The following is part one in a two-part series on the Biltmore School
Erected in 1927, Biltmore High School is the last remaining building of what was a school complex built to meet educational needs during the explosive population growth Asheville and Buncombe County experienced in the early 20th century. Almost three years ago the Classical Revival styled school was nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Clay Griffith of Acme Preservation Services compiled a detailed history of the school, but the nomination was later withdrawn. Most of what follows was extracted from Griffith’s extensive research.
Preceding the construction of Biltmore High School, the Buncombe County Board of Education authorized the establishment of high schools in 1907, and soon started acquiring land. The school district at Biltmore was organized on March 2, 1908 and a log and frame schoolhouse was built on the east side of what is now Hendersonville Road, formerly known as Asheville-Hendersonville Highway. In 1926 the Buncombe County Board of Education engaged local architect William Lord to design a new high school building on the west side of the highway.
Lord had come to Asheville in the 1890s and emerged as one of the most important architects in the city during the early twentieth century. Unlike his contemporaries, Richard Sharpe Smith and Douglas Ellington, Lord’s architectural legacy is characterized by substantial, conservative buildings that formed the solid framework of Asheville’s distinctive architectural character.
Whereas the prolific Smith contributed stylistically unique buildings heavily influenced by English antecedents and the Arts and Crafts movement, Ellington’s brief period of activity in Asheville was marked by an innovative amalgamation of his training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, modern Art Deco stylistic elements, and local context. Lord was a more devout classicist in his designs. His adherence to more traditional architectural styles does not diminish his work in any way, but serves to distinguish Lord’s buildings, which helped to define a number of Asheville institutions and businesses.
In its early years of operation, Biltmore High School enrolled nearly 200 students in grades eight through eleven. The students were divided almost evenly between boys and girls. The graduating class of 1930 included 19 boys and 19 girls. Eleven teachers served the school, five men and six women. The school building contained 18 classrooms, a 2,500-volume library, four science laboratories, and two vocational programs. Only 12 of the classrooms were used for high school classes, and the cafeteria was managed by the school’s home economics department. The curriculum included classes in English, mathematics, science, civics, history, Latin, French, physical education, manual training, and home economics.
In 1926 Alonzo Carlton Reynolds was elected to a second term as Superintendent of Buncombe County Schools. He believed that “much honor is due to a state that values its human resources above its material resources.” Reynolds’ longstanding vision and desire to establish a college in Buncombe County was shared by William H. Jones, principal of Biltmore High School. With the full cooperation of the county commissioners, Buncombe County Junior College also opened in 1927 at Biltmore High School as part of the tuition-free county public school system. Junior college classes were held in the basement rooms, while high school students generally occupied upper two floors of the new building.
In 1928 the city of Asheville also started a free public junior college. By 1930, with the arrival of the Great Depression, the two colleges merged in the county system and were renamed Biltmore Junior College. Classes were taught at Biltmore High School, but it became necessary to charge $100 tuition per year. The school’s creative writing and drama programs were recognized throughout the state and produced a number of renowned North Carolina authors including Wilma Dykeman and John Ehle.
Reynolds stepped down as Superintendent of Buncombe County Schools in 1933 to become president of the once again renamed Asheville-Biltmore College. Control of the college was soon transferred to the Asheville City School Board. In March of 1934, the new college was chartered, this time under the name Biltmore College and a board of trustees was given authority to govern the institution. Classes were relocated to David Millard Junior High School where they continued until 1940. After changing the school’s name and location another number of times throughout the ensuing years, Asheville-Biltmore College finally became The University of North Carolina at Asheville in 1969. One might say the seeds for UNCA were originally planted at Biltmore High School by A.C. Reynolds.
The high school operated continuously through 1962, when the last class graduated. The Buncombe County Board of Education moved their administrative offices into Biltmore High School that year, and remained there until 1990. Following the relocation of the county school’s central office, Buncombe County divided the property into two parcels and retained the portion with the 1927 building, occupied by the sheriff’s department until 1999. The county sold the property to a private development group and it remained vacant until now. Next week the Tribune Papers will reveal the future of the historic Biltmore High School building, and explore the recollections of some people who spent time there in their youth.