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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

The Greensboro mansion that housed 3 key history-makers over nine decades

In 1936, when Greensboro textile executive J. Spencer Love reviewed local architect William C. Holleyman Jr.’s drawings for a new house overlooking the Greensboro Country Club, he saw a Georgian Revival masterpiece. The new mansion completed a year later would reflect the majesty of Westover, the Virginia plantation residence of William Byrd II that is a famous example of Georgian architecture.

Greensboro had never seen such a house and probably never will again. It has been home to influential business leaders — Burlington Industries founder Love, Cone textile heir Benjamin Cone and magazine-industry pioneer Bonnie McElveen-Hunter — who wielded major influence on the Gate City’s development over three distinct eras.

The home’s history can’t be repeated. Its craftsmanship can’t be replicated.

When current owner McElveen-Hunter was asked in 1997 why she bought the Love house, she responded, “I cannot tell.” She reflected, then continued. “There’s no rational reason why you would buy a house like this. It’s totally emotional, irrational.”

Earlier this year, Benjamin Briggs, executive director of Preservation Greensboro, led me on a tour of the house. It started on the stately brick walkway lined with oak trees and boxwood plantings that leads to the front entrance.

Back in the day, guests would have probably been let off at Country Club Drive, so they would sense the expanse and balance of the house as they made their way up the walk.

Briggs explains the language of Georgian architecture, its symmetry and balance, and points out the wide, Palladian floor-to-ceiling windows of the first floor, the use of quoins at the corners of the house, the modillions — ornate brackets at the eaves supporting the roof.

The brick work, Briggs says, is “Flemish bond,” where the bricks alternate between end (header) and length (stretcher), short and long — like Morse code.

The entrance itself is classic Georgian with pilasters on either side of the door topped with Ionic capitals. “The frontispiece around the door is called a broken pediment,” he says. He points to shapes above the door that look almost like scrolls. “That’s called a swan neck. The pineapple at the center is a symbol of welcome.”

Briggs notes anomalies in the design of the metal railings of the walkways and grills protecting the windows. He credits Otto Zenke, an interior designer who came to Greensboro in 1937 to work as chief decorator for Morrison-Neese Furniture. He later opened his own design studio, with offices in London and Palm Beach, Florida.

Stepping through the front door, the grand foyer has a marble floor set with alternating black-and-white tiles. At the far end is a sweeping, curved staircase with Chippendale railings.

“Bonnie really opened this house up to people,” says Katie Redhead, a veteran Greensboro real estate agent who is selling the house for McElveen-Hunter. Redhead recalls Christmas celebrations and fundraising events for a panoply of nonprofit and charitable organizations. McElveen-Hunter, a Republican political donor and activist, provided lodging for many national political leaders including George W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Henry Kissinger, Sandra Day O’Connor and Colin Powell.

A closer look at the elegant stairway shows skillful handiwork of the curved Chippendale railing. There’s a stately, light-filled living room; a handsome, mahogany-paneled library; and a latticed breakfast room.

Three exterior buildings were renovated or added by various owners. A pool house — redolent with Palm Beach charm and an elegantly landscaped pool; the carriage house — a three-bay garage renovated into living quarters; and just beyond the tennis courts, a two-story cottage with the ambiance of a European hunting lodge — formerly the greasy garage where fourth owner Rusty Taylor kept his RV parked.

And there are more than 3 acres of gardens and grounds, private and woodsy, in the heart of Irving Park.

TEXTILE TITAN

Spencer Love built his house when many Americans were struggling to make ends meet amid the Great Depression. Unemployment and despair sparked by the stock market’s collapse in 1929 worsened in 1934, when drought forced many Midwestern farm families from their homesteads into nomadic Dust Bowl work camps.

In contrast, “Greensboro’s textile industry emerged essentially unscathed from the Depression,” writes architectural historian Marvin A. Brown, because of continued demand for apparel, bedding and other products. So why shouldn’t the wealthy president of Burlington Mills be planning a grand house?

Word about construction of Love’s house appeared in an April 1936 article in the Greensboro Daily News under the headline, “New Home for President of Burlington Mills Company to Be One of Finest in City.”

