Historic site to house offices

John Spake and Rick Grant stand inside the old Biltmore School, which they and others are renovating. The ceremonial groundbreaking for renovations of the Biltmore School on Hendersonville Road was Wednesday evening.−Erin Brethauer/ebrethau@citizen−times.com

ASHEVILLE − In just a few months, doctors will examine patients in areas where students once sweated over exams or a trip to the principal’s office in the Biltmore School building. Developers turning the 1927 building off Hendersonville Road into office space cut the ribbon Wednesday on the project, to be called Historic Biltmore School at Vanderbilt Park. “This building has a lot of history and we’re excited about preserving it,” said Rick Grant, an official at project contractor Beverly−Grant and an investor in the project. The three−story brick building, adorned with large white columns in front and a copper cupola on the roof, saw thousands of students during decades of use during the middle of the 20th century. It is one of the older public school buildings still standing in Buncombe County.

Truth be told, the ribbon was merely stretched across a temporary gravel sidewalk that leads from the parking lot to a gutted building. But developers say it won’t be long before tenants and others will be able to see what some of the finished product will look like. The front facade of the building will be repaired but essentially unchanged while interior space is being dramatically reconfigured to accommodate the needs of office users. Grading around the structure and interior demolition are already well under way. Carolina Internal Medicine Associates is scheduled to move into the building in July. Other occupants will follow over the next few months: The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, Altavista Wealth Management, TS Orthodontics and ARCA Design.

The fate of the building, located about a tenth of a mile south of Interstate 40, has been a concern for some since the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office moved out in 1999. It was home to Biltmore High School, Biltmore Elementary School and the first location for Buncombe County Junior College, an institution that eventually became UNC Asheville. County schools’ central office and then the Sheriff’s Office came later. An effort to turn the building into a regional history museum failed in 2003 because of lack of funds. John Bell, CEO of local real estate investment company Biltmore Property Group, said there have been at least five previous attempts to redevelop the 58,000−square−foot structure. Bell’s company and other local investors, including local real estate brokers John Spake and Bill Burgin, bought the building and 3.8 acres in May 2011 for $2.4 million. Total cost of the project is expected to be $12 million.

Demand for office space in the area dropped sharply during the recession. Grant said announced occupants will take about 60 percent of the space in the building and another 20 percent is also spoken for. “We came along at the right time,” he said. That’s also true when it comes to the physical condition of the building, said Alan McGuinn, one of the architects on the project.

The building, he said, is “in very good shape, but starting to show some signs of deterioration that would have taken it out pretty quickly” had renovation not begun. Former students will recognize some features inside but many will be entirely new. Corridor locations are being moved to make better use of the space and the former auditorium will be filled with two stories of office space, McGuinn said. The courtyard is being regraded to allow its use as a spot for workers to have lunch or take a break. A number of improvements will make the building much more energy efficient. “This building didn’t have a piece of insulation in it,” Grant said. But many of the wooden floors will be retained, ceilings will be tall and new windows will match the originals, McGuinn said. Some occupants will rent and others will own their space. Dr. Kenneth Kubitschek of Carolina Internal Medicine said the practice is looking forward to getting all of its 50−plus employees in one place after being forced to move into two temporary spaces after last year’s fire at the 445 Biltmore office building. “We love the building,” he said. Two sets of elevators are being added to the exterior, but Curtis Williams, director of leasing and new business development for Biltmore Property Group, said that will change the view from Hendersonville Road only a little.

“This building will have all the modern amenities wrapped into a 1920s shell,” he said.