Why I Live Where I Live

This Old House

The lives of others permeate a stately West End dwelling

By Nancy Oakley    Photographs by Lynn Donovan

Early one morning, I was lacing up my shoes for a walk with my friend and landlord, Missie, who waited patiently inside the front door. Her gaze scaled the 12-foot ceiling, turned toward the graceful fireplace, its mantel flanked with two small columns and then to the floor, the individual floorboards bordered by exquisite inlay arranged in a Greek key pattern that continues into the stairwell of the apartment directly above. 

“This place brings back memories,” she said, no doubt recalling her carefree years when she lived, at various times between college graduation and marriage, in three of the five apartments in this funny old house in Winston-Salem’s West End.

It was originally a single-family dwelling built on the lot adjacent to the Kilpatrick Townsend law firm, where the Zinzendorf Hotel had briefly stood before it was destroyed in a fire in 1892. “Investor families, unable to recoup their losses, slowly settled in the area, making, by 1913, West End the most prominent residential area in the newly merged City of Winston-Salem,” says the city’s website.

Among them was E.W. O’Hanlon, a local pharmacist and entrepreneur who built the downtown O’Hanlon Building, the city’s second skyscraper and, for a time, its tallest. “He was a big cog in the wheel,” says Fam Brownlee, longtime historian for the Forsyth County Public Library, “and very much involved in civic and social life,” not only because he was a bit of an operator, but because he had married Nancy Critz, one of R.J. Reynolds’ nieces. The drugstore on the first floor of his new building (designed, incidentally, by the firm of Northrup O’Brien) was, as Brownlee puts it, “the center of the universe of Winston-Salem.” Everyone, including R.J. Reynolds and P.H. Hanes, would gather at O’Hanlon’s to learn the latest gossip — and “real” news.

Like many movers and shakers, E.W. and Nancy Critz O’Hanlon moved to what was then an up-and-coming neighborhood. (The West End’s prosperous residents “wanted to be near R.J. Reynolds,” Brownlee explains, referring to the tobacco tycoon’s address on Fifth Street before he and Katharine Smith Reynolds moved to their new estate, Reynolda, in 1917.) From about 1911 to 1926, the O’Hanlons lived in the house, which is graced by stately, grooved Ionic columns on a front porch that wraps around to one side. The intricate wood inlay extends from my apartment into the larger apartment (No. 1), next door, where Missie’s daughter, Anna, lives. The massive front door, with its glass panels, is sealed shut and serves as an ornate bedroom wall, as it has for previous tenants at least since the late 1950s.

But in its heyday, the heavy wooden door opened into a front hall with a grand staircase to the right, now gone; in its place is a covered stairwell leading to the other upstairs apartment (No. 2), where my neighbor Peyton Smith will emerge on late mornings on his way to fire up the wood ovens at his downtown restaurant, Mission Pizza. One can fairly imagine Nancy Critz O’Hanlon heeding the buzz of the now-rusted doorbell by the old front door, her heels clattering across the wood parquet to greet visitors. The pocket doors to what was once the dining room, now Anna’s living room, would likely have been closed. Perhaps Nancy O’Hanlon or the house’s subsequent owners, Mary and Charles Joyce, would have entertained their guests in the front parlor, now my bedroom with the pretty floor, the mantel and the funny diagonal portion of the ceiling, an addition that supports the stairs above. On frigid winter mornings, lying beneath the covers, I would hear the quick tread of my former neighbor, Neil, and his dog, heading out for a brisk walk. They are gone now, and the lighter tread of a new neighbor and the house’s latest tenants, Natalie and her dog, fill the early waking hours of each day.

Did the Joyces divide this lovely old house into apartments? Or someone else? Was it “Old Mr. Carpenter,” as Missie calls the man who owned it when she first moved here, in the mid-1980s? “He ran a flower shop across from Forsyth Memorial (now Novant Health). That’s where my parents went to sign the papers when they bought it,” she recalls.

