The Collector

Tom Fitzgerald explores context and meaning among the exquisite objects that have filled his Greensboro home over time

By Cynthia Adams     Photographs by Amy Freeman

Near a leafy park among houses approaching the century mark, Tom Fitzgerald created a European-inspired home. When he built his house in the 1990s, Fitzgerald made sure that it would totally fit into one of Greensboro’s most traditional and loved neighborhoods, Sunset Hills. The stucco-and-timber-frame design managed a sleight of hand: It was compatible with its neighbors yet oriented to be light-filled, modern and fresh.

“Not a big or grand house,” Fitzgerald explains, “but a simple house with a lot of character.”

When completed, it was a discreet victory. Earth tones made the house practically disappear into a streetscape that is dominated by old growth trees and genteel homes. The exterior stucco was painted a pale beige, the Tudor-like beams and trim, brown. Today, the property has acquired a deepening, enriched patina, making it difficult to pinpoint in time. Perhaps age has become the property’s best friend.

As much as anything, the landscaping has contributed to the sense that the house belongs there. Fitzgerald even spent hours training English ivy to conceal chain link fencing, creating a lush setting for the screened porch at the rear of the house, a shady spot where visitors are welcomed and suppers served. As with many homes in historic New Orleans, Charleston and Savannah, a secret garden and inner courtyard enhanced the new beauty with unexpected charms, and provided outdoor spaces removed from public display. It is a house meant for entertaining as much as it is meant to showcase art and collectibles.

These were lessons that Fitzgerald had absorbed in many years of world travels, not so much as a student of architecture, but as an anthropologist. He is one who has spent his career observing, lecturing and writing. (Fitzgerald retired from the UNCG faculty in 2003.)

Thanks to lifelong relationships with artists, beginning with his sister Lee Hall, Fitzgerald had developed the sensibilities of a social scientist combined with the eye of a collector. Learning to truly see, he explains, is something he has cultivated thanks to many with informed vision.

All of which means the current interior reveals that it has been inhabited by resident owners with richly layered pasts. Frank Saunders, Fitzgerald’s longtime partner, who died in early 2014, was one of them. Saunders was also a hobbyist interested in fine furniture, some of which he had made himself.

No matter that Fitzgerald’s custom home has a sense of history and proximity. It is very much of the times with an abundance of windows, multiple levels and the generously sized kitchen, baths and closets that his former address, a nearby Dutch Colonial where he lived with Saunders, though admittedly beautiful, was lacking. The professor managed to keep the charm of that old Kensington Street home, while doubling down on modern conveniences in the new when it was time for him and Saunders to transition into a new space.

He also explains how Saunders anticipated that transition and nudged him to build.

“We wanted to go single-level, as Frank was 10 years older and we wanted a house suitable for retirement,” Fitzgerald says, as afternoon light streams through ample front windows, illuminating artwork and collections that speak to his personal life and narrative. Saunders was a retired Guilford County Schools administrator, a psychologist who headed programs for intellectually challenged and gifted students. “He helped many young people,” Fitzgerald says. Saunders also shared Fitzgerald’s passion for travel, and as a hobbyist interested in fine furniture, made several pieces himself.

The two chose a house plan and visited an architect in Arizona to make adaptations that included a courtyard and offered more exterior vistas. The interiors were also designed to house their collected treasures to best advantage. They moved custom cabinetry from their Kensington home, as it had been designed specifically to showcase one of their collections: Canton china.

It was important that their ultimate house be elegant in its simplicity.

They decided to make finishes high-end, the layout precise in order to accommodate their furnishings and lifestyle, and to borrow from the best ideas they had observed in other gracious homes.

As Wolfe Homes built their dream house, the professor was on-site every day, picking up and cleaning any debris, and imagining exactly how their art and furnishings would work in the corridors, hallways and spaces. The house’s centerpiece, a great room with dramatic two-story windows, was designed with a vaulted ceiling whose soaring effect is accentuated by a sunken floor. At one end is a fireplace with an elegant limestone mantel, redolent of French homes that Fitzgerald knew well from his early years studying abroad in Paris.

