Historic preservation in hotel design is nothing new, but it remains relatively rare for hotels to honor the rich histories of their Black neighborhoods. The industry needs more leaders like Larry Crosby, general manager of The Foundry Hotel, part of Hilton’s Curio Collection.
Organizing a great guest experience is easy for Larry Crosby. After all, the general manager of The Foundry Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, spent many years as a recognized concierge for Les Clefs d’Or.
But rather than focusing The Foundry’s guest experience solely on Asheville’s thriving dining scene or the hiking trails near the Blue Ridge Mountains, Crosby first instilled a sense of place and history.
“The Block neighborhood where the hotel is located has a fascinating history, where emancipated slaves turned it into a thriving business district,” said Crosby. “But urban renewal in the 1970s destroyed it, and that rich history was almost lost – unless you knew who to talk to in the neighborhood.”
Preserving and promoting that storied past has been part of Crosby’s mission since he helped open The Foundry Hotel in 2018. The 87-room boutique property was originally built as a steel forge factory for the Biltmore Estate. It is now part of Hilton’s Curio collection and managed by Raines.
Today, upon check-in, guests are encouraged to pause and admire the hotel’s exposed beams, original signs and preserved industrial artifacts as part of what Crosby calls “orientation.”
“We have a beautiful, wonderful adaptive reuse project right in the middle of The Block,” said Crosby. “We really want to tell the story of the neighborhood when you check in, give it an authentic feel and tell the rich history of the neighborhood – not just tell the story of the hotel itself.”
Part of that mission has been forging relationships with the community to provide immersive experiences, especially those involving The Block’s rich black history.
To complete the concierge team’s work, Crosby partnered with DeWayne Barton, founder and CEO of grassroots tourism company Hood Huggers International. Barton’s private neighborhood tours include Triangle Park and its murals depicting Black Asheville.
Another stop is the YMI Cultural Center, commissioned as the Youth Institute in the late 1800s by George Vanderbilt for the black workers who built the Biltmore Estate. YMI was designed and built by James Vester Miller, Asheville’s prominent Black builder in the late 19th century.
Today, YMI is home to Noir Collective AVL, a boutique and gallery co-founded by alexandria monque ravenel and her team. The design team at Crosby and The Foundry partnered with ravenel to commission pieces from local artists for common areas, guest rooms and the hotel’s restaurant, Benne on Eagle.
At the hotel’s restaurant, the menu honors the favorites of the neighborhood’s original residents, such as fried catfish and cabbage and fried green tomato with pimento cheese. But one of the most memorable parts of the dining experience, Crosby says, is the mural by Asheville artist Joseph Pearson, who used historic photographs to depict the neighborhood’s heyday before urban renewal. For the restaurant, Pearson also created portraits of “legends of the block” – women who were chefs and entrepreneurs in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Foundry is taking local representation to the next level by hosting an entire African American art exhibit for Black History Month.
Seeing representation when it comes to people in leadership positions like him, or as part of The Foundry’s concept, is important to Asheville and its future, Crosby said.
“Asheville is a really cool and cultural mountain town, but it lacks a lot of diversity, surprisingly,” he said. “I am fortunate to be a General Manager of a hotel that has a rich history and (I am) not what you see every day at a leadership level here. I really embrace the community and connect and talk to the younger demographic of talent coming into the workforce about this.”
Crosby said that in 2000, Asheville’s black population was much larger than it is today, having declined from 17.6 percent to about 11 percent now — all the more remarkable since the city’s overall population has grown.
“You have to inspire the desire to stay here,” Crosby said. “Charlotte, Atlanta, DC, Baltimore, these are all places where you can see more people who look like you and maybe have more opportunities. You have to build this culture here.”
Like the revitalization of the steel mill where The Foundry Hotel now stands, Crosby is forging that culture.