After Missie had lived in what is now my apartment, No. 3, her parents, the late Dr. Samuel A. Sue (one of the first orthopedists in Greensboro and a founder of Greensboro Orthopaedic), and his wife, Ceil, bought the house. “My mother was into fixing up old houses at the time,” Missie says. Her dad, a graduate of Wake Forest’s medical school, wanted to rent nice quarters for med students and residents. She moved upstairs, to No. 4, and subsequently to the one next to, No. 2, where Peyton now resides. “I never lived downstairs where my daughter is,” she says. “Bob Utley, a Wake Forest professor, lived there forever.” Her friend Sandy Irvin was also a neighbor and the two of them often reminisce about wandering in and out of each other’s abodes, as if it were a college dormitory, or chatting after work with Missie’s mom, as she restored much of the house to its former glory.

I had only been inside the place a couple of times: once at a birthday party for Missie’s future husband, Jim Vaughan, and years later, when Missie was out of town, and I showed No. 3 to a prospective tenant, a young gal starting her career, like so many other tenants, including Missie and Sandy. The girl frowned when she saw its shotgun layout: the front room with its inlay and columned mantel; another big room with another mantel and south-facing bay windows overlooking the woodsy backyard next door; and just adjacent, a tiny enclosure for a kitchen with lots of shelves; and a large bathroom, with a claw foot tub and old radiator with a raised floral design on its surface. Or maybe the tenant who might have been was put off by the small closets, or the shared laundry facilities on the back porch; in any case, we didn’t hear from her again.

Not everyone appreciates or tolerates the quirks of living in an old house. “Either you get it or you don’t,” said a recent visitor, who arrived quite literally on my doorstep one morning during that cobwebby time in late summer, when the sun casts its rays at a lower angle across the dry grass, and the crape myrtle blossoms become more sparse. I had been working from one of the big rocking chairs on the wide porch by the old front door, in the shade of the Ionic columns, when a woman of a certain age parked her car on the street out front and made her way up the front walk.

“Are you at No. 3?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied, more curious than suspicious, though admittedly a bit guarded, given the amount of foot traffic in the neighborhood.

She removed her sunglasses to reveal a pair of expressive brown eyes. “My grandmother moved here in 1958. I’ve just come from St. Paul’s memorial garden,” she continued, referring to the Episcopal church several blocks away on Summit. “The boxwoods . . . My mother passed away in February, today would have been her birthday.” She paused placing her hands on her hips. “I’m Nancy MacFarlane and I assure you, I’m a good guy!”

Another Nancy. I couldn’t help but smile.

She explained how, as a child growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, she was a frequent visitor to her grandmother’s apartment on weekends — and would it be all right if she had a look around for old times’ sake?

“Well, it’s a bit of a mess,” I demurred. The large, aforementioned bathroom and the one above it were both being gutted, owing to some structural damage from a fire likely 50 or more years ago. Boxes were stacked in the front room, my furniture was covered with quilts, and there was a trace of concrete dust on the pretty old hardwood floors. Nonetheless, I opened the screen door — a door to the past, as it happens, and a missing chapter after the era of the O’Hanlons and Joyces, and before Missie’s and mine.

Oblivious to the mess, Nancy, as she tells me on a subsequent visit, “was seeing only what was in my mind’s eye. I looked down on the floor at that wood pattern,” she says. It had triggered a flood of memories — the Jacobean chest that once stood opposite the door, the small organ to the right of it, the record player and record-of-the-month collection with LPs by the likes of Ed Ames, the daybed, the sofa bed, the embroidered pillowcases.

