A New Song for Rabbit’s Motel
Opened in 1948 in Asheville, North Carolina’s Southside neighborhood, Rabbit’s Motel was an essential respite during the segregated Green Book era. The Green Book guide, first published in 1936, provided Black travelers with listings of hotels, restaurants, and businesses that would be welcoming to them. Owner Fred “Rabbit” Simpson’s tourist court played host to a who’s who of Black travelers. But he also served his neighbors in the Southside neighborhood.
When the motel first opened, the local newspapers described its brick columns, landscaping, and red and white awnings. Guest rooms advertised chenille bedding, ensuite bathrooms, steam heat, and room service.
The Blue Ridge Mountain town was a stop for touring musicians on the Chitlin' Circuit, named for the dish of pig intestines. The “circuit” featured clubs in historically Black neighborhoods during the Jim Crow era that welcomed artists who are now considered household names. The Jade Club, now known as the Orange Peel, played host to Percy Sledge and The Commodores. The Supremes and Bo Diddley performed at The Royal Pines Casino. The James-Keys Hotel had a dance hall that also hosted touring acts like Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday. And comedian Richard Pryor, musicians Jackie Wilson and Duke Ellington, and members of the Negro League baseball teams were regulars at Rabbit’s.
The motel also had a popular soul food restaurant with an indoor fountain that served favorites like “pork chops the size of bibles” and cornbread. At the helm for much of the eatery’s heyday was Lou Ella Byrd, wife of Fred Simpson’s nephew. Locals and visitors alike could sit down and enjoy a meal, unlike at the segregated counters at Kress and Woolworths. Rabbit’s operated when Black-owned businesses in Asheville were at an all-time high.
Sadly, the Housing Act of 1949 kicked off decades of changes in the name of urban renewal all over the country, but especially in Asheville, where policies displaced many Southside residents and established housing projects. Southside Avenue was cut off and renamed in sections, and Green Book-era hotels and businesses like the James-Keys Hotel were razed in the process.
Byrd ran Rabbit’s for 50 years before closing in 2003. A 2017 fire caused her to put it up for sale. The motel's two-story building and adjacent row of rooms fell into disrepair, its paint left to peel and its windows boarded up. Southside Avenue continued to develop as Mission Hospital expanded. Dozens of craft breweries opened in the neighborhood, seemingly leaving Rabbit’s Motel and its legacy behind.
Down the “Rabbit Hole”
Despite living much of his life in New Jersey, Claude Coleman Jr., drummer for the band Ween, had a deep connection to Asheville and moved there in 2013.
“I've just always maintained this musical creative connection to [after touring the city with my band]....Seeing it, firsthand, evolve and develop into this metropolis, this cultural center of places in the South, we've always made a point to come back and return to year after year,” he says.
Coleman and Brett Spivey, a former HVAC technician and fellow musician, were both struggling to find a practice space in Asheville. A mutual friend introduced them and soon the conversation turned to finding a place to rehearse. They had trouble finding an appropriate space so they decided to create their own.
Over the course of a year and a half, Coleman and Spivey toured abandoned buildings around Asheville, including a number of motels. The architecture of these buildings was ideal for a rehearsal space because musicians could easily unload their equipment and go straight into the room. Their broker finally showed them the long-abandoned Rabbit’s Motel and it seemed like a good fit, despite being vandalized over the years. At the broker’s urging, Coleman did a deep dive into the history of the motel and the Southside neighborhood and felt like it was serendipitous.
“I was also floored by just how little is known about this history and how much it really contributed to modern-day Asheville and why it isn't part of the modern-day narrative of Asheville,” Coleman says.
There were two cash offers already on the table, but Coleman wrote a letter to Lou Ella Byrd and her family about his intentions. His earnest letter about continuing her family's legacy led her to choose the duo's offer over two others. They put the contract together almost immediately. But the work was far from over.
“We called the front building the horror movie and then the back building was the sequel to that horror movie,” Spivey jokes about the state of the motel. They found the restaurant’s old jukebox with its warped and waterlogged 45s still inside and catalogued them.
An IndieGoGo campaign helped cover some of the necessary work, but the duo also put in plenty of hours of labor as well.
“I knew exactly the kind of space that we wanted to create,” Coleman says. “I wanted us to have multiple spaces, not just like one available room. I wanted it to be exceptionally constructed for sound—really well soundproofed. And just an environment of professionalism that also is relaxing and not too stuffy.”
In December 2020, their dream came to fruition as Rabbit’s Motel reopened as SoundSpace@Rabbit’s, a music rehearsal facility that honors its building's past.
Musicians are already booking time in the studios, set in the former guest rooms, starting at $25 per hour, complete with all of the necessary gear. In addition to rehearsals, it will also host arts workshops and live-streamed performances.
“We've had bands I've never heard of that are just getting together and creating new projects, and then we have clientele coming in,” Spivey says. “We've recently had Artimus Pyle from Lynyrd Skynyrd playing and rehearsing in our spot. We've had Archers of Loaf.”
Music was always part of Rabbit’s, whether in the tunes that played over the restaurant jukebox or in the artists that stayed there after performing at venues downtown. SoundSpace is bringing it back after an intermission.
Food for the Soul
It was also important to Coleman and Spivey to bring back the restaurant that once welcomed so many.
“Once we get the restaurant up and going, we're really bringing something back to the neighborhood that the neighborhood has always had since 1947,” Spivey says. When the talk of reviving the restaurant came about, they knew there was no one more suited than Chef Clarence Robinson, who had worked in kitchens all over the city and whose aunt was a Rabbit's employee.
Robinson got his start working in kitchens all over Asheville, including the storied Grove Park Inn and Sunny Point Cafe, and develops recipes for Ingles grocery stores. He launched his own company, Cooking with Comedy Catering, which includes a YouTube series.
He grew up visiting Rabbit’s, where his aunt worked, and has fond memories of it.
“Opening the screen door, you would be able to smell it,” he says of the dishes that made the restaurant famous. “It was an amazing experience. They had a jukebox in there. There was always laughter and music.”
He is now working on reopening a restaurant in the motel, incorporating soul food dishes like the ones served at Rabbit’s, but with his own signatures. The cafe, called Areta’s Soul Food, honors his late aunt’s legacy and is currently slated to open in winter of 2021.
These two spaces bring together the common theme of what Rabbit’s was all about: community. And the SoundSpace team has the Southside behind them.
“A lot of local neighborhood people will stop in and they'll gnaw your ear off for a while, just telling you their part of the history of them growing up there,” Spivey says. Among their biggest supporters is Lou Ella Byrd herself, Spivey says “[She] is amazing. She's been very outspoken about what we're doing there.”
Byrd’s stamp of approval is perhaps the greatest compliment to the work that SoundSpace is doing in her family’s motel for the Southside and for Asheville’s musicians.
Caroline Eubanks is the author of This Is My South: The
Essential Travel Guide to the Southern States. Her work has been published by
Mental Floss, Garden & Gun, Roadtrippers, and The Bitter Southerner.
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