“From the Bricks of Ben Lippen to the College Street Curve” – The Creation of Pritchard Park in Asheville, North Carolina – by George Sieburg

The old Asheville Post Office, built in 1892, sits on what is now Pritchard Park. Haywood St. is on the right, Patton Ave. on the left. (Photo ca. 1900).

On any given Friday night in downtown Asheville, N.C. you can hear the rolling sounds of congas, tom toms, and bongos echo through the streets. Long-time residents or frequent visitors to the city know that this is the Friday Night Drum Circle at Pritchard Park, a tiny triangle of land wedged into the very heart of the downtown. The drum circle has become a staple of the city’s vibrant scene.

On its 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). It’s a symbolic community retreat, a neighborhood gathering where you can jump in with both feet or just stand quietly and observe on the sidelines – and not be judged either way. Many of its enthusiastic participants consider it to be a sacred experience.

As the weekend progresses, different churches will set up impromptu worship services on Saturday night, or perhaps on a Sunday morning. By Monday, the park becomes a haven for workers in the surrounding banks and law offices. When the weather permits, you can choose from a variety of shady trees to sit under for the perfect lunch spot. The six chess tables along the periphery stay busy, often times with patrons from the homeless shelter at the Western Carolina Rescue Ministry, just a few blocks away on Patton Avenue.

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 park was created after a series of unlikely events occurred during the height of the Great Depression. Those improbable circumstances involved two prominent evangelical preachers, a holy ground located high above the city, and the long forgotten demolition, and then revival, of an iconic downtown Asheville building.

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“The Gospel Wagon” Rev. Compton, standing in back, heads into Asheville (Photo ca. 1911).

“The Gospel Wagon” – Rev. Compton, in back, rides through Asheville, N.C. (Photo ca. 1911)

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 The Eliada Orphanage

In 1903, after years of saving souls on the streets of Asheville, the 31 year old Rev. Lucius Bunyan Compton created his master-work four miles west of that small mountain town he knew so intimately. The Eliada Orphanage, which started out with 9 children, provided a home for those unfortunate children born out of wedlock. But the property 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, S.C. 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.

Compton dreamed that the Eliada Tabernacle would become a place of worship for the entire country. In a letter to McQuilkin in the spring of 1923, he 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 his own camp meetings.

By the end of the decade, McQuilkin felt the need to build a dedicated conference center to his Victorious Life Movement, but with the country falling into desperate times, funds were limited. He appealed to his friends and followers to pray for a resolution to this dilemma. How the president of Columbia Bible College came to build his Conference Inn during the throes of the Great Depression was, to him and his followers, an answered prayer. To others, its very construction was just short of miraculous.

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Standing room only at the Eliada Tabernacle during sunrise services (Photo ca. 1921).

Standing room only at the Eliada Tabernacle during a sunrise service (Photo ca. 1921)

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 The Startling Opportunity

In an effort to spurn economic development during the Depression, the U.S. government granted federal land to cities and municipalities. Asheville was the recipient of one of these land grants: the old post office building, and the small triangle of land it sat on bounded by College Street, Patton Avenue, and Haywood Street, could belong to the city, provided that they demolish the old building promptly.

Time was of the essence in this deal. By November 1931, the city had numerous companies bidding to remove the building. But Asheville had offered the contract to the Columbia Bible College. McQuilkin wrote to his many followers about this “startling opportunity,” and then requested that they 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 Bible 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 Conference 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.

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“The last of the old post office, Asheville, N.C. Spring 1932” The trolley is heading up Patton Avenue towards Vance Monument and City Hall.

The back of this photograph states, “The last of the old post office, Asheville, North Carolina, in the spring of 1932.” The trolley is heading straight up Patton Avenue towards Vance Monument and City Hall.

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A Gracious Second Giving

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 CBC. But on January 2, 1932, disaster struck. On that day, a Palmetto State spokesperson announced that a group 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 folded. 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 on time, and within one month the contractor F.W. Bordner began to demolish the building. They transported all of the construction materials to a site four miles west at the top of Dryman Mountain, right next to the Eliada Tabernacle. The magnificent Conference Inn opened its doors later that year.

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The Conference Inn, Asheville, N. C.