Her grandmother, Katherine Violet White Jacobsen, had moved from Arlington, Virginia, to Winston-Salem after her Norwegian husband, Ole, who served in the White House Secret Police (now the Secret Service) for several administrations, had unexpectedly died from a fall. Katherine wanted to be near her only child, Nancy’s, mother Dorothy, who had married Rodney E. Austin, a vice-president in personnel for the Reynolds Tobacco Company. “She moved down here, and became a huge part of our world,” Nancy says of the woman she knew as Grandma, a quiet soul who loved to watch baseball and wrestling on TV, and who kept a wide correspondence with her siblings in Missouri and Arkansas, even playing chess with them by snail mail.

She was typical of the residents of West End, or, “little old lady heaven,” as Brownlee characterizes it. “They were everywhere,” he says of the neighborhood’s gray population who, like Nancy’s grandmother and the next door tenant in Apartment No. 1, a Mrs. Writer, or Reiter perhaps, occupied the gracious old houses. Many of the stately homes had been broken up into apartments or boarding houses, as the West End became less fashionable. The first generation of residents like the O’Hanlons, says Brownlee, had moved on, replaced by “lesser lights,” while newer suburbs — Ardmore, Buena Vista, for example — accommodated the city’s growing population in the years before World War II. By wartime, says Brownlee, “West End was finished.” What had once been posh had become, by the 1950s, “pretty shabby,” he adds.

Shabby perhaps, but quaint enough to captivate young Nancy Austin MacFarlane, who relished the Friday nights that she would spend with her grandmother. “It was so different” from her weekly suburban life in Buena Vista, she says. She recalls several trips down First Street hill to the Kroger, where CinCin Burger Bar is today. “We’d hoof it,” she recalls. “My grandmother never drove. We’d walk down and do grocery shopping; (at home) Mom always had Coke; Grandma got RC.” The groceries would be boxed, not bagged; Grandma would call a taxicab and the driver would carry the groceries inside. And on the Saturdays when grocery shopping wasn’t on the agenda, they would walk to Sears Roebuck, now Wells Fargo’s West End call center. When they grew old enough, sometimes Nancy’s siblings would join them.

They would usually enter from the garden center that fronted Fourth Street and buy hot dogs, a bag of popcorn (“Sears always smelled like popcorn”) and a soft drink. “We thought it was big bananas to go out there (in the garden center) and eat that hot dog,” Nancy recalls. But the best treat, she says, was buying little glass animal figurines — ducks, roosters — usually in pairs for five or 10 cents. Over time, the Austin siblings amassed an entire glass menagerie, which Grandma kept in a drawer in the great Jacobean chest. “The philosophy was, ‘If you like it now, and you take it home, it’s not as special,’” Nancy explains. After she grew up, married and had children of her own, she saved the animals for them.

Nancy conjures other memories: accompanying Grandma to the beauty parlor on Burke Street were local music icon and instructor Sam Moss later opened a guitar store, and having her own locks washed by someone named Miss Apple. Walking to day camp — all by herself — at the old YWCA (now The Glade development of West End across from the law firm, which was then still a vacant lot) and eating tuna fish sandwiches that Grandma had prepared in the narrow kitchen, its shelves stacked with empty Styrofoam boxes from the meals that Nancy’s dad would bring from the K&W.

There were, she says, a few families in the West End during her growing up years. She speaks fondly of the Bennings down the street, a large family of boys — and a girl named Sterling who became Nancy’s good friend. The boys were often on bicycles or skateboards, or all of them would play hide-and-seek. “We were happier with less, playing more in those days,” Nancy reflects, recalling another neighborhood tyke named Mark, who fell out of a tree and dismembered his thumb, an incident that left a big impression on her young mind. The Goodwins lived next door; she would talk over the wire backyard fence with the Ramsbotham kids, whose big white house backed up to the service alley behind her grandmother’s.

By coincidence — or perhaps not — I tell her my friends the Fains bought the Ramsbotham house and fixed it up several years ago. They lived next to Missie and Jim’s old house, where I rented the servant’s cottage for years, a setup that David Fain dubbed “The Commune,” until we all moved. By another coincidence — or perhaps not — Nancy tells me David Fain was a childhood friend of her younger sister Susan.

