By Geoff Cantrell
Long before Noble Hall, before Bob’s Mini Mart and Subway, there was the Townhouse Restaurant on what is now the Western Carolina campus.
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, a 1954 Western Carolina graduate, 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 (class of 1968). “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 (class of 1972), 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 (class of 1973) 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 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 (class of 1975), 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.
This article originally appeared in WCU Magazine.