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Evolution

In the years after the post office’s removal, the odd triangle of land was subject to much debate and discussion. Though the area had been designated as permanent city property, the small dimensions of the parcel made it difficult to decide on its ultimate utility.

Following the demolition, the area was rather sparse. 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, and 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 triangle of property. That last act began the metamorphosis that changed Pritchard Park from a neglected afterthought into the crown jewel of downtown Asheville.

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The remains of the Conference Inn after the fire

The Conference Inn after the devastating fire on December 12, 1980

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The 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.

Back in 1940 the Ben Lippen School was established on the Conference Inn grounds as a school for missionary children, and the Inn served as a dorm for its male students. The building’s main claim to fame occurred in 1945, when it served as the location for the first meeting between Billy Graham and his future musical director Cliff Barrows. Thirty-five years later, Mr. Barrow’s son William would return the favor by accidentally setting the Inn on fire and destroying it – the Asheville Post Office had finally met its fate.

And while Ben Lippen remained a highly regarded Christian school, its remote location continued to be problematic. Eventually, Columbia Bible College changed its name to Columbia International University (CIU), and continued to grow in size and prominence. Finally, while the Asheville City Council pondered the uncertain future of Pritchard Park, CIU decided to move the school home to its Columbia campus, thereby 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 to the silent land,” are the crumbling concrete columns that once supported its unique trussed-beam roof, now nearly covered in heavy undergrowth.

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. And at the base of the former Civil War battlement once called Battery Park, a small triangle of land 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 corner of the park sits the “Deco Gecko,” a whimsical sculpture that reflects the singularity of Asheville in the 21st century. Surely, Lucius Bunyan Compton stood on that very corner over a century ago, preaching to the crowds, seeking to help those he called “The last, the lost, and the least.” And in their unique way, the people who live in this vibrant community deep in the heart of Southern Appalachia continue to maintain the spiritual traditions of an earlier generation, one that briefly claimed a foothold on a mountain plateau, high above the city.

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 – Pritchard Park, Asheville, N.C. –

Pritchard Park in the spring of 1950

Pritchard Park in the 1950’s

Pritchard Park, Asheville, N.S. in the new millennium

The Drum Circle in Pritchard Park on a recent Friday evening

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11 Responses to “From the Bricks of Ben Lippen to the College Street Curve” – The Creation of Pritchard Park in Asheville, North Carolina – by George Sieburg

  1. Cliff–another great story. I went to BL (Ben Lippen School for Boys), and we had to walk over the mountain to get there. It was a tough school to go to. I remember Alvin and I played basketball there. I wasn’t aware of Dr. McQuilkin’s connection with Dad Compton, but we had some good stories between the students at BL and us orphans. I ended up going to Emma High School because I had two strikes against me for bad behavior, which called for the big paddle or to go home. I knew that if I got the whipping there I would also get another good one when I got back to Eliada, so when I went home Miss Green looked after me, and then I changed schools and went to Emma High. But yes, the mountain at the old BL is a beautiful place. Enjoyed your history lesson. Keep up the good work.

  2. Les Lehman says:

    John, what year did you attend Ben Lippen School? I joined the staff in 1980 on the Mountain as High School principal and I just retired two years ago. I am working as the Alumni Director for BL. Please send me your email so we can talk about the early years at Ben Lippen. Great story about the Eliada Home. les.lehman@benlippen.com

  3. Robertson McQuilkin says:

    A great story, well told! Although I’m the son of Robert C. McQuilkin, much of what you have researched I never knew! It’s an exiting read. Thank you! The only suggestion I have is to make clear that the Ben Lippen Inn is what burned, not Eliada’s tabernacle.

    • Terrill Elniff says:

      Robertson, Jack, and Les: Make sure that the rest of the story gets told – the construction of Huston Hall, the Chapel, the gym, and the Chalet. Miracles, all!

  4. Frank says:

    I am a graduate of BLS from 1976 and have been associated with Columbia International University and its work since 1973. This is all excellent history and rings true with the oral history that I heard while attending. Thanks for sharing.

  5. G. L. Brown says:

    Great story that shows the hand of a Great God! I would like to know more about the relationship of BLS or the BL Conferences to the grounds of The Cove?