The reporter proclaimed that the “new residence will be of the colonial type, constructed of red brick. It will be a 10-room, two-story structure, modern in every respect.” The house featured the first central air-conditioning in North Carolina — a system of forced air flowing over coils that circulated water.

Love was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father was professor of mathematics at the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University. He studied at Harvard Business School before enlisting with the U.S. Army during World War I.

In 1919, Love returned to Boston, looking for work, and eventually moved to Gastonia, where his paternal grandfather was a textile industry pioneer.

With borrowed money, Love purchased the Gastonia Cotton Manufacturing Company. He sold the company’s building and land, and moved the manufacturing equipment to Alamance County, where he chartered Burlington Mills in 1923.

Built in the middle of a cornfield, the plant employed 200 people and manufactured all-cotton textiles, including flag cloth, bunting, scrims, curtain and dress fabrics, as well as cloth for diapers. Then Love decided to experiment with a new synthetic fiber called rayon and began to manufacture bedspreads.

By 1936, Love had moved his company’s headquarters from Burlington to downtown Greensboro. At the time, Burlington Mills comprised 22 manufacturing facilities located in nine different communities. Annual sales had reached $25 million, which is equivalent to about $550 million today. The company’s shares began trading on the New York Stock Exchange in 1937 and grew to become the largest U.S. textile company.

Briggs believes Love, a native New Englander who may have considered himself an outsider, was making a statement in the Irving Park neighborhood. “He’s building a grand house overlooking the golf course in the midst of the Depression,” says Briggs. “He was staking a claim.”

Love had chosen an architect who was somewhat of an outsider, too.

Left to right, J. Spencer Love, Benjamin Cone and Bonnie McElveen-Hunter

“Holleyman was not the obvious choice,” Briggs says. “Someone like Charles Hartmann was well-known to the community.” Architect Hartmann had been recruited from New York by financier Julian Price to design the Jefferson Standard Building, along with Price’s landmark home in the nearby Fisher Park neighborhood.

When Holleyman arrived in Greensboro in 1922, the Atlanta native was still in his 20s and relatively inexperienced after working in New York for two years. He won contracts to design homes in the Gate City and Pinehurst, along with larger structures for Women’s College (now UNC Greensboro) and North Carolina A&T State University. Love also chose him to design his new Burlington Mills headquarters in Greensboro.

Sadly, Holleyman died of a heart attack in 1939 at age 45.

CONE CONQUEST

Also short-lived was Spencer Love’s enjoyment of his magnificent new home.

He was forced to give up the house in his 1940 divorce settlement with his first wife, Sarah Elizabeth, who remained there for a short while before moving to Connecticut.

The buyer was Love’s friend, Benjamin Cone. He was the son of Ceasar Cone, co-founder of the Proximity Manufacturing Company, Revolution Mills and White Oak Mills that once employed more than 2,500 people. Benjamin Cone Jr., Cone’s son, said his father enjoyed teasing his pal, Love, about purchasing the house from his ex-wife, calling it “Love’s Labor Lost,” a cheeky allusion to William Shakespeare’s comedic play.

Born in New York, Benjamin Cone attended grade school and high school in Greensboro and graduated from UNC Chapel Hill. Following his service in the U.S. Navy in World War II, Cone resumed responsibilities in the family business and entered politics, serving on the City Council and as Greensboro’s mayor. Cone and his wife, Anne, lived in the Love house from 1941 until 1977.

Their big house was often aglow with activity. During World War II, the Cones sometimes entertained troops who were stationed at Greensboro’s Overseas Replacement Depot. There were frequent parties for business and community leaders, political figures, and neighbors.

According to a story by News & Record writer Meredith Barkley, Benjamin Cone Jr. remembers as many as seven servants “keeping the house going.”

English actor Sir Michael Redgrave visited the Cones many times. Redgrave met the couple during the war years in Virginia Beach, when Redgrave’s ship was being retrofitted at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

Tyrone Power, the star of swash-buckling films such as “The Mark of Zorro” and “The Black Swan,” was a World War II U.S. Marine Corps pilot and a frequent guest of the Cones.

When the Cones decided to sell the house in 1977, the buyer was Richard Love, one of Spencer’s sons and a successful builder in the region for nearly 50 years. “He added brick walks in front and put up a brick wall along Country Club Drive, giving the home a more formal look,” Barkley reported.

