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HOUSE UPON A HILL: BLANDWOOD MANSION AND PRESERVATION GREENSBORO

by Billy Ingram

PRESERVATION GREENSBORO CELEBRATES FIVE DECADES AT BLANDWOOD MANSION

In 1966 bulldozers were poised to raze a bloated antediluvian structure leaking and collapsing on a prime block of downtown Greensboro real estate, perched on a hill in one of the last residential neighborhoods in the shadow of the Jefferson Building.

For almost 70 years this compound served as a lonely outpost for The Keeley Institute, a live-in rehabilitation program promising drunks and drug addicts ‘That New Freedom’ after weeks of four times daily injections of bichloride of gold laced with alcohol, strychnine, apomorphine and willow bark.

The Keeley Institute’s methodology had fallen into disrepute long before the local proprietors’ death in a plane crash led to abandonment of this sanitarium delirium. Paint peeling, cracking plaster, sagging porch, shattered windows, a malingering Munster mansion entwined in knotted trees, runaway ivy and tangled weeds; a landscape nearly as terrifying as the Keeley Cure. They should have shot Dark Shadows there.

Two blocks away the glistening Carolina Theater was packing them in, which was great for Greensboro’s first Krispy Kreme, a block away on Greene Street. Downtown Greensboro was much larger in ’66, a great deal more vibrant. Two high-rise and three smaller hotels, 40 restaurants, three lavish movie palaces, multi-storied department and dime stores, a buzzing hub of finance, commerce and, most especially, shopping.

With downtown bursting at the seams an expansion of businesses to the west was a natural. Kroger had their eye on the lot the Keeley Institute was deteriorating on so a crew was dispatched to clear the land. And they would have, had Anita Schenck and her mother Mary Lyon Caine not stood between the heavy machinery and that sacred place steeped in ceremony, where the Civil War came to an end in North Carolina, a once stately manor they knew as Blandwood.

Man Built Machines to Move the Earth But Women Changed the World

Virginia Zenke had a nagging suspicion Blandwood Mansion’s architect had to have been someone of prominence. As a trend-setting decorator of the sixties she had an eye for style. Perhaps if a pedigree could be proven there might be more of an interest in saving the estate. Peering from black-framed round glasses, pencil protruding from her thick dark hair, she poured through books and reference materials attempting to solve the mystery of who designed Blandwood.

That moment of Zen(ke) came in 1966, one Virginia described as akin to King Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone—it was Alexander Jackson Davis. America’s leading architect of country houses, known locally for our gentrified State Capitol and, at UNC, the playfully austere facades of Old East & Old West dormitories and the four columned roman splendor that is the Playmakers Theatre. All lavished in the Italianate and Greek Revival genres he was famous for. He also laid out Davidson College and built the first Chambers Hall. The architectural designs for Blandwood, Zenke discovered, are kept at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Alexander Jackson Davis visited Raleigh in 1844 and met Governor John Motley Morehead. They bonded, both were former students of the David Caldwell School, known as ‘Log College.’ Morehead commissioned Davis to re-model his Greensboro home, a two-story, four-room Federal style farmhouse built in 1795 for the man it was named after, a horse thief named Bland.

Morehead and Davis made the overnight journey from the capital by horse-drawn carriage likely taking a new route dug from Pittsboro, in places not much more than a muddy rut until they reached the wood corduroy streets into town. As he was wont to do, A.J. Davis designed around the original structure of Morehead’s home, fashioning a revolutionarily modern frontage veneered in stucco over brick with clean-lined casement windows shaded by sleek, overhanging eaves.

A home like no other in America, reminiscent of a Tuscan villa featuring two large parlors with a garden view, bay windows on either side of an imposing three-story tower made inviting by three enormous archways that circumambient the front porch. Completed in 1846, it’s the oldest building on an original foundation in the city, one of the first towered Italianate villas in the nation and the earliest surviving example.

Greensboro, Quo Vadis?

With Blandwood’s important historical lineage confirmed, the ladies who lunched became the ladies who launched. Bulldozer stoppin’ grandma Mary Lyon Leak Caine called to order the first meeting of the Greensboro Preservation Society on Oct. 31, 1966 to foster, “a respect and reverence for the past by preserving landmarks in Greensboro including streets, public buildings, churches, houses, parks, trees or any existing examples of culturally, historical and architectural value to the city, state and nation.” No budget, only a zeal to identify cultural touchstones that needed safeguarding. They quickly came to the realization, however, if Blandwood was to be saved, they’d have to do it themselves.

