Arrowmont's New Century

After five years of uncertainty, will East Tennessee's most famous school of arts and crafts survive on its 101-year-old Gatlinburg campus after all?

Downtown Gatlinburg exists mainly for quick, silly fun. It's noisy, garish, crowded, like a miniaturized version of the Las Vegas Strip, perhaps, with the quick weddings but without the gambling and strippers. It's candy and cowboy boots, pancakes and Putt-Putt, taffy and T-shirts, cheap motels and Mysterious Mansions, all clustered along multiple lanes of slow but constant traffic.

When people call Gatlinburg a tourist trap, the asterisk, the most notable exception, has always been Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. When you see No Way Jose's Cantina, turn left, by Cooter's Place, the Dukes of Hazzard tribute that includes "indoor go-karts." In a transition so sudden it may give you the bends, you're on a quiet campus shaded by old maple, oak, poplar, and dogwood trees and rustic old houses, ranging from a tiny cabin to a large cedar-shake house with seven dormers to a large old barn, mixed with some large modernist buildings.

At first, you may not see anybody at all. But have a peek inside some of the studios, and you'll find dozens of workers engrossed in the business of making things. They're working on lathes making Chippendale-style furniture, they're weaving fabric on a floor loom, they're glazing pots with red poppy designs for a kiln. This time of year there are generally more than 100 artisans at a time, old and young, male and female, and they're from all over the nation, from New York to Oregon, from Texas to North Carolina. Artisans hear great things about Arrowmont and decide to come, for a week-long workshop or longer. For many of them, it's their first trip to Tennessee.

Arrowmont has the earnest atmosphere of a small college, or perhaps a mountainside monastery. It's a nationally respected school of arts and crafts, and it's been the birthplace of several national crafts organizations, notably the American Association of Woodturners, which now has 14,000 members. Though its approximately 1,500 potters, woodworkers, basketmakers, and other artisans pay hundreds for the privilege of studying with masters from all over the world, Arrowmont is still a non-profit, a philanthropic endeavor. It evolved, by several unpredictable turns, from a school founded as a college sorority project more than 100 years ago to combat illiteracy and hookworm. Arrowmont's story may be unique in America.

But about five years ago, after decades as Arrowmont's main supporter, Pi Beta Phi announced they were selling Arrowmont's campus for commercial development. The suddenness of it came as a shock to Arrowmont supporters. Word was that it would become a water park, with more motels.

Arrowmont considered multiple other offers to move to other cities, notably including Greeneville, Tenn., and Knoxville, where the prospect excited lots of city boosters.

Since then, several big factors have shifted. After the original offer fell through, Pi Beta Phi took a couple years to study the issue, extending the agreement concerning the campus the organization still owned, but was still determined to sell. Arrowmont's administration, which had never launched a capital campaign before, began organizing a multi-million-dollar fund-raising effort. After last week's vote of support, on first reading, by Gatlinburg's City Commission, those who love the old campus have new reason to hope Arrowmont will survive right where it is, with a few adjustments and under new auspices. But there's a long way to go before contracts are signed. If last week's resolution is approved again next month, Arrowmont will have $3.7 million from Gatlinburg to keep it in town.

But Arrowmont will have to raise more than that to pay the total its original benefactor wants for the land. And in the mix is an unusual out-of-state developer named Bob Bentz, who has already bought much of Pi Beta Phi's original property, most of which was beyond the familiar boundaries of the Arrowmont campus—and is negotiating to buy a little more, some of which is presently used by Arrowmont.

It's going to take some more negotiations and a lot of money, and Arrowmont boosters are optimistic. But as potters understand, you never know it's a success until it comes out of the kiln.

***

Jerry Laffer is a retired dentist from Syracuse, N.Y. He drives down here, 800 miles one way, about three times a year, just to study woodworking at Arrowmont. "It's the best thing you can do," he says. "The best bang for your buck. It changed my life. I've lectured all over the world, Switzerland, Israel. You can sit in a cafe in Paris, and stay in the fanciest places. But here is much more stimulating."

