The Farmer Hotel/Woodfield Inn/Mansouri Mansion
By Missy Schenck
The old Woodfield Inn, formerly the Farmer Hotel and now the Mansouri Mansion, whose future is uncertain. Image courtesy Hendersonville Geneology and Historical Society.
The opening of the Buncombe Turnpike in 1828 launched Western North Carolina as a resort area and led to the establishment of summer colonies. As travel continued to improve and news of the cool summers and gracious living spread, the stagecoach inns fell short of providing adequate accommodations. The citizens of Flat Rock, as a means to solve the problem, decided to erect the first — and for some years, the only — summer hotel intended primarily for accommodation of tourists and vacationists in Henderson County.
In 1847, a corporation was formed of ten estate owners to serve as the stockholders in the company that built the Flat Rock Hotel. The ten men, Charles Baring, Judge Mitchell King, Andrew Johnstone, Edmund Molyneaux, William Young, Richard H. Lowndes, Matthew R. Singleton, Dr. Mitchell King, William Aiken (governor of South Carolina) and Henry T. Farmer each contributed $1,000 to build a comfortable inn at a moderate cost, to be managed by one of their number, Henry Tudor Farmer. A tract of 400 acres was purchased and Edward C. Jones of Charleston was hired as the architect with Farmer as the builder. In 1853, Farmer purchased the property from the other stockholders and operated his Farmer Hotel until his death in 1883.
Henry T. Farmer, familiarly known as “Squire,” was the son of Dr. Henry Tudor Farmer and one of four nephews who became the wards of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Baring after their father died in 1827. The Barings, of Charleston and Flat Rock, are credited with being one of the four families who became settlers in the first period of Flat Rock’s history.
During his early life, Squire spent his summers at Mountain Lodge, home of the Barings, and after reaching maturity made Henderson County his permanent residence. Although Squire studied to become a lawyer, his interests in the promising development of Henderson County led to the formation of his construction business, furniture factory and woodworking plant. He built many of the buildings and houses in Flat Rock including the hotel and the Presbyterian Church in Hendersonville. The original furnishings for the hotel were made by J & J Hildebrand of Asheville and this was supplemented during the years that followed by chairs, tables, wardrobes and other pieces made by Farmer. Though the original pattern cannot be traced, the chairs made by Farmer resulted in comfortable, sturdy and distinctive types made of black walnut known as “The Flat Rock Chair.” The hotel was furnished throughout with these, and they became very popular with all the Lowcountry families, though only a few may be found today.
An original Flat Rock Chair made by Squire Farmer. Historic Flat Rock has three of these chairs and a sofa in their Cultural Museum. Image by the author.
Farmer’s obituary, written by his long-time friend C. G. Memminger, captures his devotion to his community well. “For more than 40 years he has been so completely identified with all the interests of the Flat Rock neighborhood that the mention of the one brings with it the remembrance of the other. It seemed as though nothing could go on there without his assistance. The estimation in which he was held by his fellow citizens was evinced in their repeated calls on him to serve them in the state legislature.”
Squire and his wife, Caroline Graham, had six children who were all born at the hotel. At the death of Henry T. “Squire” Farmer in 1883, the management of the hotel went to his son, Mathew Singleton Farmer. A later owner renamed the hotel the Woodfield Inn.
Now 170 years old, the old Farmer Hotel, former Woodfield Inn and current Mansouri Mansion is the oldest operated inn in N.C. Michael and Rhonda Horton acquired The Woodfield Inn in 1996 and completely renovated the 19,000-square-foot structure. The inside, which is primarily paneled in oak, is a lovely labyrinth with unending halls, staircases, 18 bedrooms and 22 working fireplaces. The inn is an example of the popularity of the picturesque mode in 19th-century Flat Rock. It is a three-story, hip-roofed structure with lattice-framed arches on the front veranda.
The Farmer Hotel became a safe haven during the War Between the States as residents of the Lowcountry came to the mountains to escape the ravages of war. Governor Zebulon Vance sent Company E of the 64th N.C. Regiment in June of 1864 to help protect the residents of the Woodfield Inn and Flat Rock from marauders. They camped on the front lawn of the inn for six months where today a small historical marker commemorates their stay.