In addition to its aesthetic value, the house had to serve the two gents well, even into their old age, so they also considered details like cabinet heights for workspaces and baths, grab bars and tweaked layout to maximize functionality.

Attention to practicalities paid off. When Saunders became seriously ill in 2007, the house continued to function well as he grew less mobile, just as planned.

“He literally passed out while working in the garden,” Fitzgerald says. The diagnosis was multiple myeloma, a form of cancer. Over the next seven years, as the disease gradually took its toll, Saunders was able to remain at home, enjoying the spacious screened porch, courtyard and elevated walkways that made the house easily navigable. The interior spaces, designed in harmonious sync with the pair’s paintings and collections, allowed Saunders to enjoy the beautiful objects the two had amassed over the years.

After his partner’s death, there was no question Fitzgerald would remain there too.

In time, he met Bill Johnston, whose life revolved around art and design. His family were founders of American Furniture Company, later known as American Drew. In 2000, Johnston retired, leaving the family business and design world to become an artist and potter. (Johnston’s work is currently available at Green Hill Center for North Carolina Art.)

Johnston, who keeps a nearby art studio and cottage, had extensive art and furniture as well, which he merged with Fitzgerald’s when he moved to Greensboro from West Virginia.

Discovery is the fuel for the two collectors’ zeal. They further enriched their knowledge by frequent excursions to museum openings. Tom Fitzgerald laughs that “Bill will come home and say, ‘Let’s go to this exhibition in Asheville!’ And I enjoy this so much.”

For Fitzgerald, settled amid the things he loves and now shares with Johnston, collecting had infused many decisions about home.

Together, they continue explorations in sculpture, art and pottery with gusto. “I still like to discover new things,” he explains, pointing out Johnston’s furniture, paintings and pottery throughout the house. 

“Bill has taken me to about 150 galleries. I’m learning now how to see things,” he says. “You go through a museum and remember configurations. But I’m learning how to look at paintings and sculpture and glassware.”

Which brings Fitzgerald to the topic of collecting, and what drives particular passions.

“Is there a collector’s mentality?” he muses. He grows thoughtful, pausing after pulling out one of his first collected china objects: a simply wrought bowl. Later he decides. “I suspect so. Most of my friends are not collectors and never will be. Those who suffer from this affliction are helpless in its control of them. Collector’s gene, maybe?” Fitzgerald laughs at the notion.

Melding Johnston’s collections with his own, he adds, has enhanced his already keen eye. Through Johnston’s point of view, he is learning to see through the lens of the artist. The artist’s eye is a completely different, important matter, he explains. Artists have long figured into the life of a man who would become known for his study and observation of world cultures, publishing numerous books while a professor at UNCG. 

As a young man, Fitzgerald was deeply influenced by his older cousin, Lee Hall, whom he regarded and still refers to as a sister. Hall was a key figure in his life. “She ran away from home and came to live with the grandparents who adopted my brother and me, so we were delighted to have Lee come.”

Fitzgerald not only came of age with Hall, but he became a mascot within her circle when she graduated with a B.F.A. from the Woman’s College in the 1950s, and moved to New York, pursuing studies and abstract painting. Her circle eventually included both Elaine and Willem de Kooning along with other important Modern artists such as Jackson Pollock. She not only became an artist of note but also began writing about Modern artists.

“When Lee would drop by her studio, she would ask Elaine [de Kooning] to ‘babysit’ me — I was 14 or 15,” Fitzgerald recalls. “I loved her, but didn’t think of her as special, although she started the Modern art movement. We would go out for Italian meals, but I didn’t think much about it. It was hard for women to get any recognition . . . women artists were coming along.”

