Arson Fire Destroys 1889 Asheville, N.C., Inn
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | Mar. 24, 2009
The Richmond Hill Inn, a historic mansion in Asheville, N.C., that had been the subject of an ugly court battle, was heavily damaged last Thursday in a fire that investigators blame on arson.
No one was hurt in the blaze, but locals who worked to save the Queen Anne-style mansion almost three decades ago are "brokenhearted," says Jim Coman, former head of the Preservation Society of Asheville & Buncombe County. "It's a big deal. It was one of the most beautiful and largest houses in Buncombe County."
Coman was one of the preservationists who stepped forward in 1980 when then-owner, the Western North Carolina Baptist Home, decided to tear the mansion down. Determined to avoid destruction, the Preservation Society bought the building for $1 and in 1984, with a $50,000 loan from Preservation North Carolina and another grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, moved the mansion 300 yards to its present location.
Albert "Jake" and Marge Michel then purchased the inn, and oversaw restoration efforts. In 2005, they financed the $10.4 million sale of the property to William Gray. Unfortunately, the Michels say, he fell behind in mortgage payments, forcing them to initiate foreclosure proceedings last fall. Gray responded with a suit of his own, citing the Michels' failure to disclose the inn's plumbing problems.
In the early morning hours of Mar. 19, investigators say, an arsonist started a fire at the mansion. At 1:00 a.m., someone dialed 911 and hung up, prompting police to respond and find the fire in progress, according to Kelley Webb, spokeswoman for the city's fire and rescue department.
"The front portion of the building is basically rubble," Webb says. "One chimney fell on its own, and one chimney was knocked down by the firefighters so it wouldn't fall down."
Three days before the fire, a court ruled that the inn would be sold at a foreclosure auction scheduled for Apr. 16.
"Obviously [the foreclosure] is something we have to look at because that would give somebody a motive," says Arson investigator Buddy Thompson. "Just because there's a foreclosure doesn't mean the owner is involved. We're just following up on the leads we've got and hoping more people will call with more information about the fire."
The inn "was in drop-dead gorgeous condition," says Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina. "A vast amount of money and time was invested in this property, which became a showcase. It was the classic preservation victory—taking a building that was in rough condition and vandalized and turning it into one of the finest inns in North Carolina."
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