On any given Friday night in downtown Asheville, N.C. the rolling sounds of congas, tom toms, and bongos echo through the streets. Long-time residents or frequent visitors to the city know this to be the Friday Night Drum Circle at Pritchard Park, a tiny triangle of land wedged into the heart of the downtown. The Drum Circle has been a staple of the city’s culture for over a decade now.
On it’s most energetic nights, hundreds of people pack into it’s mini-amphitheater, watching the drummers play off each other and the dancers twirl about in a multitude of styles and dress (or at times, undress). Its like a community retreat–a neighborhood gathering where you can join in or remain anonymous…and not be judged either way. Some might even call it a sacred experience.
As the weekend progresses, different churches may then set up seemingly impromptu worship services on Saturday night, or perhaps come Sunday morning. By Monday, the Park becomes a haven for workers in the surrounding banks and law offices. When the weather is nice, one can choose from a variety of shady old trees to sit under for the perfect lunch spot. The six chess tables along the park’s periphery are frequently full, often times with the homeless who–perhaps because of the proximity of the mission a couple blocks west on Patton Avenue–congregate there.
But ask any of the Park’s visitors–the drummers and dancers, the worshippers and preachers, the business men and women or the homeless people–and they are unlikely to know that the pulse of the Park only began to emerge after a series of unusual events took place during the height of the Great Depression. Those events involved two prominent evangelical preachers, a holy ground high above the city, and the demolition, and then rebirth, of a grand old Asheville building.
The Eliada Orphanage
In 1906, after years of saving souls on the streets of Asheville, the 31 year old Rev. Lucius Bunyan Compton created his own haven four miles west of that small triangle of land in the city he knew so well. The Eliada Orphanage, his master-work, provided a home for unfortunate children born out of wedlock. But it also served as a cornerstone of the early 20th century’s evangelical movement.
Compton’s week long camp meetings at the foot of the mountain above his beloved orphanage brought believers from near and far, and the guest speakers were the luminaries of the movement from across the nation, names that have now been mostly forgotten. One of his brothers in these endeavors was the Reverend Robert C. McQuilkin, President of Columbia Bible College in Columbia, South Carolina. McQuilkin’s idea of holding inter-denominational conferences found a champion in Compton, who by 1921 had completed a 2,000 seat tabernacle on the mountain plateau above his orphanage.
Designed by Compton himself, he had dreams that it would become a place of worship for the entire country. In a letter to McQuilkin in the spring of 1923, Compton offered up the property, along with it’s accompanying dormitory, kitchen and dining hall, for his use. McQuilkin accepted, and in fact, his conferences at Eliada became annual occurrences between 1923 and 1931, alongside Compton’s own camp meetings.
The orphans at Eliada remember the pomp and circumstance of those gatherings. They also recall cleaning up the cabins and grounds in preparation for the big event, but most of all they remember the thrill of singing on stage and the attention that came along with being one of “Dad” Compton’s children.
The Tabernacle was always filled to capacity, and in the early days they came by mule team, carriage and wagon. The grounds of Eliada were covered at Camp time by the visitors’ canvas tents pitched between tall pine trees, with Model T’s parked alongside the gravel drive.
At the close of the 1920’s, McQuilkin saw the importance of building a dedicated conference center to his Victorious Life Movement, but with the country slipping into desperate times, funds were limited.
McQuilkin appealed to his friends and followers to pray for a resolution to this dilemma. How he would come to build the Conference Inn during the throes of the Great Depression was, to him and his followers, an answered prayer. To others, its construction was just short of miraculous.
A Gracious Second Giving
In an effort to spurn economic development during the Depression, the U.S. government granted land to cities and municipalities. Asheville was the recipient of one of these land grants: the post office building, and the triangle of land it sat on bounded by the College Street curve, Patton Avenue and Haywood Street, could be the city’s – provided that they demolish the old building promptly.
Time was of the essence in this deal, and by November 1931, the City had numerous people lined up to accept the contract on removal of the building. Asheville had offered the Bible College the building itself for the work of removing it, and the right of first refusal was given to Robert McQuilkin. He announced to his followers a “startling opportunity” for the Conference Inn, and asked them to join him in “prayer of real faith…that will multiply a thousand fold, on home and on foreign field.”
At a removal cost of about $3,000, the College could obtain close to $10,000 (approximately $150,000 today) worth of materials, allowing McQuilkin to build a brick conference center for the same price as a frame building. The Inn, if he could build it, would dwarf Compton’s in size, structural solidity, and amenities. Unfortunately, the Board of Directors was not willing to borrow the money to take advantage of the offer. McQuilkin again asked for prayers from his followers.
Through the month of December, the College collected donations and pledges, in addition to a concession from the City of Asheville of $500 cash toward the building’s demolition. The City was ready to strike a deal with the College.