In the 1970s, Hall became president of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. She also remained a close friend of Elaine de Kooning’s and chronicled her life with Willem de Kooning in Elaine and Bill: Portrait of a Marriage. The book was a blockbuster.

Like Hall, Fitzgerald went on to earn a doctorate and became a prolific writer. After earning scholarships and studying at UNC-Chapel Hill, Stanford and the Sorbonne, Fitzgerald became a cultural anthropologist with a fluency in French. He specialized in issues concerning identity, and those studies took him around the globe. At least four of Fitzgerald’s scholarly books on culture and identity remain in print, years past his retirement.

But the anthropologist’s prized collections grew from an age-old love of beauty. Even as a young boy growing up in Lexington, N.C., he kept a couple of beautiful objects on his dresser to admire. Travel expanded his awareness of things generally, while at the same time sharpened the focus of his collecting — one of the cardinal rules of the road is to pack light.

“The size of object[s] became a paramount consideration: little silver-topped bottles from New Zealand, for example,” Fitzgerald explains. “When I first went to New Zealand, I didn’t have anything to decorate this awful apartment I had, so I went to a junk shop. They had a beautiful cut glass piece with a silver top. That was the beauty in the room . . . the one thing I could enjoy.”

He produces a slender silver-capped bottle that likely once held a gent’s toothbrush. The professor could enjoy his finds and, on return, easily tucked smaller collectibles into a case. He also collected indigenous artwork as he worked in the Pacific Islands and Canada, which fill shelves in his upstairs study.

“Ethnic art reflects my interest in my field subjects (Maoris, Canadian Indians, etc.),” Fitzgerald says, re-emphasizing the practicality of acquiring smaller, more portable items, such as men’s rings.

The professor sees no sense in gathering beautiful things to molder in boxes and gather dust. Use them or lose them, he says. “A couple were in Rhode Island where my sister, Lee Hall, taught. They traveled a lot, and had all this money, and they would collect whatever they liked, then they didn’t want to use it. I enjoy using it!”

With one exception: the Canton china.

Even more than the antique glassware or ethnic art finds, Canton is his opus. And it is, like his other collections, quite personal.

A colleague and friend of Hall named Leon Wolcott introduced Fitzgerald to collecting Canton china. The search for Canton was an extension of their long-term friendship. Wolcott, a sociologist at a small college in New Jersey, would buy pieces for his historic home.

“It was a beautiful old house. It was the impetus for Canton coming into my life.”

So, what is Canton, exactly?

For starters, it is blue-and-white tableware, favored by American collectors for two centuries.

Rob Feland, among others, has written about Canton “ballast ware,” china that was made expressly for being exported in the holds of ships. Even George Washington favored blue-and-white dinner and tea sets. 

Canton is named after the port of origin, Canton, China, where it was painted for export to Americans and Europeans. Colors range in intensity from cobalt to a paler gray-blue. It bears unique characteristics: Always hand-painted, compositions feature scenes incorporating bridges, tea houses, willow trees, streams and mountains in the background. Human figures are absent. Later versions, hand-painted and produced in England, depict three men on the bridge — which identifies the porcelain as a Willow pattern.

Enthusiasm for Canton continued. Later, colorful, rose medallion porcelains also came into favor. Part of its charm, says Fitzgerald, is owed to imperfections and flaws that were an inevitable result of the millions of plates that were all but mass-produced. “Too perfect a piece may well be a fake.”

Fitzgerald accompanied Wolcott on antiquing junkets. Always, Wolcott was on the hunt for Canton, and Fitzgerald would observe. After a visit, his friend would leave behind magazine articles on Canton for Fitzgerald’s education.

“So, I got really into it but couldn’t afford it,” he shrugs, acknowledging the financial restrictions of a professor’s salary. “Instead, I got into the rice pattern china — Canton is too valuable to use, but I can put rice pattern in the dishwasher.

