The answer to the title of this article depends on how you ask the question.
Greensboro has been around for almost 200 years, and in that time houses have been modified, restored…and often have changed uses. Early preservation efforts resulted in the creation of museums, or involved relocation of buildings in order to preserve them. This impacts how architectural historians qualify the pedigree of a building.
If it had not been dismantled (and later reconstructed as part of Winston-Salem’s Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA)), the McLean Log House (image being dismantled, top right) would have easily stood out as the oldest house in the county. Built around 1767, the house was an impressive example of log construction, featuring a stone gable end, vertical corner posts, and few, if any, windows. It was dismantled, and portions later reused for furniture display in MESDA around 1965.
If the question is worded to the oldest known house in the city, the answer would be the Francis McNairy House (image, middle right) on the grounds of the Greensboro Historical Museum. The two-story corner-timbered house is said to have been used as a field hospital after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781…and is thought to have been erected in 1761. Corner-timbering is the insider’s term for log construction, of which the McNairy House is a great example. The v-notch logs were originally covered by clapboards (a common characteristic of early Guilford architecture), which provided additional insulation and protected the mud chinking between logs from weathering.
For historical purists, however, the McNairy House can’t be counted as the oldest house. Though the building was preserved for use as a museum, its original context, foundations, and chimney were lost when it was removed from its historic location off Battleground Avenue in 1967, and resituated adjacent to the Greensboro Historical Museum in the center city. Though it’s a very early structure, relocation disqualifies the house in the minds of some purists.
If original foundations and context are important, then Blandwood gets some serious consideration. The earliest portions of house were built for Charles Bland around 1795 as a two-story, timber-frame house on a hill that now overlooks downtown Greensboro. It’s a miracle the house survived at all considering it predates the establishment of the Gate City (1808) by 12 years. If it was not for the constant expansion of the house by influential occupants such as Henry Humphreys and John Motley Morehead, the house would have long ago been lost to “progress.”
However, Blandwood is no longer a house. It is preserved as a house museum – open to the public to look and learn about North Carolina’s early history. The last family of Blandwood was the Gray family, many of whom died of tuberculosis in the 1890s. The last residents, sisters Annie, Mary, and Emma Fry were children when they moved from the house in 1901.
The oldest inhabited residence in Greensboro is likely the Paisley House (image, masthead) of circa 1820. Local lore suggests the frame of the house was the first Guilford County Courthouse in Greensboro, built in 1809. However, like the McNairy House, it too was relocated in 1930 from its original foundations at the Preyer Federal Building on West Market Street to a site in the Westerwood neighborhood. Named for the first pastor of Greensboro’s Presbyterian church, Rev. William Paisley. It remains well-tended on Hillcrest Drive. The McConnell-Carruthers-Gray House on Washington Street dates to the 1830s and remains residential, but has been moved three times.
Here is where things get sticky. Several houses stand today (on their original foundations), some inhabited as residences, others reused as offices and others as inns, of comparable date of construction. The Bumpass-Troy House is thought to have been constructed around 1847 on South Mendenhall Street in the College Hill neighborhood. Nearby, the Walker-Scarborough House (image, lower right) on McGee Street is thought to have been constructed as a wedding gift for Letitia Morehead and William Walker when they were married in May 1848. Over in Fisher Park, the Cummings House stands unrestored at 908 Cherry Street. It likely dates from around 1850. Among this group, one is likely to hold title as the oldest residence on original foundations in Greensboro.
Though it is admittedly confusing, it’s great to have a wealth of options to consider as far as what constitutes the oldest house in the city. Nearby, Winston-Salem’s oldest occupied residence on its original foundation would likely be found within Old Salem, and would possibly date from the 1768. Fellow blogger GK has identified one of central Durham’s oldest houses as having been built around 1860-1865.
Architectural historians in Guilford County have realized the claim that our oldest house may very well be an innocuous looking farmhouse on a country road in the suburban fringe of our city. Could it be true that Greensboro’s oldest residence is yet unidentified…lurking beneath a massive white oak, unrecognized by any historic marker? Not only is it is possible, it is probable.