First efforts were strictly DIY. Green Thumb Garden Club members came wielding pruning shears, taming scraggly boxwoods as Virginia Zenke made her case for restoration. Greensboro Jaycees and Thomas Tree service donated 800 man hours on Saturdays clearing the one block area where they unearthed varieties of Ginko, Japanese Varnish, Linden, box elder, white pines, oaks, maples and mulberry trees.

On March 13, 1967 the state’s First Lady Mrs. Dan K. Moore was given a tour of dilapidated Blandwood before a luncheon was held at the home of Otto Zenke a block away.

When bulldozers rolled off of McGee Street onto the Blandwood property in October of 1967 it was a welcome sight indeed. In anticipation of a successful Preservation Society campaign, Guilford College allowed the Keeley added east and west wings to be junked. The Carriage House had been moved forward to become a dining hall. The idea was to return it to original position but the structure was deemed too compromised to survive another upheaval. The distinctive cupola was set aside to crown a reimagined Carriage House. Modernist architect Edward Lowenstein, known for the Greensboro Public Library (1964) and YMCA (1971) buildings as well as homes in Irving Park and Starmount, was enlisted to oversee one of the first modern-age adapted reuses of an historic property.

Progress was reported in a ‘With the Women’ section of the newspaper alongside Martha Long’s society column and debutant ball photos. The ladies were smart enough to capitalize on that by hosting irresistible photo opportunities. A November 10th celebratory tea presided over by Mary Rucker, great-granddaughter of Morehead, was served in the West Room on the Governor’s own silver service. Throw rugs from the Zenkes covered the cracked and broken tile floor. It was left to one’s imagination to paper over the water-damaged walls and boarded up staircase. The first Christmas decorations at Blandwood for almost a quarter century consisted of holly filled urns positioned on the mantle below two William Frerichs paintings that had hung in Morehead’s home, a gift from Mrs. Rucker.

A Committee of 122 was established under the leadership of former newspaper writer Kay Stern (1966’s Woman of the Year). A team led by Kathleen Bryan, Mrs.

Wayne McGrew, and Mrs. James Whitton were given a scant few months to raise $400,000 (about a million today) to purchase and return Blandwood to something akin to former glory. Junior League president Mary Schenk presented the committee $50,000 from her organization and they were off and running. Or so they thought.

If not for Governor Morehead, you’d be reading Farmer’s Weekly right now Seemingly forgotten on the part of the public was any knowledge of the historical significance attached to the former residence of Governor John Motley Morehead. The only governor of the state to hail from Greensboro proper, Morehead was an early champion of the railroad when it wasn’t an obvious gambit and a fierce proponent of public education, one that included the disabled, women and slaves, a concept many considered blasphemous. The Governor’s response to his critics was masterful, “Why would you deny the right of any man, woman or child to read that book you claim will set them free?” He was a true visionary and a man of action, a rare combination. In 1840 Morehead chartered the Edgeworth Female Seminary located where the YMCA is now, his five daughters were schooled there. During his two terms as Governor (1841-1845) he made major transportation and infrastructure improvements, implemented a progressive public school system and established the Governor Morehead School for the “deaf, dumb, and blind.”

“The Father of Modern North Carolina” had one eye focused firmly on the future. In 1854, as first president of the North Carolina Railroad, he undertook an aggressive expansion of what he called “the tree of life” connecting every corner of the state to the wider world. As a result, a delicate ‘City of Flowers’ morphed into the ‘Gate City,’ defined by a robust rail system that, not coincidentally, utilized Greensboro as it’s hub.

As talk of succession grew louder in 1861 Morehead was a Peace Convention delegate hoping to avoid war with the north. After hostilities broke out he served in the Confederate Congress and entertained officers as they marched headstrong to Richmond; then again when they returned in retreat. At war’s end Greensboro served as a decommissioning depot with Union officials occupying all the nicest homes. Morehead’s daughter Letitia Morehead Walker referred to Blandwood’s 1865 houseguest Major General Jacob Dolson Cox as, “A most courteous and elegant man” that nonetheless forced her to witness what for her was a macabre sight, a triumphant parade of occupying forces. She wrote, “Sullen, vindictive, no eulogy was paid. This magnificent pageant, the gorgeous display of thousands of new uniforms, glittering sabers and bayonets, and all flushed with victory and marching to the music of splendid bands.”

A teacher recalled, “Our wounded men, sadly depleted alas in numbers, were at once transferred to Edgeworth Seminary and our occupation was gone, but we were allowed to visit them there and the old historic mansion with its beautiful ground that witnessed many glad greetings and sorrowful partings. These were the times that tried the souls of men and women.”

