Asheville’s Flatiron Building Reaches 90 Years

An Asheville landmark is celebrating a noteworthy milestone. The Flatiron Building has reached its 90th year.

Resident barista at the World Coffee Cafe, Rachel McMurray, said that early 20th century New Yorkers who relocated to Asheville to escape tuberculosis wanted to create a “mini New York” in that part of town. This explains why Asheville’s diminutive cousin to Manhattan’s triangular 22 story building sits between Battery Park Avenue and Wall Street.

McMurray said there is a 100 year copyright on the name “Flatiron Building,” so architect Albert C. Wirth had to technically rename his creation the “Flat Iron Building,” but his classically detailed wedge shaped, eight story building has been generally accepted as Asheville’s Flatiron Building. Wirth, a native of Buffalo, New York, moved to Greensboro, North Carolina in 1916, and to Asheville in 1924. Construction of the Flatiron Building began the following year. Wirth was a founding member of the Architect’s Association of Western North Carolina.    

Russell Thomas bought the Flatiron Building in 1985. “I was 29 years old and didn’t own a significant piece of real estate. When I was in fifth grade I had a lucid dream where I was walking down the street and the guy walking next to me on the sidewalk tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Dude, isn’t that your building?’ and I said ‘Yeah, that’s my building.’ When I woke up I thought that was strange because I didn’t own a building.”

When Thomas was approaching the age of 30, he yearned to have some kind of commercial accomplishment to his credit. Driving around downtown with his best buddy Marshall, a real estate agent, Marshall asked him to describe the “ultimate type of real estate” he wanted. “I thought back to that dream, and said I thought I was always supposed to have a high-rise office building. Ten minutes later he drove up to the crosswalk at the Flatiron Building, which he had previously told me was available. Marshall asked, ‘Is this it?’ I said that’s it. We are buying that son-of-a-gun.”

Marshall said, “We can get that baby for $440,000, but I think we can get an even better deal.” At only $8.00 per square foot, Thomas wasn’t interested in bickering for a better price. What he did want was a three month period to assess the costs of renovation before payments were scheduled to begin.

Three months turned into four and Thomas had become anxious to close the deal. On closing day he instructed the painters, equipped with ladders and brushes in hand, not to begin work until the transaction was recorded at the courthouse. The deal closed at 1:00 p.m., and he immediately told the painters to begin their work.

“At 4:00, with no notice whatsoever, Ronald Regan made an unannounced speech that began with him saying, ‘Anyone who has not begun a historic restoration project at this time is no longer guaranteed federal historic preservation tax credits.’ Only three hours, that’s as close as I would want to play it,” Thomas said. These historic tax credits were a key part to the feasibility and long-term profitability of Thomas’ project, representing a 25 cent percent savings for every dollar spent on the restoration.

The Flatiron Building is an attractive junction for likeminded people to gather and place their businesses. “That’s who we’re working for,” Thomas said. “The building is on the National Register of Historic Places, and has been completely modernized. Because we are a landmark, city council gives us a 50 percent abatement on our property taxes in perpetuity, as long as the historic integrity is respected.”

Thomas said those who share ownership can take advantage of being part of a group that owns the historic Flatiron Building. “We’re trying to accomplish something that involves the entire building and all its tenants and associates, who we call stakeholders, to create an environment for downtown businesses to prosper and thrive,” Thomas said. 

By Mark-Ellis Bennett