Where’s the Spiral Staircase?

October 31 – Recently we had a special visitor to the John D. Finch house – Mary Finch Fisher Tippett, a granddaughter of the original owner and frequent visitor to the home during the 30s and 40s while she was growing up. Mary Tippett lived three houses down the street on Horton and visited her grandparents several times every week.

Mary Tippett stands with MaryBeth before the house her grandfather built in 1911
Mary Tippett stands with MaryBeth before the house her grandfather built in 1911

She had not been inside the house in nearly 30 years and was delighted to hear we were repairing and preserving the home. With her husband Rex Tippett by her side, Mary moved through the first floor with memories of warm visits flooding back, and gave us clues to how the house looked 70 years ago. A breakfast nook used to be a full pantry with shelves from floor to ceiling. The back part of the house, now serving as a mudroom, used to be a covered porch with a well. What is now a laundry room used to be a back porch. Her grandfather used to sit in a chair in the dining room by a coal fed oven feeding into a fireplace, both of which have vanished (the oven and the fireplace). The family surprised John and his wife Sallie B. Strickland Finch with a 15-panel door connecting the front parlor with the dining room, cutting through a wall for the pass through. This surprise was revealed during their 50th wedding anniversary party in the house.

Upstairs rooms gave surprises to Mary also.
Mary was not a fan of the ’80s era décor in the house, calling the seashore mural and sand colored wall cloth in the entryway and upstairs hallway “a study in ugly.” An upstairs bathroom, large walk-in closet and two bedrooms were in the same place as she remembered but “where’s the spiral staircase?” she exclaimed, referring to a now missing spiral staircase to the attic. It vanished with a former owner’s renovation in the mid 1980s, along with three fireplaces and a chimney. A stairwell now occupies the chimney space and the attic has flooring and over 700 feet of living space. Mary climbed the steep and narrow steps to snap photos with her IPad to show her family, exclaiming, “I wonder what Papa would have thought of this?” A “bonus room” complete with wet bar also is adjacent to the second upstairs bedroom, in space which was simply empty air above the kitchen ceiling in the ‘40s. The “study in ugly” was confirmed with a bizarre paint application running halfway up the wall in the spiral staircase room, with red, blue and green paint in broad streaks stopping halfway up the walls.

Gone also are the orchards and gardens which surrounded the house from Horton back to Vance Street. Apple, plum, and pear trees made up an orchard, and the garden in back yard and adjoining lots teamed with vegetables and flowers. The additional land was sold and small homes were erected there in the 1950s. John D. was an early owner of many lots along Horton, Whitley and Vance streets, and as the Town of Zebulon grew, the family sold the plots. Mary was surprised to see a swimming pool in the back yard, and that a garage added by a subsequent owner was no longer standing.
Mary grew up on Horton Street, and was the daughter of Waylon Finch, the oldest son of John and Sallie. She remembers enjoying a swing on the front porch, Sunday dinners in the dining room, and music from a piano in the front parlor.
“You are just the sort of people that my grandparents would have hoped would buy and save this old house,” she complimented us. And as we face the years of work ahead in repairing this home, she makes us feel that we have done something right and noble. We reciprocate those feelings and couldn’t be more pleased to learn the house history from such a graceful lady and a wonderful couple.

Scott, Rex, Mary and MaryBeth
Scott, Rex, Mary and MaryBeth