ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Steve Hill, manager of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial for 26 years now, remembers all too well the night he got the call that the beloved house was ablaze: July 24, 1998.
"It was 3:20 a.m. and they told me that the roof was burning. And they said, `We just don't know how it's going to go.' "
At about 8 that morning, Hill recalled, "they did an initial assessment and the engineers decided the foundation and sidewalls were intact. But once you walked through, you couldn't fathom some of the things ever being fixed."
Amazingly, most of them have been. The reopening festivities on May 28-31, Wolfe's second coming of sorts, will include a rededication ceremony, living history and city tours, and authors' talks.
Hill, an Asheville native, had spent his adult life tending to the Old Kentucky Home, the name for the boardinghouse run by Wolfe's mother, Julia Wolfe. Thomas Wolfe wrote none too flatteringly about the house, which he called "Dixieland," in his autobiographical novel "Look Homeward, Angel." He lived there from 1906 to 1916, when he went off to the University of North Carolina.
"Look Homeward, Angel" was published in 1929 and has never been out of print; his novel with the oft-quoted title "You Can't Go Home Again" was published posthumously in 1940. Scholars still study Wolfe's writing, and he still has followers. There is a Thomas Wolfe Society. Before the house burned, about 30,000 people visited yearly.
Hill acknowledged that the restoration stalled at various times for financial, engineering, and restoration reasons. Financing for the $2.4 million project has come from the state, insurers, and private donations. The house is maintained by the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.
Putting the house back together has been an amazing feat. Historians and architects took the opportunity to return the 1883 Queen Anne house to its 1916 state and repaint the outside its original yellow, a color they found under 17 layers. In 1916, Julia Wolfe made the last substantial changes to the house, expanding it to 6,000 square feet and 29 rooms. Inside, many artifacts were saved from the fire and some new ones were found during the restoration and reconstruction.
"The fire revealed a lot about the house we didn't know," Hill said on a walk through what was still a work site in late March. His goal was to make the house more historically consistent while meeting newer code requirements.
Repairs included preserving 4,000 square feet of original plaster, re-creating the collapsed roof by handcrafting a standing-seam cooper roof, sanding and refinishing heart pine floors after they had buckled in the heat, and installing missing period hardware. If there was any upside, Hill said, it was seeing how much people cared about the homestead.
"The saving grace for me, as distraught as we were, was that the whole community turned out to help," he said. "By 11 that night, we'd removed the artifacts in baskets, the debris was removed, and a fence was up."
The fire was blamed on arson, and the crime remains unsolved.
"It's never too far from my mind," Hill said. "I've gotten up in the middle of the night with a strange feeling and gone to check on it."
Diane Daniel can be reached by at firstname.lastname@example.org.