One of the hundred books a year I read:

One of the hundred books a year I read:

Terry Roberts Sky Club

The Sky Club

Terry Roberts

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On her deathbed, Jo Salter’s mother urged her daughter to live “a life I can’t even imagine.” Jo left her father, brothers, and family farm in the rural North Carolina mountains for the booming city of Asheville in 1929. She landed a job as a teller at Central Bank & Trust in the center of town, dated the eldest son of the second richest family in town (the Vanderbilt’s being far above), and enjoyed the nightlife at the Sky Club, operated by a legendary bootlegger.

From her vantage point, Jo watched the explosive growth of the town. Mansions built on manicured lots in pristine neighborhoods. Art Deco office buildings soaring above the downtown.

Recognizing Jo’s natural ability with numbers, her boss at the bank asked her to analyze reports. Leaders of other departments, seeing her talent, asked for the same help. It didn’t take long for Jo to understand the shaky foundation of the bank’s financial health, which was tangled with the city’s as Asheville used bonds to fund all its growth initiatives.

The finances collapsed on November 20, 1930, when Central Bank and Trust shut its doors without warning. Other banks quickly followed. The city’s cash evaporated and the shiny new mansions foreclosed. Bank and city leaders found themselves indicted and broke.

Romance blossomed between Jo and the bootlegger, and she found herself a new home and job at the Sky Club, one of the few businesses still thriving. When law enforcement tried to shut them down, Jo turned to her childhood home and the farmers who know how to turn corn into liquor to keep the club afloat.

Fact and fiction blur in the retelling of one of Asheville’s most pivotal times in its history, but it allows a desperate time to come alive in the story.

If you’ve ever wandered the streets of downtown Asheville, you may have marveled how the city so carefully preserved the numerous Art Deco buildings that dominate the blocks. Careful planning, right?

Actually, our historic architecture results from poor planning, not great.

The famous Biltmore House, the 250 room, 175,000 square foot summer home of George Vanderbilt, was completed in 1895. By 1920, the city of Asheville was growing at an extraordinary rate as the wealthy raced to build their own vacation homes. Mountains of debt financed the city’s building boom as leaders thought the party would never end.

Everything came crashing to an end when Central Bank and Trust, the bank that centered the city both financially and architecturally, went bust, leading to the bankruptcy of individuals, businesses, and the city itself.

An audit held town leaders and banking executives at fault. All the commissioners resigned. The mayor committed suicide (as did a Vice President of Central Bank and Trust).

In the following years, the city tried to escape its crushing debt, but the courts ruled against them. The city would be required to pay back every cent.

It took over forty years. On July 1, 1976, the last of our debt was retired.

So what does that have to do with all of our historic buildings? Unlike most cities who went through urban renewal programs in the 1950s and 1960s, Asheville couldn’t afford it. The buildings were tired, often vacant, but they stood. When the city was finally out of debt, the focus on urban areas had evolved to preservation rather than “renewal” (aka, tear down and replace). The buildings were saved because we couldn’t afford to tear them down.

Funny how history works, but the fact is the failure of Central Bank and Trust made Asheville what it is today. That and that “little” summer home of the Vanderbilt’s, which remains privately owned by the family.

In The Sky Club, the bank and its failure are real, as are many of the characters and businesses depicted. The mayor did commit suicide in the aftermath. The author even includes verbatim the letter the mayor sent to the local paper to be printed after his death.

But the story is not a historical accounting. The author outlines many of the liberties he took in a note at the end of the book.

The titular Sky Club, for example, didn’t exist in 1930. It opened as the Old Heidelberg Supper Club several years later and was renamed the Sky Club in 1942 (a German name was problematic amid a world war). A trip up our locally famous Beaucatcher Mountain overlooking downtown wouldn’t have been quite the same in 1930.

While Jo Salter isn’t a real person, her character allows the author to explain how the Depression affected different people in our mountains in different ways.

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