It doesn’t take much of an artist’s eye to appreciate the newest piece of public art planned for the streets of downtown Waynesville.
By this time next year, a replica of a historic arch — boasting Waynesville as the “Eastern Entrance” to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — will once again crown Main Street.
The original arch spanning Main Street dates to the mid-1930s and remained up for four decades. Mention the arch to locals, and nostalgia is quick to set in. The arch was larger than life, omnipresent in old memories of downtown.
For Buffy Phillips, it was marching under it during parades, banging away on a snare drum with the high school marching band.
“It was just part of Main Street,” said Phillips, now the director of the Downtown Waynesville Association. “It would have been great if we could have brought that back.”
Indeed, the town tried to resurrect the actual arch in all its glory, soaring over the street once more. But Main Street doubles as a state highway, and erecting an overhead arch didn’t pass muster with the N.C. Department of Transportation.
“We’d have to go through an act of Congress to do it,” said Mayor Gavin Brown. “It just wasn’t going to work.”
Instead, a replica of the arch will grace the entrance to a mini-park at the intersection of Main and Depot streets near the historic courthouse.
The arch will hopefully draw attention to the mini-park, which gets little use now. It is easily missed, or mistaken as a private space for the adjacent office building. The arch over its entrance will change that.
“I feel like it will be inviting people to make use of that park and chill out for a little bit,” said Ed Kelley, a member of the Waynesville Public Art Commission spearheading the effort.
Bringing back the arch will also rekindle Waynesville’s connection to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which has slipped since those early decades after the park’s creation.
“I want Waynesville and North Carolina to have a better tie to the national park. I think we have let an asset go to waste over the years,” Brown said.
When the original arch went up, newfangled national parks were all the rage, and the region was beside itself over having one to call its own. The Smokies was the first national park in the East, joining the ranks of Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon — and Waynesville was quick to hitch its wagon to that train.
After all, you couldn’t get to the Smokies without coming through Waynesville back then, so why not declare itself the “Eastern Entrance?”
There is some debate, albeit mild in nature, over how many different signs there were over the years.
“The consensus is there were three,” Brown said.
But not according to local historian Bruce Briggs, who counts only two. Briggs has an unfair advantage when it comes to arch trivia: his father built the original one back in 1936.
Briggs said the actual arch — bearing the words “Great Smoky Mountains National Park” — never changed. But a smaller sign beneath it did. Originally, an arrow-shaped sign hung from the arch baring the words “Eastern Entrance” and pointing down Depot Street, out of town, through Maggie Valley and eventually to the park, albeit 30 miles away.
The arrow was replaced at some point with a plaque listing the mileage to certain place names, like Black Camp Gap.
“The one giving the distances was put up later when Waynesville couldn’t exactly claim to be the eastern entrance anymore,” Briggs said.
New roads through the region meant traffic bound for the Smokies no longer had to pass through Waynesville’s doorstep.
Briggs was only 10 when his father built the arch while serving as superintendent of lights and water for the town. Oscar Briggs made the sign at the town maintenance garage, but Briggs believes the materials were paid for by the chamber of commerce.
Business leaders were a driving force behind the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, hoping to boost the tourism economy of the region. So it makes sense the chamber of commerce would commission the arch to draw attention to Waynesville’s proximity to the new destination.
The arch finally started to show its age, however, and was taken down sometime around 1970.
“It was getting in bad shape,” said long-time former mayor Henry Foy, who grew up on Main Street in the 1930s.
No one knows for sure where that old arch is today, but Foy has little doubt it ended up on the scrap heap somewhere.
Foy remembers it laying in the yard outside the town’s maintenance shed after being taken down, getting more and more corroded.
Tribute to the Smokies
The arch replica is just one piece of art that will commemorate the Great Smoky Mountains. There will eventually be a trifecta of public art pieces in the mini-park to represent the Smokies.
One is already in place: a hand-forged metal railing with subtle references to the Smokies, including mountain peaks and salamanders.
The final art piece for the mini-park will be a series of metal panels mounted on the wall of the office building beside the park. In an odd bit of real estate lore, the wall of the office building is town property. While the rest of the building is owned by Jeff Norris’ law firm, the town-owned wall is fair game for sporting town-sanctioned art.
“The mini park is a strategic part of our Main Street,” said Jan Griffin, chair of the public art commission. “It will be a great place for people to sit and relax.”
The art commission still has to raise money for the piece, which Kelley estimates could be around $6,000. But he thinks fundraising will come easily.
“It is a commemorative piece. So many people remember the arch and will support bringing back that element of Waynesville that has been missing for a long time,” Kelley said.
As for what words to put on the replica? The public art commission has gone with an approximation. Instead of “Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Eastern Entrance” the arch will say “Gateway to the Smokies: Waynesville, North Carolina.”
“History and art and commercial endeavors all come into play,” Brown said. “A lot of people want to see the name Waynesville in the sign.”
Brown figures the arch will become the most photographed spot downtown, and there’s no better publicity than tourists posing under it and posting photos of themselves to Facebook with the town’s name in them.