But on January 2, 1932, disaster struck. On that day, a Palmetto State high official announced that a chain of 40 banks had failed, calling it the “worst disaster to have come to South Carolina since the Civil War.” The bank which held the Bible College funds had closed. The money was gone.
On the Tuesday following the failure, McQuilkin asked the City of Asheville for an extension in order to secure new financing. City officials said the contract had to be signed by Thursday. The deal appeared to be on the rocks.
He asked his followers, “Is God’s plan to be interrupted, or were we mistaken about the post-office building?” Financial provisions were made, gifts poured in both big and small, and a “gracious second giving” was offered up at the eleventh hour.
McQuilkin closed the deal, and within one month the contractor F.W. Bordner was at work demolishing the building and moving the construction materials to the new site four miles west on top of Dryman Mountain, just north of the Eliada Tabernacle. The Conference Inn opened later that year, and the C.B.C. community considered it an immediate and resounding victory.
In the years after the post office’s removal, that old triangle of land was the subject of much debate and discussion. Though the area had been designated as permanent city property (the son of the eventual park’s namesake pushed through the act of Congress to deed the property to Asheville), the small dimensions of the parcel made it difficult to ultimately decide on its utility.
Following the demolition, the area was rather sparse: it would take years for the young trees to be planted and mature. It took decades for a fountain proposed by Biltmore Estate landscape architect C.D. Beadle to be built. A scattering of benches would eventually become the school-bus stop. Later, a bus shelter installed in 1980 attracted a mostly unwanted clientele.
Henceforth, the park was dubbed the “Wino Hilton” for the increasing numbers of homeless who gathered there. In 1989 the city’s Downtown Commission proposed a revitalization plan, which included moving the bus station several blocks away, once again freeing up that pocket-sized parcel of property. That last act would ultimately set into motion the transformation of the park into the downtown masterpiece that it is today.
A Fateful End
But as Pritchard Park was slowly evolving, so too was McQuilkin’s Conference Inn. And while the make-up of the current Park was beginning to take shape by the late 1980s, the fortunes of the Inn would ultimately follow an opposite trajectory.
In 1940 the Ben Lippen School was created on the Conference Inn grounds as a school for missionary children, with the Inn serving as a dormitory for the male students. The building’s main claim to fame was that Billy Graham first met Cliff Barrows, his future musical director, during a series of meetings there in 1945. However, thirty-five years later, Mr. Barrow’s son would return the favor by accidentally burning the Conference Inn to the ground. At long last, the old Asheville Post Office had finally met it’s fate.
And though Ben Lippen remained a respected Christian school, its remoteness continued to be a problem. In the meantime, Columbia Bible College had become Columbia International University, and had grown in size and prominence in South Carolina. Finally, around the time the Asheville City Council was considering the future of Pritchard Park, the University moved the school home to it’s Columbia campus, ending it’s decades long ties with Eliada Orphanage and the city of Asheville.
A New Beginning
Today, all that is left of the Tabernacle, which Compton claimed would be standing long after he “passed on the silent land,” are the crumbling concrete columns that once held it’s trussed-beam roof over the heads of his beloved orphan choir. Undergrowth threatens to overtake the remains, as it once had before an improvement project in the 1990’s briefly uncovered them.
Although the cleft in the mountainside where the Tabernacle once stood sits derelict, Eliada currently uses the rest of the mountain as an adventurous escape for it’s current crop of youth, with hiking and motorcycle trails winding through it’s lower sections. The orphanage graveyard, further up the mountain, has a well-used fire pit just beside it, where haunted stories of phantoms, ghost trains, and spirit fiddlers are told in hushed tones while marshmallows roast over dancing fingers of flame.
Just up the road from there, on top of Dryman mountain where the Conference Inn used to stand, sits the Crest Center and Pavilion, one of Western North Carolina’s premiere conference and wedding destinations. Both sites still enjoy the breathtaking views of Asheville, and beyond to Sunset and Craggy Mountains, that have enchanted visitors for many decades.
And at the base of that former Civil War battlement once called Battery Park, a small triangle of earth plays host to the bustle of work-week traffic, the rhythm of a Friday night drum circle, and the Sunday morning supplications of a spontaneous congregation.
At the western-most corner of the park is an abstract aluminum sculpture, it’s variety of design speaking to the vibrancy of today’s Asheville. Surely, Lucius Bunyan Compton stood on that very corner over a century ago, preaching to the passersby, his gesticulating arms gathering in those he once called “The last, the lost, and the least.”
And in their own way, the people of this Southern Appalachian town still carry on the spiritual life of an earlier community–one that once claimed a foothold on a mountain plateau, high above the city.