Western Carolina University’s new four-story Noble Hall, with its mix of student residential units and space for commercial and dining establishments, already is ingraining itself into the campus culture, taking on a multitude of meanings for different members of the university community. For a student who moved in when the facility opened last August, it creates an ultra-convenient housing situation with built-in dining options, within rock-throwing distance of several academic buildings. For one WCU faculty member, it’s an aesthetically pleasing structure that adds character to campus; for another, it’s a prime example of an innovative developmental concept and a worthy topic of discussion for sociology classes. And for three entrepreneurs with close ties to campus, it’s a chance to open a new business and infuse a new kind of magic into WCU’s community life.
Construction of a mixed-use building on the south side of Centennial Drive near its intersection with Central Drive already was included in the university’s master plan for new construction when one of the structures in WCU’s old commercial strip at that location was heavily damaged by fire on Nov. 21, 2013. Plans for Noble Hall were accelerated after the fire by trustees of the Endowment Fund of Western Carolina University, which owns the property where the commercial strip was located. The result three years later is a 120,000-square-foot facility that can house up to 420 students, distributed throughout all four floors, and that includes space for commercial and dining ventures on the ground floor. Built in three segments, the $29.3 million structure is named in honor of the Noble Nine, a group of nine trustees from the late 1800s who were instrumental in the development of the school that evolved into WCU.
For local entrepreneurs Jeanette Evans and Suzanne Stone, the day of the 2013 fire was one filled with shock and heartbreak as they stood with dozens of other onlookers and watched their dream businesses located in rental space in the old commercial strip go up in smoke. “There were no tears until much later. We were thinking, ‘this can’t be real,’” Stone recalls. Evans had operated the Mad Batter Bakery and Cafe at the location since 1998, and Stone had led her family operation, Rolling Stone Burrito, in adjoining rental space since 2007. Both eateries were favorite gathering places for WCU students, faculty and staff, and a collective community mourning followed the fire, which also damaged space occupied by a Subway sandwich shop. Stone, a business major in college who became a professional counselor, said her burrito restaurant was strictly a “labor of love,” with her sons working there after school and during the summers, and her husband, WCU faculty member Wes Stone, doing the accounting work. As Rolling Stone Burrito got off the ground, the family created the business logo, made their own signage in their garage, and came up with their own names for menu items such as the popular “Fire in the Hole” burrito. Stone’s business neighbor Evans said she had dreamed of opening up her own restaurant even as a young girl. “I just loved working there every day and being part of the community,” she said. “There was something special about seeing people every day and being a part of their lives.” After the fire, a desire to keep that feeling alive prompted Evans to open up a new version of her business, Mad Batter Food and Film, in downtown Sylva.
As WCU officials sought tenants for the commercial space in Noble Hall, Evans, Stone and Chris Wilcox ’95, owner of City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, were courted as potential customers, but each one determined that rent in the new building would be cost prohibitive for them as individual business owners. The solution, proposed by WCU legal counsel Mary Ann Lochner, was a uniting of the three to create a combination bookstore and cafe, which has been named MadStone Cafe and Catching Light Books. The three owners will fill about 2,000 square feet of space in Noble Hall, and as of magazine press time, were predicting a February opening. “I am so grateful that the university has entrusted Jeanette, Suzanne and myself with the job of establishing an indie bookstore/cafe on campus,” Wilcox said. “We aim to build it into an iconic hangout that will resonate with folks in the same way as prior businesses on Centennial Drive such as the Townhouse, Rolling Stone and Mad Batter…a spot where great memories are made rather than just a place to spend money.”
WCU’s old commercial strip was removed entirely to make way for Noble Hall, and another campus landmark, Bob’s Mini Mart, was dislodged from the space it had occupied for about three decades. Owner Bob Hooper reopened his new store with the same name in Noble Hall in late October. Subway owner Scott Welch, who also lost his location to the fire, began serving sandwiches in Noble Hall on Friday, Jan. 6, and the grand opening of the first Chili’s Bar and Grill in North Carolina west of Asheville followed three days later on Monday, Jan. 9. Sylva-based Blackrock Outdoor Co., an outdoor recreation retailer and the fifth tenant in Noble Hall, was expected to open sometime early in 2017.
Longtime WCU faculty member Leroy Kauffman, associate professor of accounting, was among those who watched the old commercial building burn in November 2013. Kauffman said he believes the new business space in Noble Hall will “replace much of the feel that was lost” when the previous businesses in the commercial strip were burned out or closed to make way for the new structure. Kauffman, whose office in Forsyth Building is just across from Noble Hall, said the new facility is much more beautiful than he expected it would be and does not come across as “institutional.” “I particularly appreciate the fact that there is a variety of materials, textures and colors used on the exterior,” he said. “The lines of the building are varied without many big flat uninteresting surfaces. The use of glass that allows a glimpse of study spaces is a nice touch. It adds character and variety.”
