operating on a small tax base and growth was slow, the taxes that were collected were used to fund the city’s most pressing needs. Overlooked were aging buildings in need of updating.
Before the stock market crash, Asheville had been graced with the work of multiple, world renowned architects. Douglas Ellington, left a distinctive mark on the city with his Parisian learned Art Deco style. Richard Morris Hunt, who designed the epic Biltmore House, also brought to Asheville on his coattails two other architects who contributed to the city’s rich design. His protégé, Richard Sharpe Smith designed the complex All Souls Episcopal Church in Biltmore Village in 1896. And Spanish architect, Rafael Guastavino, who also worked on the Biltmore project, is responsible for the Basilica of St. Lawrence. Completed in 1909, it holds the largest unsupported tile dome in the United States.
In short, Asheville’s decision to pay off its municipal debts resulted in a lucky stagnation of its architecture. Today, roughly 170 buildings comprise the city’s historic district and it offers a nearly comprehensive collection of early 20th century architecture in North Carolina.