Wandering through my large living room and looking out of its bay windows, she sees, not my dining room table and chairs, but a captain’s chest and a teacart filled with plants, and antique furniture of tiger maple, the birds that Grandma liked to feed through windows open on winter days to offset the radiator heat. Eyeing the clawfoot tub in the large bathroom, Nancy laughs, “’Soaky! Soaky! Fun for a boy and girl . . .’” she sings, recalling a commercial jingle for bubble bath contained in bottles doubling as bath toys, as they were fashioned after cartoon characters. “We had Rocky and Bullwinkle,” she says. She casts a glance at the back door of the bathroom leading to the back hall and laundry room. “That was always the locked door. Partly because my dad would always bring Christmas presents over here to hide them,” Nancy says. Curiously, her grandmother never had a Christmas tree in the apartment, as she spent holidays with the family in the Buena Vista suburbs.

But the daily life she lived here was as “magical” to her granddaughter as any Christmas Eve. Gazing up at the Ionic columns on the front porch on her way out, Nancy says she used to trace the massive structures with her eye. “I can’t tell you how much time we spent on the stoop. They called them ‘stoops’ in those days,” she explains. “We wanted stories from the grandparents about the parents, about their growing up years. What’s missing today is the time out in the yard with the grandmothers, shelling peas, snapping beans.”

Those simple pleasures of her childhood began to wane in her teenage years, as Friday night visits gave way to parties with her peers. By the late 1970s, even though a few intrepid urban pioneers began investing in it, the West End became a sketchier place. Cheap rents attracted the counterculture element and worse: According to Fam Brownlee, the area around Spring Street between Sixth and West End Boulevard was basically a red light district. The newcomers had a jarring effect on many of the older residents, Nancy says.

The basement apartment (now the off-and-on dwelling of Missie’s longtime handyman, Melvin) at Grandma’s was rented to hippies. Nancy and the neighborhood kids were banned from playing in the backyard. “Of course, we’d go back there, anyway,” she confesses. “They hung quilts in the windows and painted the walls black,” Nancy says of the basement’s mysterious inhabitants. Did they inadvertently start the fire that charred the bathroom ceiling? Or was the old coal-burning furnace the culprit? No one knows for sure.

It was at this time that the Austin family began to fear for Grandma’s safety. By the early 1980s, her health began to fail and she was moved to a nursing home in Walkertown, where she lived out her days until she died at the age of 88. Nancy’s mother, Dorothy, lived to the age of 92. She was a veritable horticulturist and Master Gardener, member of the Old Salem Garden Club and lifetime judge of flower shows, prompting Nancy to take arrangements every so often to the memorial garden at St. Paul’s. The boxwoods there, similar to the ones that used to grow, alongside hollies, in front of her grandmother’s at No. 3 inspired her to stop by on that late summer day, she explains. “The house always seemed so well-loved whenever I would drive by over the years,” she says, gently fingering the ivy that Missie has artfully planted in large terra cotta pots on the porch.

Well-loved in countless other ways, namely in the repairs and renovations that Missie and her family have undertaken — enclosing the downstairs back porch to accommodate laundry facilities, screening in the one above it, refinishing the splendid wood floors, renovating bathrooms, patching the slate roof. And all so others could love the place as Nancy MacFarlane did when she was a child.

In my own short tenure here, the wide porch has served as a tranquil outdoor office in warmer months — and a gathering spot for convivial parties lasting well into the night; the graceful old mantel and meticulously laid floorboards are a welcoming sight when I arrive home, weary from a long day. With autumn approaching, the shady screen from the wooded backyard next door will fade from green to gold, adding a soft glow to the living room in the late afternoons. By winter, I’ll retreat there to scribble away. For how much longer, who knows? Like the others before me, at some point, I’ll leave this lovely, quirky old place, and another tenant will move in.

Maybe her name will be  . . . Nancy.

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