Boardinghouse Guests: Under New Management

In January 1915, Thomas Wolfe was sent to stay at the North State Fitting School. Julia Wolfe travelled to Anderson, SC to visit her oldest daughter Effie Gambrell and family. She then went to Atlanta to visit her son Fred who was attending Georgia Tech. Upon returning to Asheville, she packed her bags once again, turned the keys to the Old Kentucky Home boardinghouse over to Mrs. Nora Costello, and boarded the train for Florida. Wolfe wrote in Look Homeward, Angel, “Eliza went to Florida again during his fourteenth year and left him to board with the Leonards.” The Leonards were his teachers John and Margaret Roberts.

On January 21, a classified ad in the Asheville Citizen Times announced The Richmond House, rooms with excellent board and reasonable rates, formerly The Old Kentucky Home, under new management. Thomas Wolfe records the fact in the form of a fictional letter written by W.O. Gant to his daughter Helen. “Your mother has let the Old Barn to Mrs. Revell until she gets back. I went in the other day and found it warm for the first time in my life.” The letter laments “Your mother, …has gone off on another wild-goose chase to Florida, leaving me here alone to face the music, freeze, or starve.”

Advertisements for The Richmond House continued through the end of April 1915. March 16th the newspaper social column noted that Mrs. Wolfe, who had wintered in Orlando with Mrs. W. H. Westall, and other cities, was preparing to come back to Asheville. Thomas Wolfe recorded, “Eliza surged up and down the coast, stared thoughtfully at the ungrown town of Miami, found prices too high at Palm Beach, rents too dear at Daytona, and turned inland at length to Orlando, where, groved round with linked lakes and citrous fruits, the Pentlands waited her approach….” The Pentlands were Julia Wolfe’s Westall family relatives, and Julia was obviously investigating potential real estate investments in Florida, encouraged by her brother William Westall who had purchased property near Orlando. Wolfe reveals, “She always spoke hopefully of the possibility of opening a boarding-house at some tropical winter resort….”

Adding insight to the change in management at Old Kentucky Home, Thomas Wolfe describes his mother’s boardinghouse business plan from his fictionalized point of view:

“In winter now, she rented Dixieland for a few months, sometimes for a year, although she really had no intention of allowing the place to slip through her fingers during the profitable summer season: usually, she let the place go, more or less deliberately, to some unscrupulous adventuress of lodging houses, good for a month’s or two months’ rent, but incapable of the sustained effort that would support it for a longer time. On her return from her journey, with rents in arrears, or with some other violation of the contract as an entering wedge, Eliza would surge triumphantly into battle, making a forced entrance with police, plain-clothes men, warrants, summonses, writs, injunctions, and all the other artillery of legal warfare, possessing herself forcibly, and with vindictive pleasure, of her property.”

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Thomas Wolfe Memorial

Thomas Wolfe Memorial

As an NC State Historic Site, we are dedicated to interpreting the life and times of author Thomas Wolfe, and the historic boardinghouse in which he grew up.