  6. Dr. Jack Layman says:

    Thanks for the story. I first came to teach and coach at Ben Lippen School in 1956-58. And then after living for years in Africa, I was Headmaster from 1971-1983, during which time four of my children also attended school there. Ben Lippen was known for its soccer teams–and with all those missionary kids from Europe and Central & South America we won four state championships! We were there through the burning of the Conference Inn (the school survived), and also when it was proposed that the school move to another property, a gift from Billy Graham, located on the east side of Asheville.

    In the end that mountain property became The Cove, and Ben Lippen (Scottish for “Mountain of Trust”) was relocated to Columbia S.C. It is still “Ben Lippen,” but without the mountain and the beautiful views! I should add that the owners of the conference center on the mountain have been gracious to students and faculty who visit the place that has meant so much to them.

  7. Ruth Lightcap says:

    I graduated from Ben Lippen in 1962. I have many fond memories of my life on the mountaintop.

  8. Susan G. Williams says:

    I am also a graduate of Ben Lippen School in 1982. I was on campus the day the Inn burned down. My sister lived on the top floor of the Inn and lost all her personal belongings that day. The story was very informative and provided many things I never knew about our beloved Mountain of Trust.

    The only unfortunate part was when the writer discussed that Barrow’s son burned the Inn to the ground. This is simply not true. Barrow’s son is a great guy with a heart for God, and from what I remember, he was holding a guys bible study in the Inn the night before it burned down. The fireplace was found to have lots of cracks where sparks escaped and caused the fire to start. It was truly miraculous that the fire didn’t hit during the night, but occurred in the middle of the day while we were all in classes. There was never any blame placed on anyone for the fire as the building was so old but loved and used to it full potential! I trust that all readers and those that know the history of Ben Lippen School are aware of this.

    I am now also a member of the Villages at Crest Mountain which was built as a residential community on our old soccer field down below the Inn. The current developer, Reese Lasher, has been more than generous in allowing Alumni of Ben Lippen School to come and visit the mountain any time. Reese Lasher has a great appreciation for the history of the mountain as it still remains a very spiritual place and is a “Mountain of Trust,” now called Crest Mountain. Many alums love the mountain and still visit it often.

    Thanks for the history lesson, minus the part about the blame related to the burning of our beloved Inn. The legacy of Ben Lippen School remains in Columbia, S.C., but the heart and soul of Ben Lippen is still on the Mountain of Trust.

    • William Barrows, IAAI-CFI, CFEI says:

      Thank you Susan, for setting the record straight. The article does sound as if I was directly responsible for the fire. I was given permission to build a fire in the fireplace the night before, which resulted in a chimney fire. Normally a chimney fire is not a big deal, but age, weathering of the flue liner, and ambient temperature, in conjunction with a flash fire can crack the flue liner allowing sparks, and flames, to come in direct contact with wooden structural members resulting in a smoldering fire.

      Given my fathers connection to Ben Lippen, and the beginning of a world wide ministry, my guess is that the writer used my name directly, instead of “a student,” to juice up the story. I’m also not sure what is meant by “return the favor.”

      Ultimately this was God’s plan for Ben Lippen school in moving it to Columbia. It was also God’s plan for my life in that I am now a certified fire investigator. I believe this unfortunate event sparked my interest in fire investigation at a young age (pun intended).

  9. Anne G. Keay says:

    I also was a student at Ben Lippen when the fire that destroyed the Inn took place on Dec. 12, 1980. I agree 100% with what Susan G. Williams has stated above – Cliff Barrow’s son should NOT be linked to the fire.

    The night before the fire (Dec. 11, 1980), I remember we gathered together around the fireplace at the Inn and sang Christmas carols together. The young senior high school student, Barrow’s son, HAD BEEN GIVEN PERMISSION to build the fire in the fireplace that night. He is not responsible for the tragedy that took place due to the faulty chimney, by which the embers escaped to the rafters in the roof where they smoldered during the night.

    The cause of the fire was determined by the fire department. It is definitely a miracle that the freshman girls slept safely through that night on the top floor of the Inn, and the roof did not burst into flames until the morning of Dec. 12th, just before lunch when the students were in class.

    Ben Lippen, (which means “Mountain of Trust”), was an amazing place where students from around the world came together for an excellent high school education – and left as family. Many lives were changed, lifetime friendships were formed, and treasured memories were made that will never be forgotten.

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