After John Motley Morehead passed away in 1866 his daughter Emma Victoria and husband General Julius A. Gray became lord and lady of the manor, he being the commander-in-chief of North Carolina’s repelling forces during the War of 1812. When the British heard Gray’s regiment was in their path they decided to come to terms rather than face this fearsome foe. Gray initiated the successful effort to preserve the site of the Battle of Guilford Court House, saved Greensboro College and founded the Greater Greensboro Chamber of Commerce. Gray died in 1891, his service was held at West Market Methodist Church. Five years later Blandwood was deeded to the Keeley Institute.

Knowing Your Place

John Motley Morehead III was one of the founders of Union Carbide so naturally Kay Stern and Mary Lyons Caine traveled to their headquarters in New York to solicit funds. They were rebuffed. At the conclusion of the fundraising period the committee had netted $259,598, about two-thirds of what was required. They had been hoping to secure a federal grant, knowing the budget for restoration projects was miserly. Pressed on what would happen if that endowment didn’t come through Mary Lyon Caine insisted, “We’re going to save Blandwood!” The notion of rehabilitating some moldy old house in lieu of a grocery store in 1966 was as impractical as it was audacious. Enjoying a jet-fueled economy American society was go-go-go, color TV, space walks, Wham-O, high camp, Naked Time, LSD, Mothers of Invention, Black Panthers, Liquid Paper, Monkees, Falcons, Dolphins; the Pepsi Generation living out an Endless Summer of mini-skirts, muscle cars and Super Balls. Out with the old, in with the new. Disposable culture, obsolescence guaranteed.

Suitors had presented themselves to rescue Blandwood before. Guilford College bought the property in 1965 and, along with Arnold Schiffman, they put forth a proposal to save the estate; former mayor Robert Frazier had appealed to legislators for years, but this shady lady was not an obvious candidate for a long term relationship, her very uniqueness a turn-off. No white column décolletage or proper Southern brickwork. Besides, wasn’t that the joint shooting up addicts with weird serums?

On April 17, 1968 HUD allocated over $100,000 to put the ladies within sight of the goal and the rest followed quickly. A week later, after Boy Scouts cleaned and pruned, the Greensboro Women’s Club hosted the first open house at Blandwood for the public.

Which made what happened next all the more heartbreaking…

A familiar adage in town goes, “There are interior decorators, and then there are the Zenkes.” The firm’s iconic Georgian antiques, impeccable taste, and full interior design services propelled Otto, his brother Henry, and sister-in-law Virginia, into projects great and small, private and public, for the burgeoning group of commercial and industrial leaders of the Southeast. His office and residence, housed in his century-old antebellum estate, filled almost an entire downtown block with lush gardens cooling under old growth trees, a home built by a relative of Governor Morehead. A wide front lawn looked across Eugene Street towards a complex of older buildings which housed drafting, bookkeeping, and shipping facilities, and most notably, the still standing balconied stucco house with two large bay windows which provided a drive-by display of his stylish world. On the same side of Eugene as Otto’s cottage, was a brick building which housed a finishing shop, upholstery and drapery workrooms, all employing, at its zenith, 35 people. The firm’s ads in Antiques Magazine listed studios in Greensboro, London and Palm Beach.

Across from Otto Zenke’s operation his brother Henry and wife Virginia lived at 224 Blandwood Avenue with their two children. They family lived in a two-story restoration of a traditional Quaker frame house from 1830 with an 1840 front addition highlighted by an austere array of double vertical windows. It had been rescued from West Market Street in the 1920s.

The Zenke properties formed a breathtakingly beautiful three-block shaded simulacra of distingué places further south, Charleston or New Orleans. Naturally the family was center stage for the Blandwood Mansion campaign, the second meeting of the Preservation Society was held in Virginia Zenke’s home. Otto loaned them Victorian furnishings to spruce up the drawing rooms and was first to light the bricked up fireplaces.

While the Zenkes were fighting to save Blandwood, Otto’s home was being seized by eminent domain. No amount of pleading could sway the city council. First to go, for the widening of Eugene, were trees almost as old as the house. In May of 1968 the family and members of the Preservation Society watched aghast as a glorious residence reflecting gentility and grace on lush, green terrain was demolished for a governmental center and courthouse styled in late 1960s pebble-encrusted Greensboro Grotesque.

Otto Zenke died in 1984. The Sheriff’s Department moved into his courtly showroom shortly thereafter and remains there, a minute portion of his gardens still evident in the trim boxwoods and flowering shrubs out front. There are those who swear Otto Zenke’s restless spirit makes its presence known in curious ways.

