A Life Made by Hand

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A Life Made by Hand

How a pair of childhood lovebirds became two of the South’s most respected preservationists
and collectors of rare antiques

By Jim Dodson     Photographs by John Gessner

 

It’s an old-fashioned love story and kind of a funny,” says Dr. Tom Sears Jr. with a smile. “I suppose you don’t hear many stories like ours these days. It’s almost like we were destined to be together from the very beginning. We were even delivered by the same physician, Dr. Hubbard.”

From such humble beginnings grew a love story of a different kind that eventually transformed Tom and Sara Sears into a pair of the South’s  leading authorities on Southern decorative arts, enabling them to assemble one of the region’s finest collections of antiques and create a meticulously handmade home in Greensboro that is a living tribute — and nothing short of a stunning museum — to the glorious craftsmanship of the past.

Young Tom Sears was in the first grade in tiny West Jefferson when he met shy and pretty Sara Hunter. Tom was the class clown, aping to make his classmates laugh. Sara giggled at his, well, tomfoolery.

The two shared classes all the way to the fourth grade, when Tom’s family moved to Apex, where his father, Thomas Sr., took on broader duties as a statewide appraiser for the Department of Agriculture. “Dad was really an agricultural missionary, helping farmers across the state improve their yields. He was gone six days of the week.”

This was followed by another move to working-class Gillespie Park in Greensboro, just as Tom entered ninth grade, where he made good grades, played on the basketball team and was elected vice president of his class. “My folks were hard working  people who didn’t really understand the peer pressures in a big city school,” he reflects. His next year at Greensboro High (now Grimsley) illustrated the point. “It was the toughest year of my life. I mowed lawns and delivered papers but never quite fit in. Those kind of things stay with you.”

A third move saw the Sears family relocate to tiny McLeansville, where Tom graduated in a class of 21 as class salutatorian, and one of only seven kids in Guilford County to be nominated for a Morehead Scholarship. He just missed earning a Morehead.

Looking back, however, he thinks, this kind of social baptism by fire strengthened his resolve to do things his own way — literally, with his own hands. Hard weather, as a saying in the country goes, makes good timber. Tom’s Baptist faith helped him endure the sting of disappointmnent along the way, aided by Christmas cards and Valentine greetings from his childhood friend, Sara Hunter.

“I knew from the eighth grade that I wanted to work with my own hands, either as a surgeon or dentist because that would give my life more control,” he remembers.  By the end of high school, he’d settled on dentistry.

A guidance counselor suggested he consider Elon or Guilford College, which had strong programs in science and mathematics. Elon offered him a scholarship along with a job as a dorm counselor. During his freshman year, he and Sara, a student at Greensboro College, reconnected and finally started dating. The After three years at Elon, Tom was accepted at UNC Dental School where, four years later, he graduated with honors. He planned to spend a year working as a general practice dentist in Greensboro before going on to orthodontic training at UNC, but three weeks into the job received his draft notice, winding up in Oklahoma serving as a captain in the United States Army Dental Corps. In 1966, the couple married and Sara joined Tom for two years in Oklahoma before returing to Chapel Hill.  The couple moved into student housing. Upon graduation, Tom’s  talent for brilliant lab work and skilled hands eventiually earned him several offers to join leading practices around the state. He chose a popular orthodontics practice in Greensboro.

The Sears’ love story might have taken a very different turn had a friend back in their student housing days in Chapel Hill not observed a spinning wheel and old dental cabinet in their otherwise Spartan apartment, assuming that they might fancy antiques.

“We’d really never given antiques much of a thought,” admits Sara, who laughs at the memory of their first live antiques auction they attended in the western part of the state. She raised her hand to bid $15 on a grain measure, painted blue, and sold it to the man who bid against her for $16.

Sara likes to say the couple more or less “stumbled” into their passion for antiques, old houses and historic preservation. As Tom put it to The Magazine ANTIQUES in 2012, still nimble with a joke half a century after breaking up their first grade class, “Sara put up her hand and never put it down.”

As Tom’s practice thrived — his steady hands went on to shape and correct thousands of Triad mouths and jaws over the next 38 years — the couple’s fascination with antiques took on a life of its own.

