The Junior League of Greensboro may have a real treasure on their hands!
Named to Preservation Greensboro’s inaugural Treasured Places Watch List in 2005, the Albright House has kept its history close to its vest. Drive-by estimates of age dated the two-story frame residence with a notable two-story portico overlooking West Friendly Avenue to the third quarter of the nineteenth century (1850-1875). A recent investigation reveals these preliminary estimates might have been conservative.
Carl Myatt, the architect for the project, arranged a recent visit by Mitch Wilds of the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office, along with Junior League president Daniela Helms and myself. The purpose of the meeting was to analyze the physical evidence of the house to determine what was old and what was not; as well as what is worth preserving…and what is not. The evidence discovered suggests the history of this house is more than skin deep.
The small group explored several elements of the house, with special interest in determining the date of construction using key components such as structural members and decorative elements. We found that the house has been well-cared for throughout its history, and that occupants have maintained an interest in embellishing the house with the latest and most popular styles using quality materials throughout its history. This characteristic of the Albright House made identification of materials easier.
Material investigation involves an understanding of building technology as well as the understanding of popular styles. Just as “Motown” has its unique fingerprint of sound, so does architecture.
From the street, passersby notice the low-pitched hipped roof of the Albright House. The façade is symmetrical, with a central portico flanked by six-pane sash over one-pane sash windows. The building was covered by aluminum siding in the 1980s, which has hidden some of its identifying features. Beneath the siding the review team found heart-of-pine siding and wide overhanging eaves. The eaves, in fact, were embellished with heavy exposed rafters – now covered with false-siding (image, right). Considered together, the low-pitched roofline, wide overhanging eaves with rafters, and symmetrical façade are all characteristics of Italianate architecture…likely influenced by Blandwood Mansion’s innovative façade of 1844.
Lumber dimensioning technology witnessed several key changes throughout the nineteenth century. Early in the period, timber in Guilford County was dimensioned in saw mills using water power. Saw mills relied on a “sash-saw,” a mechanism that left distinctive parallel marks on the wood face. Around 1852, steam-powered circular saws were introduced to Guilford County with the construction of the Fayetteville and Western Plank Road. Easier and more reliable, circular saws quickly became the tool of choice in dimensioning lumber in the region. The structural members used to build the Albright House, ranging from floor joists to roof rafters, reveal the parallel marks of sash saws, an indication that the Albright House could date before 1852.
Like saw technology, the method of manufacturing nails changed rapidly in the nineteenth century. Earliest nails here in Guilford were hand-forged, but nail-making machinery quickly reduced the time and cost involved in making nails by the 1820s. Instead of being forged over a fire, machinery cut iron using force, resulting in nails with a squared cross-section. After 1880, nails were manufactured from extruded wire, resulting in the rounded cross section familiar to us all today. Predictably, the Albright House features cut nails throughout its frame, with the exception of the roof of the front portico, which contained wire nails. This could indicate the portico is a post-1880 addition.
Before the days of forced air and/or radiator heat, residents of Guilford County relied on wood-burning fireplaces for warmth. Every room of consequence required a heat-source during our cool Carolina winters. However, the Albright House today has only one chimney! The question of the existence of chimneys perplexed the group until we gathered in the basement. There, embedded within the flooring system, was a shadow of an old fireplace hearth. The placement of the hearth indicated the house had side-wall chimneys that vented fireplaces in all four original rooms.
All things considered, the Albright House now appears to have been built between 1845 and 1860. Additional research is needed, especially in terms of the Albright family history and land records. However, the physical clues hidden within the walls of the house indicate that it is among the earliest buildings in the city and holds a special place in the history of Greensboro. Ironically, in terms of age and appearance, the Walker-Scarborough House (image, right) on McGee Street in College Hill stands out as a close representation of how the Albright House once looked. Standing two-stories in height, the clapboard residence with symmetrical façade, wide overhanging eaves supported by exposed rafter tails, and a modest front porch is likely similar to the original appearance of the Albright House.
Further investigation and restoration will bring the Albright House back to better days. Already it is appareent that the original historic windows, the oak floors, the 1920s era trim, double panel doors, and staircase are treasured details in the house. The generosity of the Starmount Company, and the dedication of the Junior League will result in the preservation of part of Greensboro’s antebellum past. The project goes to show that you never know what history will reveal.
March 2008: See update HERE
September 2008 See update HERE.
Post Script: Deed research and oral history have aligned well with material history. A deed from 1847 Jacob Albright transferred 247 acres of land to his son Daniel E. Albright, at which time he presumably built his home. Albright family historian Reverend Fred P. Albright, Jr indicated the house originally stood near the intersection of Pembroke Rd and West Friendly Avenue. The house remained in the Albright family until the Great Depression, at which time it was purchased by the Benjamin family who relocated the house closer to the intersection of Pembroke Rd and Kathleen Drive and added the two-story portico. Just a few years later, around 1935-37, the house was moved to its present location on Friendly Avenue.