Award-winning ceramicist Josh Copus turned a historic jail outside Asheville into a boutique hotel. It’s one place you’ll enjoy being locked up.
by Page Leggett
You could tell artist Josh Copus that the hotel he created feels like a jail, and he’d thank you for the compliment. Not long ago, the Old Marshall Jail Hotel was a jail, and Copus saw beauty in the old, red brick building that served as the Madison County town’s lockup from 1905 to 2012.
“What I saw was the potential — the materiality of the building, and how we could shift things and create a really cool aesthetic,” Copus says. “The first time I walked in, it was obvious to me that this was something special. And most people thought I was crazy. And I kind of am — it’s one of my superpowers.”
Copus and his partners bought the jail in 2016, and after five years of repairs and renovations, reopened it in April 2021 as a four-suite, no-frills hotel with a bar, restaurant, gourmet grocery and hotel-guests-only upper deck overlooking the river. Two additional bunkrooms can connect to suites for guests needing additional space, or they can be rented as standalone units with a shared bathroom.
Copus didn’t just turn the cells into bedrooms. “We wanted to recontextualize and rearrange what was there,” he says. “There were bars on the windows, which is kind of like a cage. But the actual material those are made out of isn’t bad. It’s the context that makes it unpleasant. So, the bars on the windows became the handrails for the deck overlooking the French Broad River,” Copus adds.
“We gave it all a modern, industrial feeling. We spent a lot of time softening it, warming it up, moving things around in a way that highlights the beauty of the material.”
The thoughtful renovation walked a fine line. “I feel like there were two ways you could’ve really messed this up,” Copus says. “One was to erase it and try to eliminate the history. And then, also, by making it into a jail theme park. You don’t want it to be cringy. Our motto was: ‘It can’t be a jail, but it also has to always be the jail.’”
‘A NEW ARTS DISTRICT’
The hotel seems to be the epicenter of cool in a once-downtrodden downtown that’s clearly on the upswing. “There’s a lot of creative Asheville expats moving out here, which is a pretty natural progression as things become expensive and unattainable in Asheville,” says Copus, who grew up in Floyd County, Va. “Marshall is well on its way to being a new arts district in the area.”
It’s not Asheville’s River Arts District (yet), but it’s moving in the right direction. Copus explains how the once-thriving town — which originated as a stop on the Buncombe Turnpike trade route from South Carolina to Tennessee in the 1800s — came to be largely forgotten. “In 1961, they built Interstate 40,” he says. “This new highway went through a different county. And so, in ’61, it was like they turned off all the cars. And then, Marshall slowly died. And then our crowd started moving in in the early 2000s, because there were just a bunch of pretty much abandoned buildings.”
My friend Scott Simono used to ride his bike through Marshall when he lived in Asheville in the early 1990s. “Back then, you would hardly see anybody walking around or any active-looking storefront. It all looked abandoned until you noticed someone peeking out at you from behind a tatty-looking blind or a sneakily opened door,” Simono says. “I loved its seemingly abandoned, jungly mountain beauty back then.” After dark, you may still notice some pockets that are holdovers from this earlier era.
“Marshall is one street wide and a mile long,” Copus says. Downtown is one street wide and a couple of blocks long — you can easily see it all in an afternoon.
I could’ve spent hours inside Flow, housed in one of Main Street’s red-brick buildings that’s been refurbished into something new and wonderful. The high-end craft gallery includes ceramics, metal, jewelry, textiles and clothing, and there are also paintings and encaustics. Four women artists — a woodworker, a photographer, a lawyer-turned-quilter, and a fiber, paper and collage artist — own and run the place. It’s magical.
Marshall High Studios is home to 30 artists’ studios, housed in what used to be the town’s high school on little Blannahassett Island. Just over the bridge from the hotel, it’s supposed to have a similar vibe to the working artists’ studios at Asheville’s River Arts District, but hours have been impacted by Covid-19 and the studios were closed on my visit. I did take a walk along the trail that encircles the island, encountering some territorial geese along the way.
Marshall has more good food than you’d expect for a town its size. Zadie’s Kitchen, in the hotel, has a small but tasty menu of mostly burgers, sandwiches and salads. John Fleer, chef-owner of Asheville’s acclaimed restaurant Rhubarb, has partnered with Copus in the food program at Zadie’s. Zadie’s Market is unexpectedly upscale and sells wine, gourmet ice cream sandwiches, cheeses, prepared foods, snacks and locally made soap.
Don’t let the name or the location (in a former gas station) fool you: Star Diner is a stellar dining experience that, according to the locals, attracts visitors from as far away as Tennessee. The bread service ($2.50) is worth every penny (and calorie) and then some. My friend, Amy, and I decided to order big since we were on vacation. We split the roasted beets with cashew pesto and goat cheese as an appetizer. She had the Southern fried chicken saltimbocca, topped with prosciutto, sage and bruleed provolone served with white cheddar mashed potatoes and asparagus. I had the almond-crusted mountain trout. I could’ve gone back the next night, had the same meal and been happy.
We had morning coffee and later, homemade sandwiches and salads for lunch, at Zuma Coffee, just across the street from the hotel. (Nothing in Marshall is far from anything else in Marshall.)
Copus’ wife, Emily, owns Carolina Flowers, which is worth a stop for fresh or dried flowers from her farm and small gifts. “Emily is on the town planning board,” Copus says. “We’re very civically engaged and working hard to try to make a place and create some prosperity but also not erase things.”
Adventure seekers might want to check out Blue Heron Whitewater (guided rafting trips) and Sandy Bottom Trail Rides while in the area. Pleasure seekers can head up the road a bit to Hot Springs and sit in a mineral springs soaking tub at Hot Springs Resort and Spa.
A MONUMENT TO HISTORY
Copus, who took top honors at this year’s Mint Museum Potters Market, was painstaking in his conversion of jail to hotel, where his pottery adorns every room (and it’s all for sale). He and his co-owners, including his wife, wanted it to be a monument to its history. Letters, ledgers, old photos and even original graffiti adorn the walls of the hotel.
“We spent a ton of time interviewing people, recording the stories, collecting the photos,” he says. “But not with an agenda … we wanted to understand the past … there are characters throughout the building’s history.” His favorite character of all was Geraldine Brown. “She was the dispatcher who worked in the building for 26 years. She would work 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., and then make biscuits in the morning.” Yates Ponder was the most famous character, Copus explains. “He was the sheriff for 32 years. He’s the legendary mountain law man — always wore a suit, never carried a gun. He’s the main character of the whole story.”
But the inmates are part of the story, too.
“The prisoners would take the bedsheets and tear them into strips and tie them together and fish it out the window, and someone down below would tie off a bottle of liquor,” Copus continues. “They would lift it up through the window. And that was one of the ways that they got contraband … When we were doing the renovation, I actually found some of those bedsheet fishing lines and a bunch of liquor bottles stuffed in the wall. So, I made an installation, and it’s hanging in the bar.”
On my visit, the bar was lively and crowded. There’s a convivial, communal feeling here, just as there is in the hotel. All six rooms are on the hotel’s second story. They’re close together (this was a jail, after all), and you’re likely to meet your fellow guests or hear them in the hallway.
You’ll hear the train, too. The tracks are the only thing separating the hotel from the French Broad. You’ll feel like you’re part of history, as you listen to some of the same sounds — the train’s whistle, for instance — the inmates used to hear. It adds up to a hotel stay unlike any other.
“A lot of people want to call this a boutique hotel, which is fine,” Copus says. “But I’ve been using the word ‘art’ hotel. The whole place is a sculpture … and everything in it is a work of art.” SP
Learn more at oldmarshalljail.com