At an auction in Ashe County in 1970, they acquired their first real antique for $75 — a 19th-century pie safe made by a North Carolina cabinetmaker named George Washington Ray. The collecting bug bit hard. As Tom is wont to say, “Antiques are living pieces of history. They tell a story if you take the time to listen.”

The couple took a deep dive into antiques literature, attending lectures and hitting live auctions from the Carolinas to New England. “We’d hoped to start a family right away but since that didn’t happen as hoped we devoted our vacations to seeing museums and historic houses up and down the East Coast.” Tom explains. “We bought some nice pieces and met important people who deepened our understanding of preservation and the beauty of old things.”

In 1973, one of the key people who stoked the fires of preservation passion was Dr. Laurence Alspaugh, a fellow Greensboro dentist and serious collector who, along with wife Helen, more or less took Tom and Sara under their wings. The Alspaugh house in Greensboro was an exact brick-for-brick reproduction of the Lightfoot House in Colonial Williamsburg. “Thanks to them we began to learn about architecture and America’s rich tradition of decorative arts,” Tom says. Visits to Williamsburg, Delaware’s Winterthur and Old Salem led to their first lectures at the Museum of Early American Decorative Arts (MESDA) in the historic Moravian settlement. Inspired by a subsequent tour of a well-preserved Federalist houses along the Shenandoah Valley, the couple decided to build their own house based on a historic property, brick-by-brick.

“From our first visit, Old Salem really spoke to me,” Tom remembers. “The precision and orderliness, the beautiful architecture and amazing craftsmanship of the buildings and furniture . . .” he trails off. “Sara’s heritage was half-Moravian and I had been a Baptist all my life, but I fell in love with the Moravian approach to life, their focus and humble style and great workmanship, nothing ostentatious, strong middle-class tastes, nothing sloppy. I never did anything sloppy. The Moravian way spoke to me.”

So did, in particular, the Federalist brick house built by John Vogler in 1819, a gifted silversmith and watchmaker who lived to be 97 and served the Old Salem community in various capacities over a long and productive life. Ironically, the Searses first saw a drawing of the Vogler house in a monograph on Colonial American Architecture at an antiques shop in Southbury, Connecticut, during one of their extended antique sorties. In a word, it was love at first sight. The clean lines and saw-tooth brickwork of Vogler’s house became their  inspiration and working model for the home they hoped to build someday in Greensboro.

That same year — 1976 — Bill Moore, a good friend who served as director of the Greensboro Historical Museum, (now Greensboro History Museum), drove the couple to see an abandoned house in northeast Guilford County. “It had been sitting vacant for 31 years. The outside looked like it was about to collapse,” Sara remembers. “The insides, however, were something incredible.”

“It blew our preservationist socks off,” Tom adds, ever the quipster.

Built in 1815 by a wealthy planter named Francis Lucas Simpson,  the only thing they found worth saving was a trove of painted woodwork, wainscoting, fireplace mantels, window trim and doors. Unfortunately the main chimney was infested with bees and wreathed by poison ivy.

Sears paid the owners of the house — which was scheduled to be demolished — $800 a room for the chance to meticulously take apart four rooms, piece by piece. This the couple accomplished over three bone-chilling weekends in 1977, when bees and poison ivy weren’t a danger, dismantling the place with the precision of a surgical orthodontist rebuilding a patient’s jaw. Tom did the removal work himself, while Sara and his father toted pieces out to a truck, to be housed in the couple’s basement. In his workshop, while keeping up his busy dental practice by day, Tom cleaned every piece by hand, using an extra set of dental instruments. One of the rooms he took apart was donated to the Greensboro Historical Museum. Later that year, they embarked on an even more ambitious project — the reproduction of the reproduction of the historic John Vogler House from Old Salem, near Greensboro’s Bill Craft Park.

With master builder D.C. Patton from Burlington and woodworker Roger Harvell from Greensboro (who once worked for famed designer Otto Zenke) — not to mention a lot of their own sweat equity — the Searses raised a near perfect replica of the Vogler House, incorporating three rooms of the Simpson house into their new home. It included five fireplaces and eventually a copy of Old Salem’s bake house for a tool shed, plus a replica of the Moravian firehouse on the square for a garage.