WCU sociology professor Tony Hickey’s fascination with Noble Hall is found in the concept of locating both residential and commercial space in one structure – a principle of the “new urbanism” design movement that developed more than two decades ago. The rise of new urbanism was a revolt against the suburbanization of the U.S., which customarily involved houses built with garages on the front side and a porch on the back instead of the front, leading to less interaction among neighbors, Hickey said. Mixing residential and commercial space brings its own set of challenges, including how to deal with parking, but research has shown the concept to be effective in increasing interaction among people, he said. “From a sociological point of view, it’s really very exciting to see this. Noble Hall is a great example and I’m going to use it in my classes,” Hickey said.
For its student residents, the appeal of Noble Hall might tend to lean toward the less-academic. Matt Ford, a sophomore from Stokesdale majoring in parks and recreation management, reported late in the fall semester that he is “very content” with his room in the new building and impressed with its convenience after living in Scott Residence Hall last year. Bob’s Mini Mart is directly under the room that he shares with fellow student Sean Duffy. “We can pop down and pick up necessities – drinks, chips and Pop Tarts – in less than 10 minutes,” he said. “On top of that, (the building’s) placement is awesome. It’s so close to all my classes, so if I need to make a pit stop between classes to grab something, it’s no big deal.”
Jack Hudson ’82, past president of the WCU Alumni Association, said he maintains fond memories of visiting the facilities that once existed along the commercial strip in years past, including the post office, pharmacy, laundromat, barber shop and the iconic Townhouse Restaurant. “I was excited to hear about (the Noble Hall) project even in the beginning,” Hudson said. “I have seen mixed-use buildings be very successful in many cities around our state and around our country. Noble Hall is positioned in a great location on campus. It’s time to make new memories in this new facility that will serve us well for many years.”
Those in the WCU community who already have found something to pique their interests in Noble Hall, and everyone else, will have a chance to celebrate what the structure already has added to campus, and what it will mean in the future, when a dedication ceremony for the new building is held in the spring.
Remembering the Townhouse, the Place That Started It All
By GEOFF CANTRELL
Long before Noble Hall, before Bob’s Mini Mart and Subway, there was the Townhouse Restaurant.
Originally described as a soda shop and burger joint, the Townhouse quickly became a center for student social life when it was opened in 1949 by owners Elsie and Frank Brown. A jukebox featuring the latest hits sat against a wall. Hot dogs, burgers and fries, coffee and ice cream topped the menu. It was named for the old “Townhouse Farm” that previously occupied the site, which was owned by David Rogers until his death in 1924. WCU then operated the farm, complete with a dairy, until it was discontinued in 1947.
From 1957 until 1973, Winfred Ashe ’54 MAEd ’59 and his wife, Ellen Ward Ashe, owned and operated the restaurant, living in an apartment upstairs.
“Other than the college cafeteria, the Townhouse was the main meeting place for a lot of the students,” recalled Cullowhee businessman Norman West ’68. “It had a good atmosphere, was conveniently located and at times it was like a party. And most importantly, a fried honey bun with butter and coffee was a quarter. It comfortably seated about 100 but a lot of times it seemed like 200 people were seated there…. I know that every college has a ‘Townhouse’ but ours was as good as any.”
Lynn Hotaling ’72 MAEd ’80, retired editor of The Sylva Herald, said the Townhouse “was our social media. Today’s college students will likely find it hard to believe, but we didn’t have cell phones, email or Facebook. If we needed to tell someone something, we went to the Townhouse to find them. If they didn’t happen to be there, we’d see someone who would pass along our message.”
A haven, a hangout and local landmark, it was immortalized – to another degree – in a painting by Joel Morris ’73 that was made into prints that briskly sold as keepsakes. Morris made a career as a painter, both in traditional styles as well as outdoor murals on buildings across the state. And the Townhouse was his spot when he was on campus.
Morris was an original character, friends say. A denizen of Cullowhee from the last of the ’60s and early ’70s, he died in 2014, leaving a legacy of art, friendships and memories. The Joel Baxter Morris “Old Hippy” Scholarship was established by his friends to benefit students in the WCU School of Art and Design. Poster copies of his Townhouse painting were sold with proceeds going to the scholarship fund. Last September, a special exhibit installation of his works and memorabilia was shown at WCU’s Fine Art Museum, with a larger-than-average crowd attending a reception, and sharing stories and reminiscences.
Part of the crowd with Morris at the Townhouse back in the day was Brooks Sanders ’75, now of Tillamook, Oregon. “I was in there before class and after, usually with black coffee,” Sanders remembered. “Joel had returned from his service with the Navy in Southeast Asia and made a big impact with his Jaguar XKE convertible, probably bought it with his muster-out pay. Helluva guy, happy to be alive and to be studying art at Western.”
The Townhouse gave way to changes in the 1980s, and by the 1990s a Subway occupied the space but not the nostalgia of thousands of Catamounts.