Taken for granite? The deterioration of the Vance Monument


By Roger McCredie –

Part One of Two

It’s probably the most recognized object in Asheville.

A graceful 65-foot obelisk of fitted granite blocks, it rises from the knoll where Patton Avenue t-bones into Broadway and it is visible from almost any angle in the city center. It was designed by Richard Sharp Smith, the supervising architect of Biltmore House, and mostly paid for by a transplanted Northern millionaire. It memorializes larger-than-life native son Zebulon Baird Vance: Confederate officer, two-time Governor of North Carolina and United States Senator.

And it is crumbling from the inside out.

A hundred and thirteen years of baking heat and freezing cold, of wind and rain and the occasional drought or blizzard, have seeped through the icon’s mortar, infecting with rust the internal iron pins that join and reinforce its stones and reducing the mortar itself, in many places, to powder. Visible to the naked eye, chips and cracks mar several blocks, and flaking paint and more rust lend a haunted-house aspect to the monument’s once elegant iron fence.

But records indicate that the first notice officialdom took of the monument’s decay was in 2008, when an inventory and condition report of all city-owned artworks reported that Vance’s monument was in “fair to poor” condition – an evaluation that, despite the ominous sound if it, did not cause enough concern at City Hall to warrant immediate action or a reorganizing of priorities in the city’s maintenance budget.

“That [the fair-to-poor designation] doesn’t make it an emergency,” says Debbie Ivester, Assistant Director of Asheville’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department. “We have a very limited budget to take care of all the sculpture and artwork the city owns and we have to prioritize the work we need to do on them, what order we’re going to it in.”

Ivester notes that her department’s total annual maintenance budget is about $40,000, and that an initial estimate of repair costs to the Vance Monument totaled about $50,000, which was later updated to $70,000. “We have to take care of 65 parks out of our budget, plus for instance all the sculptures on the Urban Trail There’s no way we could cover the work on the Vance Monument all at once, we’re just having to set aside some money every year for the next few years.”.

Stations along Asheville’s Urban Trail, described as “a walk through Asheville’s history,” are marked by sculpture and plaques commemorating people and events from various periods in Asheville’s past. Begun in 1991 by a group of private citizens, the Urban Trail winds for 1.7 miles through the heart of Asheville. At the foot of the Vance Monument, a parade of life-size bronze pigs and turkeys commemorates the route used by livestock drovers in frontier days. Where the Trail passes in front of the U.S. Cellular Center (formerly the Asheville Civic Center), sculptures of musicians and square dancers commemorate the longtime venue of the Asheville Folk Festival.

“We had to replace a couple of pigs and turkeys when somebody stole them and a car ran into them, and the Appalachian dancers need cleaning to go along with the improvements at the U.S. Cellular Center,” Ivester says. “When we prioritize these things we have to consider that private donors paid for a lot of them and have a personal interest in them. If [the donors] think they need cleaning or fixing, we have to be responsive to them.”

George Willis Pack, the timber magnate and adopted Ashevillian who in 1897 donated $2,000 (about $56,000 in present-day money) towards construction of the monument, died in 1906 and was not available for comment.

The Vance Monument stands at the westernmost end of a 6.7-acre expanse of land, trisected by Spruce and Market Streets, that slopes away downhill to the Buncombe County Courthouse and City Hall. This area was formerly open green space, dotted with trees and serving as a natural amphitheater for a small stage used for the city’s weekly summer Shindig-on-the-Green as well as other events including, for a time, the Folk Festival. Spectators brought blankets or lawn chairs and often picnics. Adventurous children perched in low-hanging branches.

Then, in 2001, a group of local developers and business owners formed the Pack Square Conservancy for the purpose of turning the park-like City-County Plaza into a multipurpose entertainment and recreational venue. Under an operating arrangement, the city would front the cost of the project, while the Conservancy raised funds from private donors and reimbursed the city. The project involved extensive new landscaping, plus concrete seating and ornamental terraces, a paved stage area complete with a colonnade backdrop and, eventually, a pavilion with restrooms.

The “Pack Square Renaissance,” as the Conservancy called the project, was originally scheduled to have been completed in 2006 at a cost of about $10 million. It was formally opened in 2011, having run up a total tab of some $20 million. In 2008, when the “fair-to-poor” condition of the Vance Monument was reported, the project was still stumbling towards completion but none of the Conservancy’s additional funding was earmarked for repairs to the monument itself, though renovation was carried on all around it.

“It wasn’t in their [the Conservancy’s] budget; they never asked for it,” says Roderick Simmons, Asheville’s PRCA Director, under whom the 2008 art inventory was conducted. “People have wondered why, with all that money going into the project, some of it could not have been used to fix the monument, but our arrangement was just to pay the bills that were submitted and get reimbursed.”

“For two years now, though, we have been setting aside money for repairing the monument,” Simmons says. “We have $21,000 set aside right now and we are looking to add $20,000 next year and another $25,000 the year after that. We know the longer we wait, the more it may cost, but that’s the way we have to do it. If it starts looking too bad, we’ll go to City Council and ask for help.”

But that can be a two-edged sword, says Ivester. “If you save money and then go to Council asking for the same sized budget, you run the risk of them saying, ‘But you didn’t spend all of what we gave you last year.’ That’s why we’re really glad the 26th North Carolina stepped up and offered to raise funds. Hopefully we can speed up the process.”

Next: Zeb Vance’s old regiment (reincarnated) steps up to raise funds. Also: is there a PC subtext to getting the job done through normal channels?

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