For his improvements, Love went back to the company his father had originally used — Old Virginia Brick Co. of Salem, Virginia. He ordered twice as many bricks as he thought he would need, culling out those he didn’t feel matched precisely, which were repurposed in other building projects.

In 1983 Love sold the property to John Russell “Rusty” Taylor Jr., who was president of the first senior class to graduate from Walter Hines Page High School in 1961. He later attended Harvard University and received his law degree at UNC Chapel Hill. He trained as a U.S. Marine Corps pilot during the Vietnam War and later joined his father’s real estate firm in Greensboro.

Taylor concentrated on updating the house’s electrical and mechanical systems, modernizing the telephone and security systems, repairing the leaky roof, and adding a workout facility and sauna in the basement. He died in 1995.

The current owner, Bonnie McElveen-Hunter and her husband, the late Bynum Merritt Hunter, moved into the Love house in 1997. Bynum Hunter grew up in Greensboro and became a senior partner at the Smith Moore Smith Schell & Hunter law firm. He served as attorney for the Atlantic Coast Conference for more than 25 years.

Bonnie McElveen-Hunter was married to Hunter for 38 years. A native of Columbia, South Carolina, she was a military kid who lived in six states and Germany. After graduation from Stephens College in Missouri, she moved to Charlotte to work for Bank of America and later as an advertising executive for Charlotte Magazine.

In 1972 McElveen-Hunter moved to Greensboro to work for Congressman Walter E. Johnston III. She then started Pace Magazine, the inflight publication of Piedmont Airlines. Adding magazines for United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, U.S. Airways, Southwestern Airlines and others, CEO McElveen-Hunter built her company into Pace Communications. Once focused on inflight magazines, it is now a multifaceted digital marketing company. In 2001, George W. Bush appointed McElveen-Hunter as ambassador to Finland. She later became the first female chair of the American Red Cross.

THERMAL ENERGY

Extensive renovations of the home occurred after her purchase. Upstairs walls were moved for comfortable new bedrooms, walk-in closets, dressing areas and elegantly appointed his-and-her bathrooms.

Downstairs, the kitchen was completely gutted and a fireplace, wet bar, handcrafted library shelves and custom cabinets, and hand-milled crown molding were installed in the Cone room. That carpentry work was done by Ren Putnam, a master woodworker and furniture maker in Reidsville.

“What people don’t realize is that the Love house was built to industrial standards,” Putnam says, noting the use of masonry and concrete throughout. “I think Spencer Love wanted to build a place that was nearly fireproof.”

Later, in 2008, McElveen-Hunter decided to install a geothermal heating and cooling system at the Love house. She asked Putnam to supervise the project, which was quite a challenge in an old house built like a fortress.

“The men dug 16 dry wells 400 feet deep,” he says. Geothermal tubing was installed in the dry wells and ran to the carriage house, pool house, cottage and main house.

“Then Bonnie decided she wanted a well for irrigation,” Putnam says. “So we asked this country boy to come in with his divining rods.” In a short while, the man marked a place toward the back of the property and told them to drill. “Sure enough, we hit water at about 300 feet.”

The geothermal project took months to complete. “I don’t know of anything like it around here,” Putnam adds.

And that’s the point of it.

Greensboro has never seen anything quite like the Love house, where owners have lavished additions and updates that boggle the mind.

Now that the home is for sale again, its future is uncertain. Originally listed for $7.5 million in 2021, the asking price was $5.95 million in early July. Could this magnificent historical home one day be torn down?

“Sadly,” says Briggs, “we’ve seen such things happen.”

I reached out to McElveen-Hunter and asked her why anyone would want to buy the house now?

“This place is more than a home,” she responds in a call from her home in Palm Beach, Florida. “It’s relationships. Experiences. Memories. It belongs to the community.”

“I’ll never leave this house,” McElveen-Hunter concludes. “I’m just passing it on. I hope someone else will love it just as much as I do.”

Greensboro’s unique Love’s labor. May it never be lost.

   

Ross Howell Jr. is a Greensboro writer. This story originally appeared in O. Henry, a sister publication. 

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