Laffer pays his way, but in the same room, using the same equipment, is a woman 40 years younger who's working in the kitchen for the privilege of studying at Arrowmont. He's here just for a week, but five official artists in residence qualify to live and work at Arrowmont for 11 months at a time. Rena Wood is a fabric artist from St. Louis. She was doing some embroidery in her workshop while waiting for some dye to soak into cloth in a bucket. She heard about Arrowmont at the Kansas City Art Institute.

"It's a great place to either refine your technique, or learn something new," Wood says. "More than anything, the school has a reputation for having a welcoming and friendly environment. It's a supportive community of artists that want to help each other make good art and learn from the experiences of your instructors and classmates. It's nice to see a retired couple taking classes together, sitting next to a college student majoring in art."

She's grateful she was selected for the residency, speaking of Arrowmont's advantages for a budding practical artist. "If I feel the need to weave my own cloth, I have access to a floor loom without investing in one. I also tend to work on a large scale, and the main fiber studio has large print tables and space to dye that I really couldn't have if I were setting up a studio of my own."

Chris Barrett (who was a writer for Metro Pulse a few years ago) is in charge of communications for Arrowmont. He first heard of the school about 20 years ago, from friends in Ann Arbor, Mich. When they heard he was moving to East Tennessee, they said, let's meet at Arrowmont. "The Yodas of their disciplines spend three says here, talk about their work, exchange ideas," he says. He mentions some recent visitors, like Yoshiko Wada, a world-renowned fabric scholar from San Francisco, and Chicago-based woodcarver Binh Pho, known for the delicate thinness of his work.

And once here, students and teachers can do nearly anything. Potters have a variety of outdoor kilns to work with, including the cave-like wood-fired kiln known as the anagama, with its slanted brick chimney running up the hillside. Almost always they leave some work here, for students to marvel at.

***

Some woodturners come here just to behold the Arrowmont totem poles, which have a reputation well beyond state lines. Not much like anything the Inuit did, they portray carved images, some easier reads than others: a birdhouse, a football, a fat fish.

As of this month, at least, it looks as if it may all stay right here.

Think of a "Florida developer," as he's sometimes described in the media, and you may not picture Bob Bentz.

A developer who's also a landscape architect, Bentz is the principal of an group called Land Design South, with offices in Orlando, West Palm Beach, and Port St. Lucie. They've cultivated a reputation for environmentally sensitive development, and have designed or developed lots of multi-million-dollar condominium and retirement developments in Florida, many of them on the posh side, including the Polo Club of Boca Raton and a large assisted-living complex called Devonshire at Wellington Green.

In all, they've dealt with billions of dollars' worth of property. However, Bentz is easy to reach by phone for a Metro Pulse story, and happy to talk.

"I spent all my summers in Gatlinburg, growing up," he says. From the 1960s, Bentz's family owned cabins in Gatlinburg. A 1979 University of Tennessee forestry grad, Bentz worked for a time as a park ranger in the Smokies. His wife Karen, originally from Oak Ridge, is president of the development firm, and has been a student at Arrowmont. His family still owns three cabins nearby. "I'm excited to get back into Gatlinburg on a regular basis."

He says he's not the unnamed developer of five years ago who was rumored to be planning a water park or some other garish development on the Arrowmont site. He says he contacted Pi Beta Phi about two years ago, and bought 55 acres "on the steep side" of Arrowmont, and is now looking at a more-complicated 2-acre strip by the road. "We intend to create an attractive restaurant," he says, and some retail, possibly a hotel, all of it architecturally in keeping with the style of the old Arrowcraft Shop, which will stay.

He says he's been in five-way talks concerning the sorority, the City of Gatlinburg, Sevier County Schools, and Arrowmont, "in an attempt to accommodate everybody and bring to a conclusion the ownership of the property." The negotiations are confidential. He's been party to the Arrowmont discussions, but he says the final deal for the 13 acres that constitute Arrowmont's campus will probably be between Arrowmont and Pi Beta Phi, without his direct involvement.

"We see Arrowmont as a cultural asset to Gatlinburg," he says. "It offers something a lot different from everything else there. We're very sensitive to their parcel, and to the heritage of Arrowmont."

It's all very complicated, perhaps reflected by the formal, legal name of Arrowmont: "Pi Beta Phi Settlement School, doing business as Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts."

