However it got there, the Esther W. Armfield House does look a bit out of place at 1715 Wright Avenue. This is a modest corner of Sunset Hills, down where the neighborhood starts turning into College Park. On a block of mostly bungalows, Mrs. Armfield’s stately Colonial Revival with its towering columns stands a bit apart, like a rich, elderly recluse who turns up unexpectedly at a neighborhood cookout.
Why it is where it is turns out to be a somewhat uncertain story involving First Presbyterian Church, maybe, and one of Greensboro’s more prominent architects of the early 20th century, who neither designed the house nor lived in it.
The Armfield House went on the market this week for $525,000. County records say it was built in 1929, and it’s a lovely place — big lot, beautifully maintained, impeccable, really. It has four bedrooms and three bathrooms in 3,532 square feet. The lot is 0.37 acre. The price comes out to $149 per square foot, not bad for such a fine house.
But the first question just about anyone might ask is what’s it doing there? According to Marvin Brown in Greensboro: An Architectural Record, the house may not have been built at 1715 Wright Avenue: “It is said to have originally overlooked Fisher Park from the present site of the First Presbyterian Church. By 1930 it had been moved to this site and was occupied by Armfield, widow of newspaperman G. Will Armfield.”
Two interesting things about that statement: “It is said …” is a pretty vague attribution. No city editor or dissertation advisor would let it pass. There doesn’t appear to be any documentation to support that explanation, but there is a bit of circumstantial evidence. The current First Presbyterian was built in 1928. Greensboro city directories list 1715 Wright as a residence for the first time in 1930. And county property records are sometimes wrong about the dates of old houses (more often than you would think).
The second interesting aspect of Brown’s statement is that George Williamson Armfield (1849-1927) was actually not a journalist but an architect (a curious fact for an architectural historian to miss). In fact, he was the first licensed architect in the state. Among his works were the alumni hall at Oak Ridge Military Academy and the Harden Thomas Martin House on North Mendenhall Street, now Double Oaks Bed & Breakfast. “When North Carolina passed an architectural practice act and began the formal registration of architects, G. Will Armfield of Greensboro was granted certificate #1 on May 15, 1915,” the N.C. State University website says. “He was one of a large number of men who were certified based on having already been in practice prior to 1915.”
Will apparently had nothing to do with the house at 1715 Wright Street, wherever it may or may not have existed during his lifetime. There’s no record indicating he designed it or ever owned it. He and Esther lived at 350 Ashe Street (the street no longer exists; it ran north-and-south between South Eugene and South Green streets downtown).
It is documented, though, that after Will’s death in 1927, Esther (1857-1942) bought the property at 1715 Wright Avenue from her son Hugh (1898-1992). She and her daughter Minnie Myrtle Armfield (1880-1973) lived there; Myrtle inherited it upon Esther’s death. Unmarried, she lived there until she died. (Esther and Will had eight children, six of whom survived to adulthood.) Will must have left them pretty well off, or maybe Esther had family money. City directories of the period don’t list an occupation for either of them.
(Historical digression: Esther’s parents, Henry and Ann Wakefield, were born in England and probably were Quakers. They moved to Canada, where their nine children were born, and then the entire family came to Guilford County. Esther’s parents and their three youngest children are buried in New Garden Friends Cemetery. Esther and Will are in Green Hill.)
An alternate, and shorter, explanation for the house is that Mrs. Armfield had it built in 1929 right where it stands, and she simply wanted a bigger and grander house than anyone else in the immediate neighborhood did.
I wonder if the current owner knows anything about this. I know him; he hired me 30 years ago to come to Greensboro and work for him. I don’t have a phone number or email address for him, though, and he’s a very private person who probably wouldn’t appreciate someone he hasn’t seen in 28 years knocking on his door unannounced, asking about what was going on with his house 90 years ago. So let’s just ask him here:
Hey, Robert. What’s the deal with your house?
I’ll let you know if I hear anything back.