“Leon would come to visit and we would go to Charleston and Savannah, and I would watch him pick things out. I admired him, and I think if you allow yourself to develop taste through your older friends who have taste, you learn. I might have had some incipient taste, but I learned a lot through him.”

Canton broadened the appeal of other blue-and-white china patterns. Occasionally, Fitzgerald would pick up reproduction Canton or Nanking patterns by Mottahedeh. Mottahedeh reproductions are clearly marked.

The first genuine Canton Fitzgerald selected for himself?

“It’s a small bowl; it had such simplicity,” he says fondly. “It was affordable, but for me, not the kind of thing I would have normally spent money on — dishes!” Fitzgerald emphasizes the decorative bowl was a splurge.

With each trip, he began choosing small pieces of Canton that he considered mementos. He also kept the price point modest.

“It was incremental. I didn’t see myself as deliberately collecting — I was just traveling and choosing a piece, which was a souvenir. I wanted it to be something I would enjoy. Then, when Frank had the vision of our building this house, there were nice places to display things.”

Slowly, he began to incorporate some colored pieces of china ranging beyond blue-and-white. “I began to collect Japanese Imari, which, later, Bill also had.”

As for that first major Canton purchase? Fitzgerald had admired a large fish platter at Caroline Faison Antiques in Greensboro. But when he learned the price, he remembers thinking, “Good Lord!” The frugal professor declined.

Soon after, his friend Wolcott died. He bought the platter with money Wolcott left him, knowing the dedicated Canton collector would approve. Fitzgerald began investing any windfall into his collection; each item became a memento mori.

“When another friend died and left me some money, I bought another piece of Canton.” He smiles; he also purchased a good suit. (Even in T-shirt and jeans, he is also a dapper collector.)

But Wolcott had made him “collect differently,” Fitzgerald says, saying he “gave me a vision of what I could do. Collecting has a lot to do with our personality and taste.”

If forced to choose, a favorite piece is a small Canton jug. Then again, if there were a fire, Fitzgerald would preserve something from his friend and mentor Wolcott. “Maybe,” he considers, “I’d choose one piece from Charleston or Savannah. A covered dish — this, for example, is a gravy bowl, with wonderful markings and handles.”

Fitzgerald, in recent years, also began collecting original art, an interest ignited by Hall.

Only a few years ago, Hall exhibited at the Jerald Melberg Gallery in Charlotte. She died last year, leaving her works to the Queen City’s small jewel, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. “I can’t believe she is gone,” Fitzgerald says gravely. “She was very ambitious. She was excited by life . . . she bought an intensity and interest in life.” Hall’s obituary was prominent in the May 17 edition of The New York Times.

Her passing turned the collector’s gaze to painting. “I never bought such, as my sister was a good painter and often sent small oil paintings, water colors, etc. But, gradually I wanted to learn more and started acquiring some of my own.” As he combined Johnston’s collection of original art, some of it from the Lexington, Virginia, area, they had to curate their choices, like an art gallery. Over the years, art explorations have given the couple a depth of shared experience.

“I see things I respond to,” Fitzgerald says. Personal influences guide and continue to influence him, which is why he dislikes self-conscious, decorated homes, preferring “collected ones.”

“When I show people the house, I’m telling them my story,” Fitzgerald says. “You have pictures of your grandmother, and they evoke the story of your life.” He mentions valued items bought in France, or while lecturing in Germany. “It’s a reminder of me.”

The professor keeps to his customary early risings, up at 5 a.m. Fitzgerald goes to his study, the place he calls uniquely his. “A room of my own,” he says. Only birdsong interrupts. When the sun rises, light filters through stained-glass windows in the stairway, positioned just so.

Here, the professor finds refuge with collections from Canada and New Zealand. He turns on the lights inside each case, illuminating his beloved objets d’art, and finds calm.

Cynthia Adams met Thomas Fitzgerald while at UNCG in graduate school. Through him, she has come to love all things blue and white, and Canton.

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