Pi Beta Phi has deep roots in Gatlinburg, and it's hard to pull them apart. After all, they practically helped invent the place.

***

Launched at Monmouth College in Illinois in 1867, "Pi Phi," as it's known for short, is now headquartered in Town and Country, Mo., a wealthy suburb of St. Louis. Pi Phi is an international organization with 136 collegiate chapters. They were relative latecomers to the University of Tennessee. But look at their website, and Gatlinburg looms large in their history. It was what they were once most famous for.

Before 1912, Pi Beta Phi was different from other college sororities mainly in that it referred to itself as a fraternity. According to Eily Cummings, its communications director, "Pi Beta Phi was founded in 1867, and the word sorority didn't exist then." Though Webster's claims the word dates back to 1532, "sorority" rarely appeared in print until the 1870s. Hence Pi Phi's phrase "fraternity for women" suggests venerability. It's a sorority so old it predates the common usage of the word. They still call themselves a fraternity. (For the rest of this article, we will, too.)

Sororities and fraternities alike often take on some token philanthropic project to suggest there's something more to them than the pins and the parties. Rarely, perhaps never, does a collegiate Greek organization take on a challenge on the heroic scale the Pi Phis did in 1912.

As a project to celebrate their 50th anniversary, Pi Phi chose to establish a Settlement School, modeled on the urban reformist institutions of the same name in industrial England. At a conference at Swarthmore College in 1910, the Pi Phis chose to open such a school in the Appalachians, and eventually identified Gatlinburg, a remote one-sawmill town. The Smoky Mountains, hard to get to and privately owned, then drew lumbermen and adventurers, but not tourists. In those days, tourists were trespassers. Some mountain people seemed to think the same of these college girls, at first.

Most of the Pi Phis who came to Gatlinburg in 1912 were from the Midwest, a couple states away. It was the progressive era, the year of Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party, when it seemed possible that America could solve all its own problems, and people were just beginning to notice that living conditions in Appalachia were among America's most urgent problems.

The Pi Phis took on the daunting and potentially hazardous mission of opening a school in Gatlinburg. They arrived the year just before the publication of Horace Kephart's eye-opening classic, Our Southern Highlanders, which exposed the harsh realities of life in Appalachia's remote hollers. Pi Beta Phi's Hail-Mary pass into the Appalachians earned the fraternity for women national fame.

In those early years, the Settlement School's sole mission was to teach kids who didn't otherwise have access to a good basic education. Eventually they added a clinic to combat diseases of the desperately poor, like hookworm. But the young fraternity women began to notice that many of these mountain families possessed, if not wealth, impressive skills. Their hand-made quilts, pottery, baskets, and furniture were so distinctively well made they could be called art. And, more practically, they were marketable. Handcrafts were mostly for personal use, to fill a need, and what swapping was done was mainly on the barter system. But to some imaginative Pi Phis, craftwork seemed a possible way out of poverty. In finding a market for the mountain goods, the Pi Phis introduced, to the hills of Sevier County, something like an economy.

After World War I, automobiles became more common, and roads started making their way into the once-forbidding mountains. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was just a promising project, nowhere near completion, in 1926, when the Pi Phis opened the Arrowcraft Store, one of Gatlinburg's earliest tourist-oriented retail outlets. It got its name from a fraternity symbol; to this day, Pi Beta Phis wear an arrow pin. Arrowcraft sold hand-made mountain crafts for the benefit of the families that made them.

Today, Arrowcraft, like Arrowmont, seems a stark contrast to the bright, noisy hucksterism on the strip outside. But one could argue they started it all. In 1930, Arrowcraft helped found the Southern Highland Craft Guild. Based in Asheville, the guild runs the Arrowcraft store in Gatlinburg today.

By 1945, with the participation of UT in Knoxville, craftsmen were teaching their traditional arts on the Settlement School campus, mainly through summer workshops.

It wasn't until the 1960s that Pi Beta Phi turned over the administration of Gatlinburg's elementary school to Sevier County. The school, still called the Pi Beta Phi Elementary School, continues to work with the fraternity on a long-term lease, and the fraternity still contributes books and other assets to the school. But in the mid-'60s, Pi Beta Phi altered its mission. The fraternity had started the Settlement School as a 50th-anniversary tribute. Half a century later, they wanted a symbolic boost for their 100th anniversary, and started the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.

