ASHEVILLE — To the untrained eye, what appears to be a pile of ordinary rocks sits on a counter in a basement room of a newly refurbished government building in east Asheville. For Linda Hall, an archaeologist employed by the state of North Carolina, it’s a precious pile of history.
“This is mostly soapstone that was in various stages of being carved into bowls” by Native Americans, she explained. The artifacts are part of a collection inherited from Pack Memorial Library in Asheville. “We don’t know exactly what part of our area they came from,” Hall said, “but they would have been made about 1,000 B.C.”
In a room next door, there are boxes full of pottery shards, arrowheads and pieces of bone that will help Hall paint a fuller picture of North Carolina’s past. Upstairs, on the top three floors of the western branch of North Carolina’s Office of Archives and History, other specialists are laboring to document, preserve and promote other aspects of regional history.
They’re working in a stellar, substantially expanded facility, but half of the building has a decidedly empty feel.
Moving back and forward, in time
The western office — which is home to eight staffers who handle state-mandated public records management, historic preservation studies, heritage tourism promotion, archaeological research and photo archiving — has returned to a place deeply connected to local history and its own past.
In 1978, the state created the western office, which set up shop next to Oteen’s VA hospital, in a former dormitory for African-American nurses. In 1991, the office relocated to Biltmore Village, where it existed in somewhat cramped quarters until its return, in February of this year, to its original home.
The building is in much better shape now, having undergone a $3.4 million restoration. “It’s a night and day change,” said Jeff Futch, western supervisor for the state agency. “We went from about 3,500 square feet to over 18,000.”
It’s clearly a major upgrade; at the same time, given state budget constraints, “the timing on this has been kind of lousy, to be frank,” Futch said. For the first time, he has full-fledged spaces for exhibits, workshops, labs, a dark room, a library and multiple kinds of archives. What he doesn’t have is the resources to carry some of the key plans forward.
Spaces to fill
“This is the third floor – nobody’s on this floor,” Futch said during a recent tour of the building. “The reason it’s not staffed right now is the budget problems, so we’re kind of in a holding pattern.”
The largest room on the floor is filled with shiny new metal shelves, which sit empty. “The plan is for this to be our western regional archives, run by the State Archives,” Futch said.
The room was intended to replicate the Outer Banks History Center, a State Archives facility in Manteo, opened in 1989, that’s stocked with collections regarding N.C. coastal areas.
“The idea is, we deserve something like this here in Western North Carolina, too,” Futch said. “Our history is just as pertinent as their history.”
A western archive, should it ever become a reality, would collaborate with area libraries, museums and government agencies to store and make available records on unique aspects of WNC history.
For example, the State Archives in Raleigh is now home to a sizable collection of materials from Black Mountain College, the famed former avant-garde institution. That collection, Futch reasoned, would be a natural fit for an archive closer to home in WNC.
Until the state provides funds for archival staff, however, “our western archive will have nothing in it,” Futch said.
Despite the frustrations that arise from the western office’s stymied expansion plans, Futch stressed that there’s still much to celebrate at the new facility.
This week has been a banner one for the building: At a banquet Tuesday, May 24, The Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County honored the office with one of its Griffin Awards for historic preservation. On Thursday, May 26, the N.C. Historical Commission convened one of its biannual meetings here — the first time it has done so since 2000. And today, the office hosted an official ribbon-cutting.
Of course, given the state budget situation, there is the troubling prospect that the office might face some cuts on the near horizon. In March, the Biltmore Beacon reported on speculation that one of the office’s staff positions might be on the chopping block.
That’s not the case — at least not yet — according to Maryanne Friend, a spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, which oversees the office.
“No, we don’t have a plan, at the moment, for a cut at the western office, but the budget process is still underway,” she told Carolina Public Press. “We, like all state agencies, are operating to protect our core programs and services, but we’ve had significant reductions in out budget, so we don’t know exactly where we’re going to end up.”