Like many historic buildings, it’s haunted, they say, with the ghost of Captain Morris, who was stationed there during the War Between the States. A bedroom named for Captain Morris is on the third floor, but he’s known to be a nondiscriminatory ghost and is said to make his presence in many parts of the inn. There is also “the Secret Room” (#22) which has a trapdoor to a hidden room below the floor where Flat Rock families hid valuables during the war. Each room is different, and during the halcyon days of the inn, they were all wonderful — ghosts or no ghosts.
Throughout the Hortons’ ownership, the inn was very successful with its award-winning chef, Michael Atkinson, and a variety of services offered. A culinary and visual treat combined, the inn was a popular venue for weddings, corporate functions and events. It was a favorite place in Flat Rock to eat dinner or Sunday brunch and is sorely missed.
The Hortons sold the inn at its peak in 2002 to Wayne and Rhonda Nelson. If Wayne’s name sounds familiar, it’s no coincidence. He is bass player and lead vocalist for the Little River Band. Shortly after the Nelson’s purchased the Woodfield Inn, they hosted a garden party for the community of Flat Rock on the front lawn of the inn. Complete with the entire Little River Band, it was one of the nicest events I’ve ever attended in Flat Rock.
The Nelsons soon found running an inn and touring a band was more than they could handle and sold the Woodfield Inn to Eric Myers in 2004. Myers had worked for the Hyatt Company and for some smaller properties but always dreamed of owning an inn one day. He saw a lot of potential in the Woodfield Inn and was excited about doing things to make it better without changing it. Sadly, timing and economics were not on Myers’ side and after three years in bankruptcy, in 2009, it was purchased by Hasan Mansouri of Bahrain and N.C. and renamed Mansouri Mansion.
In recent years, the inn has fallen into poorer conditions and the grounds haven’t been kept up. It has operated more as a private residence than an inn and restaurant. Mansouri had high hopes when he purchased the old inn and had planned to add up to 100 cottage-style rooms, a pool, a health club and a beauty salon. He made some upgrades to the kitchen to reopen the restaurant and resume the once-prosperous business, but was not able to do it as he aged. In 2020, Hasan Mansouri died and his two sons, Karim and Werner, the current owners, have posted For Rent or Sale signs on the property.
Demolition by neglect is a term I was introduced to in high school when a significant, historic house in Charleston literally fell to its demise as the city watched it. The Farmer Hotel/Woodfield Inn/Mansouri Mansion is a prominent historic Flat Rock landmark right in the heart of the village. What’s going to happen to it? Flat Rock residents are concerned about the future of the historic inn and the surrounding 24 acres. In a recent Hendersonville Lightning article, Mansouri’s two sons are quoted as saying their father loved the inn and they plan to keep it open.
In all, Hasan Mansouri owned 26 real estate properties in Henderson County including several parcels in Flat Rock. Many of them have posted For Rent or Sale signs on them. Some people have inquired about the inn property and found that the Mansouri sons are not sure as to whether they want to sell or rent the inn. It’s an iffy situation.
What a sad day it would be for everyone if the old inn fell to its demise in front of our eyes. It has so much potential and Flat Rock desperately needs a nice inn. I wish I had a solution or a magic wand. It was a happy time to ride past the Woodfield Inn and catch a wedding on the front lawn in the big gazebo. The veranda and its rocking chairs were a delight and eating a meal in one of the three dining rooms was charming, but most of all, this graceful beauty tells a story of Flat Rock that needs to be protected and preserved.
Information for this article was obtained by referencing the published works of Blanche and Kenneth Marsh, Lenoir Ray, Sadie Smathers Patton, Louise Bailey and the archives of the Hendersonville Times, the Asheville Citizens Times and the Hendersonville Lightning.
Missy Craver Izard Schenck was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. She resides in Flat Rock, North Carolina with her husband, Sandy Schenck, where their family runs a summer camp.