The Thomas Wolfe Memorial

The Thomas Wolfe Memorial is centrally located in the business district of Asheville, North Carolina. The site is 1.5 hours from Charlotte and roughly 3 hours from the state capitol in Raleigh.  Asheville is the county seat for Buncombe County with a total population of 247,442 reported in 2014. Twenty eight percent of the population are under 20 and thirty one percent of the population are over 55. The population is 87 percent white, 6.4 percent Hispanic, and 6.6 percent African-American. Thirty three percent of individuals 30 or older hold a bachelor or graduate degree. Buncombe County has 23 elementary schools and 17 secondary schools, including the westernmost branch of the University of North Carolina system. Overall, the education system in Buncombe County includes 25,597 students. The largest employment industries are the Buncombe County Public School system, Mission Health System and Hospital, and the Biltmore Company.

Buncombe County is primarily served by North Carolina Historic Sites and the National Park Service with over thirty sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Sites include the Biltmore Estate, Riverside Cemetery, and the Grove Park Inn. Museums located in downtown Asheville include the Asheville Art Museum, aSHEville Museum, Black Mountain College Museum, and the Asheville Pinball Museum. The Thomas Wolfe Memorial is a part of the North Carolina State Historic Sites system, employs a small staff, and maintains 6-8 volunteers. The site is funded through the 501 c3 group Friends of Thomas Wolfe, membership dues, donations, and ticket sales. The site memorializes the life of Asheville’s native son and literary icon, Thomas Wolfe. The Old Kentucky Home is the primary site structure and was the boyhood home of Thomas Wolfe.

The needs of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial are primarily internal. The museum and interpretation materials at the site are in need of updating. A dated welcoming video and text labels juxtaposing contemporary local art on display in the visitor center also create a disjointed entry to the site. A stronger staff presence could also be beneficial. On a positive note, the site has critically successful education programs, including travel trunk exhibits. Seminars and artifact demonstrations are given to school groups prior to visiting to the site to orient students with a general history of the site and Thomas Wolfe. External needs are unstated, but could certainly relate to the need of servicing the lower percentage of minority groups and a greater community involvement in Buncombe County. To meet these external needs, a broadening of the site’s historical context in the history of downtown Asheville is crucial.

The Thomas Wolfe memorial is adeptly situated among historical sites in Asheville to expand its visitor base and community involvement. The Old Kentucky Home is centrally located in downtown Asheville and is only one of several historic structures to survive the revitalization efforts initiated in the 1980s. As it is the only historic site in downtown Asheville to function solely as a museum and offer historical interpretation, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial holds a unique cultural currency within the greater Asheville community. In addition to functioning as a memorial to Thomas Wolfe, the site should memorialize and narrate the evolution of the Asheville business district. This can be done by expanding walking tours into surrounding neighborhoods in order to create contrast between modern and older buildings. On site, offering tours of the Old Kentucky Home driven by content relating to preservation efforts will provide a narrate for visitors in order to reinforce the contemporary value of the Old Kentucky Home.

In addition to serving as the residence for the Wolfe family in the early twentieth century, the Old Kentucky Home’s primary function was as a boarding house. Nineteen rooms were available for rent to a myriad of travelers to the Asheville area. Boarders at the Old Kentucky Home belonged to varying social, ethnic, and economic classes, which included migrant workers, business investors, industrial laborers, and seasonal tourists. With such a historically diverse economic and cultural presence already established, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial retains the resources to further include non-traditional visitors to the site. The site currently offers self-guided tours generated by mobile device applications. By creating additional self-guided tour applications narrating the historical presence of lower economic and culturally diverse groups at the site, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial will provide a sense of inclusion for all visitor demographics.

Staff and volunteers at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial already possess the tools to expand their interpretive efforts. What is needed is a dedication to implement these tools to reach the lower percentage of ethnic and economic communities in Buncombe County. In doing so, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial will be established as a North Carolina historic site catering to all audience types which will enrich the cultural value of the site for future generations.

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