Looking Back – Twenty-Five Years or So

It was 25 years ago when I first set foot inside the Grove Park inn. Though listed on the National Register of Historic Places, back then the Inn wasn’t that well known outside the South.

Nor was Asheville.

I was fresh from the Midwest, on one of my first assignments for Country Living magazine, for which I had just started writing what would eventually be ten year’s worth of monthly columns entitled “Antiques Across America.” You name it, I wrote about it: from Thomas Chippendale to glass paperweights, from Heisey glass to Boy Scout collectibles.

The Grove Park Inn was at something of a crossroads in the eighties. Her historic designation had more to do with her having been built in 1913 using granite boulders, red clay tiles and oak woodwork than it did with the Arts & Crafts style in which it had been furnished. Two new wings had been built, one in 1984, the other was in the final stage of construction when I first arrived in 1987. Together they pushed the total number of rooms from the original Main Inn’s 150 to an impressive 510.

But Arts & Crafts?

Those of us who had grown up in homes filled with Golden Oak, fancy Victorian, formal Federal, skinny Shaker, Colonial Revival and other knighted styles really didn’t known what to think about Arts & Crafts. For one thing, we didn’t know what to call it. Arts and crafts was still the rage: macramé plant hangers, painted mailboxes, popsicle stick lamps, decoupage anything and barn board art. It looked nothing like the few pieces of Stickley or Roycroft furniture beginning to attract attention in New York. Stuff everyone else still called ‘mission oak.’

And the Grove Park Inn had a whole lot of mission oak. Big, heavy, awkward stuff with little letter “R’s” carved into it. They had tried to get rid of it back in 1955, when the first team of decorators hired by the new owner, insurance mogul Charles Sammons, arrived in the Great Hall and began covering rocks with vinyl-coated plywood, paint and sheetrock. They added a cloverleaf swimming pool and a wing that looked like a motel (see photo).

But by the eighties Charles and Elaine Sammons had stopped the practice of giving away their old furnishings and copper light fixtures, even if they weren’t yet sure what to do with them. No more porch sales with G.P.I. chairs and rockers offered for five dollars each. No more watching pickup trucks loaded with old oak furniture headed for a local nursing home, an Eagle Street bar or an open front porch in West Asheville.

A new set of decorators from Atlanta had figured out Arts & Crafts, convincing the Sammons, who, living in Dallas, had not exactly grown up around Marblehead Pottery, Kalo silver or Dirk van Erp lamps, to let them decorate the hallways with a mixture of Arts & Crafts reproductions and authentic antiques.

By that time my Country Living article had been submitted and I had convinced a desperate sales manager that I could organize a three-day conference in February for people who bought, sold and collected Arts & Crafts. The previous year the Inn’s only February event had been a tournament sponsored by the Asheville Chess Club, so what could he lose, besides his job? (Which he soon did.)

Not long afterwards I got a phone call from one of the decorators in Atlanta. They had a shopping list and wanted to know if I could fill it: 14 Morris chairs, 10 settles, 10 sideboards and servers, 6 bookcases, several library tables and tabourets, as many table lamps as I could find and a bunch of chairs. They had the money, they just didn’t have the time to scour the state looking for Arts & Crafts antiques.

I had a van, a dog named Abby, a North Carolina map and a lot of time, so off we went, checking items off their list as I wondered just how I could convince Arts & Crafts dealers and collectors I didn’t even know to come to the mountains of North Carolina in February for an Arts & Crafts conference organized by someone they didn’t know — and whose only experience was that he had attended three national conferences for high school English teachers.

Next Week: I make a frantic dash to Roycroft to play Meet the Dealers. Later, I literally bump into Barbra Streisand at David Rago’s auction in SoHo. Stay tuned as I reminisce about the early years at the Grove Park Inn Arts & Crafts Conference as we prepare to meet in Asheville this February for our 25th anniversary celebration.

Until Next Monday,

Have a great week!


To see the preliminary agenda for the February 17-19 25th National Arts & Crafts Conference, go to http://www.Arts-CraftsConference.com.