“We moved into the house before it was finished,” Sara explained to a visitor during a recent walk-through, pointing out 90-year-old pine floors that came out of a Durham warehouse and the Simpson mantels and woodworking that glow as if they were displayed in a MESDA gallery. Tom cleverly built door panels into the kitchen counter, “giving us, I figure, the oldest kitchen cabinets in Greensboro,” she jokes. The dining room, master bedroom and library are the original Simpson rooms.

The house’s beautiful rooms are furnished with period pieces the couple has spent decades seeking out and collecting, some of them made by important Carolina cabinetmakers Mordecai Collins and his apprentice John Swisegood. A Swisegood corner cabinet anchors their dining room. Their breakfast room contains a cupboard made by Mordecai Collins, circa 1810, a chandelier copied from the original one that hung in Old Salem’s Home Moravian church, and a staircase handrail and baluster Tom decided to copy from Old Salem’s Tavern, circa 1784.

On the staircase landing stands a tall and stately 1810 clock once owned by a Quaker family from Guilford County. Their upstairs bedroom features a magnificent four-poster bed made of tiger maple by a celebrated Old Salem craftsman and a handsome blanket chest with decorative inlay, a rarity in Moravian furniture. Over the mantel hangs an 1885 painting of Trinity College — which began life in Northern Randolph County but eventually moved to Durham to be renamed Duke University.

Since Tom’s retirement from dentistry in 2002, the couple has devoted their lives to preserving important pieces of furniture, traveling to seminars and workshops to deepen their encyclopedic knowledge of Southern antiques and — in Tom’s case — taking his passion one step further by becoming a master furniture maker in his own right.

In the dining room stands a set of six rare Annapolis chairs, circa 1755, that Tom has made eight additional exact replicas of. He has transformed himself into such an accomplished craftsman and now serves on the executive council of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers. His immaculate workshop at the rear of the house even boasts a pair of massive antique work tables from Wisconsin and Iowa that are so spick and span, they don’t look a minute over 100 years old. Various civic and woodworking awards adorn the walls, along with a citation from the governor announcing Tom’s induction into the Order of the Longleaf Pine Society. Just outside his workshop door — a massive affair with 2-and-1/2-inch double panel mahogany that Tom copied from an Old Salem original herringbone pattern — hangs a whimsical wood sign that announces the name of this handmade paradise — “Crow Hill.”   

Over the decade and a half, both Searses have served as advisors on the Board of MESDA, with Tom doing a two-year stint as chairman. He remains a member of the board of Old Salem Museums & Gardens and director of Grounds and Buildings. “I haven’t been over there,” he quips, “since yesterday.”

That’s appropriate since their love of the restoration extends to a second hisitoric house the couple purchased in the heart of the Moravian settlement in 2010 and has faithfully restored since that time. “Tom worried that we might not have enough period furniture to fill it with,” Sara loves to tell furniture groups that have toured their Vogler-inspired home in Irving Park. “I asked him , ‘Have you looked in our attic lately?’”   

Somehow over the past two decades, he’s served as a board member of Youth For Christ in Greensboro and recently oversaw the refurbishment of the 1914 bungalow on North Elm Street — a former dentist’s office, naturally — that serves more than 1,400 kids across Guilford County. The expanded facility is scheduled to open this June, celebrating the 70th year of YFC in Greensboro.

“It’s been quite a journey,” Tom Sears says as he walks his visitor down a pebble stone driveway that resembles the streets one finds in Colonial Williamsburg. “When Sara and I started out in our married life way back when, we never imagined anything like this. We both wanted children. But since that never happened, we were fortunate to make a life in which we can share love of the past and help others learn to appreciate it.

“Besides,” he adds, “I have thousands of kids all over this region whose teeth I fixed and lives I helped shape with my hands. I still see them, as young people who have grown up, but they always thank me for what God gave me the ability to do.”

“Do you have any advice to them?”

“Yes,” he answers quickly, with a coy little smile. “I tell them: ‘Don’t forget to wear your retainers!’”  h

As he gets long in the tooth, Jim Dodson has asked Tom Sears for a set of historically correct wooden dentures, if necessary.

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