Housed in the original F.W. Woolworth building in downtown Asheville, the Woolworth Walk is a blast from the past promoting the best of today’s local artists. The original Woolworth store was established in 1938 and lovingly restored in 2001. What we adored about our visit was the sweet memories that came flooding back the moment we walked into the iconic Woolworth Soda Fountain.
Wisely, owner Scott Sirkin ensured the fountain was built to look like the original Woolworth Luncheonette. The 50s decor is a nice added touch, given the role local Woolworth stores played in that era. Today’s fountain serves many of the original menu items, like club sandwiches, BLTs, egg creams, and old-fashioned ice cream sodas. They also offer more modern fare, like black bean burgers.
Much like other restorations we’ve visited in Asheville, no corners were cut in the Woolworth refurbishment. If you’re able, picture downtown Asheville around the year 2,000. It was a sad, depressed shadow of its former self. It needed people like Sirkin to come in and fight to restore it to its former glory. And restore it he did. In fact, Sirkin went above and beyond to make certain that Woolworth Walk was as close to the original Woolworth store as possible (minus any health hazards).
We were told that Sirkin had to find a way to negotiate the termination of a 30-year lease between the previous owners of the building and Family Dollar. If he had been unable to, Woolworth Walk might have been little more than a pipe dream. Fortunately, Sirkin persisted, and spent more than a year removing 19,000 square feet (ca. 18 a) of asbestos floor tiles, and reclaiming the familiar center stairwell.
Woolworth Walk is so much more than nostalgia, though. It’s where the work of more than 160 local artists is on display. In fact, it is Asheville’s largest local artist gallery, with displays eclectic enough to appeal to everyone. There’s glass work, metal, photography, apparel, pottery, fiber, painting, and locally handcrafted jewelry.
Participating artists are independent licensees. Their displays serve two purposes: to provide visitors with an up-close look at unique art, and to market and sell their work, so they can continue to do what they do best.
Our group spread out, each with an interest in a different type of art, and each eager to find a new favorite artist. Speaking to other gallery visitors, we quickly gleaned that it is common to come back to buy more art from an artist whose work impresses them. They become patrons, all because they take part in the Woolworth Walk.
There were two full floors filled with artwork, meaning our group did not see each other for several hours. It was fine though, because by the time we met for lunch we each had stories to tell. We talked about the artists who impressed us most and the people we met while we were looking. And, of course, we showed each other our purchases.
Once a month Woolworth Walk presents an art opening, with a featured artist’s work displayed in the front studio, near the entrance. They serve wine and snacks, and invite visitors to view the art work. We were not there at the right time of month, and can’t help but think how much fun it would have been.
Scott Sirkin is not quite done with his Woolworth masterpiece. He still has plans to convert the third story of the 81-year-old building into 10,000 feet (ca. 3 km) of apartments or condos.
History lovers will find it impossible to ignore the stories the old Woolworth building must have to tell. It was an honor just to visit and to imagine how many of those stories unfolded.
If you’re in a wheelchair you will be able to visit both floors of the gallery, however, there’s a bit a trick to it. You will likely enter from the top floor from the parking lot. That’s easy enough. To get to the lower floor though, you’ll need to go outside and around to the lower level door. If you’re at all confused, ask anyone from Woolworth Walk for more information.