Programs proposed for Pi Phi's 1960s Centennial Project, had included building a hospital, and extending health care to other continents. A later Pi Phi report suggests Arrowmont might have resulted from a fall-back scenario, using land they already owned: "the lack of fund-raising success most likely was a factor in the decision to choose an arts and crafts school as the Centennial Project."

There are two ways to tell the story, both arguably true. Arrowmont itself dates its founding to 1912, the beginning of the Settlement School, which evolved into the crafts school on the same campus, with some of the same buildings. Arrowmont Director Bill May tells the story about how the Pi Beta Phi women began nurturing the arts. "They found these baskets meant for carrying apples and laundry and potatoes, were well-made and beautiful," he says, and the early experiments with marketing them proved they were of interest to the world at large. "We still make baskets, but the baskets are now carrying ideas."

Today, Pi Beta Phi describes Arrowmont as something different. "There wasn't an Arrowmont until at least 1964," says Cummings, flatly. "Really more like 1966."

***

For more than 30 years, Pi Beta Phi was in charge of Arrowmont, only fraternity women could serve on the school's Board of Governors.

But in Pi Beta Phi's telling of the story, after an initial wave of enthusiasm among members who were in college in the 1960s, Arrowmont began to be perceived as an awkward and complicated discursion from their original mission that left members in other parts of the country feel isolated, and sometimes puzzled. By then, obviously, Gatlinburg was no longer a poverty-stricken community, and most people there could read—even if they found they could amuse tourists by misspelling words on signs for hillbilly attractions.

The fraternity appears to have backed off a little when, thanks to a change in the bylaws, Arrowmont's Board of Governors began including locals who were not Pi Beta Phi members. By 2002, well-known Gatlinburg restaurauteur Geoffrey Wolpert was on the previously all-Pi-Phi board. But Arrowmont still existed on land wholly owned by Pi Beta Phi.

Pi Beta Phi dutifully contributing from afar, Arrowmont earned new plaudits within the national arts and crafts community. A gathering there in 1999 resulted in the founding of the National Basketry Organization. A 2002 convention resulted in the founding of the International Marblers Gathering.

Then, five years ago, newspaper reports revealed the fraternity had chosen to sell Arrowmont's campus to an unnamed commercial developer for $10 million.

The story of Arrowmont in Gatlinburg might have ended right there. Maybe it's an irony that Arrowmont was saved by a recession. The deal fell through.

In the months afterward, both Arrowmont's administration and Pi Beta Phi took a hard, honest look at their association, and their own interest in maintaining it. Arrowmont began entertaining offers to leave Gatlinburg.

Five years ago, Bill May would have been surprised to see "Arrowmont Executive Director" on his own resume. Originally from Birmingham, Ala., he moved to a pristine patch of green in Sevier County in 1980, and once pictured himself as a high-school English teacher. But while building his cabin, he discovered he was pretty good with his hands. He worked for a furniture manufacturer, then apprenticed with a stained-glass artisan, and went into the business, getting a good deal of employment from Knoxville churches. He grew closer to Arrowmont, teaching workshops, and after some years wound up on the Board of Governors.

"It happened suddenly," he says of the news in 2008. "It left us in a real predicament. I was on the task force to consider alternatives, if we had to move. We got offers from New England and New Mexico. Some were impractical, some were just real-estate agents trying to sell." Two locations made the short list. One was Greeneville, 60 miles northeast of Gatlinburg, where philanthropist Scott Niswonger has been vigorously trying to cobble together a cultural center. One, 40 miles to the northwest, was Knoxville.

The Knoxville Chamber and several Knoxville boosters wanted Arrowmont to move here, and showed representatives several options, from urban to rural. One rumored spot was in the Vestal area, near Candoro and/or Log Haven. Much of that land had recently been gained through philanthropic efforts, and for several months, it looked as if Pi Beta Phi's loss might be Knoxville's gain.