In 2005, the County’s announced plans for a new jail put Virginia Zenke’s Charleston-esque home and three other business properties in the cross-hairs of their expansion. Rather than wait for the inevitable outcome of eminent domain, the family proposed swapping their properties with the County for it’s parking lot across the street from Blandwood, and adjacent to the fifth lot they already owned. In doing so, they kept the back end of a colossal jail complex from being built in front of Blandwood, which has National Landmark status. One of the four homes was moved to a lot in Westerwood where it fit in nicely. Virginia’s home (featured in the September 1964 issue of House Beautiful) and a 1899 Queen Ann duplex were hauled around the corner, facing Moorehead’s villa on Washington. The duplex was cruelly raised by the city but Zenke’s home rests steadfastly alongside a midcentury brick apartment building with light Romanesque touches of its own.

Living History

Blandwood is the only structure in Guilford County designated as a National Historic Landmark. “Morehead was the first governor to advocate for educating women, then it was women who saved the house in 1966.” John Graham is Development Director for Preservation Greensboro Incorporated, celebrating their 50th anniversary, “When you go to Blandwood today it’s very much like it would have been. The three couches in the West Parlor were designed for Blandwood by A.J. Davis.

“In October of 2013 I had all of the living governors, with the exception of Easley, up in the West Parlor and I said, ‘Let me tell you what all happened right where you’re standing. Governor Vance came up to Morehead in 1865 and said, ‘The troops are surrendering up in Durham, what am I to do?’ He said, ‘You’re going to surrender the state to the Union. There’s no choice, it’s over.” So Vance says, ‘Can you make it happen?’ Morehead summons the two Union generals who are in charge of the occupation and tells them, ‘I’ve got the Governor here and he’s ready to surrender.’ They come up here and Vance signs an agreement totally surrendering the state to the Union, they shake hands and depart. The two generals go back and cable Washington and they say, ‘We have a surrender from the North Carolina Governor.’ And they cabled back, ‘You did arrest him didn’t you?’ So they get on horseback and catch up with him in Huntersville.”

Morehead made his fortune in textiles. A slave owner, he and those in his sphere made a Hobson’s choice. If they couldn’t beat the system, they’d mitigate the harmful effects of slavery in what small ways they could. John Graham explains, “If you think about it, any slave is one too many. Morehead was the equivalent of what a billionaire is today, in 1860 he owned 17 slaves. You say, ‘That’s a lot.’ Well, not compared to someone with his wealth. He also owned old slaves. These were not the ones that were going to be plowing or working in a factory. Why did he have such a low number? Quakers.

“Morehead’s wife, all their friends were Quakers. The Quakers owned slaves but the reason given was, ‘If I freed the slave and wasn’t able to take him all the way up north he’d be caught in the next county and back in slavery.’ Greensboro is the only county seat in North Carolina that does not have a Civil War monument on the courthouse grounds. That goes back to Morehead.”

At the 50th anniversary celebration in 2016 the guest speaker was James Perry, husband of Melissa Harris-Perry. He was involved with the Preservation Resource Center in New Orleans. He’s also a civil rights attorney. John Graham recalls what impressed him most, “One of the things James Perry said was, ‘I learned more from the little old ladies of the preservation societies than I did from any civil rights leader because what they understood was, you had to see beauty where there wasn’t any.’ We probably had more volunteer offers after that meeting than they’ve ever had. It spoke to the heart of Sharon Hightower of the historic preservation movement in East Greensboro.”

Visitor numbers and Carriage House revenue have doubled since PGI hired a Development Director. “We put the house front and center,” Graham said. “When C-Span came to town the mayor wanted her interview to be in the West Parlor of Blandwood. Two years ago the legislative delegation of Guilford County had their annual meeting here. At the City Council chambers it’s never well attended.” It was packed that night by virtue of the location. “Lo and behold, that was when Trudy Wade leaked that she was going to try to redo the City Council in Greensboro,” Graham said. “So history still happens at Blandwood.”

Time is still an enemy of sorts, a major landscaping is needed to repair rain drainage and boost curb appeal. “A few years ago, New Garden came in and planted Wintergrass and it was incredible, all winter long this was the greenest oasis in the middle of Greensboro,” Graham said. “We had more weddings booked for that summer because the lawn looked so beautiful.” Dramatic exterior lighting to showcase the home at night is also planned. “We’re looking to have a Capital Campaign,” Graham added. “If this grant comes through we will announce it publicly, we’ve done some fundraising behind the scenes but we’d like to have an amount that’s very appreciable. We’re going to make it look beautiful again.”

Joyous sounds of celebration have been ringing from the south lawn since 1970 when Blandwood Carriage House became a location of distinction for weddings and receptions, a state of the art facility that has as its backdrop an ancient beauty where past and present coexist.

Live music, dancing, children’s laughter, business leaders congregating, a bride and groom’s exhilarating first hours as a married couple. A living testament to those ladies in pearls who drew a line in the sands of time, to battles won against prevailing winds on a field of devastating losses. !

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