Some of it was appealing to May, who spends a lot of time in Knoxville, where he has both friends and stained-glass contracts. "We analyzed it to death," he says. "The board asked, ‘If we move somewhere, will it be that much different?' But to pretend that if you move to Knoxville, it will be the same thing--well, what you lose here you lose. Just like if you tear something down, it's gone. People just couldn't come to terms with replacing something that's irreplaceable. Why did we decide to stay in Gatlinburg? I think you can see it on campus, it's 100 years of heritage, six buildings on the National Register, a school that predates the National Park. People ask us if we're as old as Dollywood. I say we were here before Dolly Parton's father was born! And we're interwoven with the history of the community, the trees, the landscape."

Arrowmont does have several recognized historic structures, from a 1916 teacher's cottage to the big staff house, designed in 1951 by Knoxville's Barber McMurry. Until the school's future is assured, the structures, collectively, are on the East Tennessee Preservation Alliance's Endangered Heritage list.

"We say, ‘Right for Neon, Left for Nature,'" says May. Left, it's just 10 minutes, in the morning, before you're in 800 square miles of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But some just park their car, and stay on campus."

He adds that moving anywhere would be "extremely, extremely expensive. It would be more than $20 million to replace just the minimum facilities we would need."

"And I've lived here for 33 years. Maybe Arrowmont could have survived and flourished somewhere else. But it would have been a tremendous loss to the community."

May hasn't been on this campus nearly as long as Bill Griffith, a former Indiana ceramics teacher who came to his first Arrowmont workshop in 1983. He was soon teaching, and by 1987, he was assistant director. He's now programming director. He picks a picnic table underneath a large maple tree to talk about Arrowmont. He mentions the buildings on the National Register. "Some people say, ‘Big deal.' But it's part of our sense of place.

"It's us and nature, including the park—juxtaposed with pop culture and neon," he says. "We need nature and neon." He gestures toward the parkway. "What's happening down there is interesting, shapes and imagery and colors and patterns." All that inspires some artists. "Some are turned off by it. Some say, ‘I love downtown. I love the Aquarium, I love Ripley's Believe It Or Not.' We feel there's so much here. We could never recreate Arrowmont in Greeneville or Knoxville or Boulder, Colo., or Cincinnati, Ohio."

Black-eyed Susans are blooming, and you can hear rustling in the trees, the leaves hanging on. At least one of the trees, a huge poplar with a five-foot-wide trunk, is believed to be an old-growth tree, here since before the Pi Phis arrived. But often you can also hear the parkway: this afternoon, on electronic chimes, "Somewhere My Love" and "The Impossible Dream."

***

As if to compensate for the shock of the sale scare of 2008, Pi Beta Phi commenced a slow, deliberate approach to reconsider the issue in depth. A designated Gatlinburg Study Committee reflected the fraternity's national nature; of 10 members, the only one from Tennessee was a Nashvillian. In August, 2010, they posted their frank report on the fraternity's website.

"Since inception, Arrowmont has had mixed success with galvanizing interest and support from PBP members and, over time, interest is continuing to decline," states that report. "Beginning in the 1970s and continuing through the 1990s, feeling physically and thus emotionally disconnected to Arrowmont, many chapters and clubs undertook their own philanthropic projects."

Philanthropies are big draws to idealistic young women, and as a talking point on pledge week, Pi Beta Phi's association with Arrowmont was never a quick read among 18-year-olds. "Since philanthropy has become an integral part of recruitment, Arrowmont is difficult to explain to prospective new members during today's much-shortened recruitment process.... Arrowmont does not pull at the heartstrings of prospective new members...nor is it nationally recognized except within the arts community. Additionally, the remote nature of Gatlinburg and the Arrowmont campus coupled with the cost of travel prevents most Pi Phi's from ever experiencing the school firsthand."

The current staff affirms that decision. Pi Beta Phi's leadership at their St. Louis office prepared the following statement for this story:

"We are a membership organization, and we have always worked to keep our philanthropic service aligned with the priorities of our members. Over time, our members have grown increasingly focused on creating impact at the local level in their own backyards. To reflect that, our philanthropic programs have a renewed emphasis on supporting childhood literacy programs in communities across the country. The Pi Beta Phi Elementary School in Gatlinburg is a good example of how we are working to benefit children and literacy. This connection to Gatlinburg is important for us, and we have no plans to change it."

Unmentioned is Arrowmont. But spokesperson Cummings is quick to add that many Pi Phis have a soft spot for the school. "We still have, for the foreseeable future, the Arrowmont Fund. Our members can still give to Arrowmont." There's a link on the website.

Pi Beta Phi has been tilting toward projects that might have been recognizable to their ca. 1912 forebears. And rather than concentrating their efforts in any one place, Smoky Mountain tourist town or not, they found it expedient to spread the group's influence through partnerships with schools and charities associated with literacy.

There was also a monetary motive. According to the 2010 report, "the Gatlinburg property is very likely the Fraternity's most valuable asset, and it has long been considered the Fraternity's ‘nest egg,' or savings account. In light of the Fraternity's current priorities (extension, chapter support, Fraternity Housing Corp.) and limited financial resources, it is appropriate for the Fraternity to attempt to receive a higher return on the Gatlinburg property."

And they will get quite a return. According to the oft-told legend, the Pi Phis paid $600 for the property, back in 1912, with the community pitching in twice that much. The high seven-figure sum they're expected to receive for the Arrowmont campus is just a fraction of all the property they're selling.

***

For the record, Arrowmont still works with local students, about 1,680 each year in public-school programs like Artreach and the Appalachian School, which provides crafts education to Sevier County 8th-graders.

But how a charity established for the benefit of illiterate, hookworm-ridden children ended up as a learning-vacation destination for retired dentists from New York—well, that might not be a quick story to tell freshmen during rush week, at that.

It's still philanthropy, but philanthropy of a different sort, perhaps more like that of a private college. The students themselves pay for more than half the budget.

Arrowmont has an annual operating budget of about $2.5 million, and, recently at least, has been running in the black. Last year, its users' fees—tuition, housing and board—paid for about 54 percent of that.

Arrowmont does get support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Tennessee Arts Commission, as well as from hundreds of private benefactors. Retired Knoxville developer Earl Worsham and his wife Margit, who now live in the Gatlinburg area, are regulars at Arrowmont functions. The school has a long list of contributors and friends, from the Windgate Charitable Foundation, the Arkansas-based philanthropy with connections to Walmart, to the Haslam Family Foundation—plus several individuals well-known in Knoxville, like industrialist Pete DeBusk, Scripps Interactive executive Jim Samples, and former Vol Coach Phil Fulmer—plus several hundred other individuals thanked in their annual report. But the total from all contributions, grants, and special events, was just a little over $700,000.

Last week's issuance of bonds from Gatlinburg City Commission, assuming it's approved on second reading, would be by far the biggest single gift they've ever received. It was unanimous, and 50 Arrowmont fans showed their support, but there was some anxiety about whether the recent conservative trends to question public expenses might undermine taxpayer dollars for an arts school.

But even conservatives might have some reasons to like Arrowmont. One of the celebrity craftsmen at Arrowmont last week was woodturner Chris Ramsey, a master whose claim to fame was that President George W. Bush invited him to the White House. Ramsey specializes in making wooden cowboy hats, and they impressed the president, who cherishes the one Ramsey made him. Ramsey likes to tell the story, but will not reveal Bush's hat size.

The money raised by Commission all goes toward own their own campus. May says that's been kind of a Catch-22. "There's no planned giving. Without owning property, we haven't been able to offer that security. You don't want to name a building that might not be there for a long time."

A gift of $2.25 million from Arkansas's Windgate will help. "We are well on our way," May says.

He calls the Windgate gift an informal "challenge grant." A challenge, perhaps, from Arkansas to East Tennessee. But getting the region's urban center to care much about Arrowmont is one of many challenges.

That much-maligned parkway is the same Highway 441 that runs through Knoxville, via Broadway and Chapman Highway. But it's also the road through Pigeon Forge, and for Knoxvillians that's the problem. "There's a disconnect between Gatlinburg and Knoxville," May admits. "People say, ‘I'm not going to drive through Pigeon Forge!'"

They're happy to suggest alternate routes.

For now, at least, things are looking up for Arrowmont. "All the parties have been working hard to find a solution," says May. "I can't give you the ending."