Dr. Thomas H. Sears Jr. and his wife, Sara, are well known in piedmont North Carolina as a couple who are serious about historic preservation and collecting. Over the past forty-five years, their commitment to one another and their shared goals have enabled them to assemble one of North Carolina's finest collections of southern antiques, preserve one of the area's most significant paint-decorated interiors, and construct a warm, inviting home that showcases both.
Photographs by Wes Stewart
Sara says they "stumbled" into collecting southern antiques and never looked back. Remembering their early auction experiences, Thomas puts it another way: "Sara raised her hand and has never put it down." Those who know Thomas and Sara suspect their life together was destined from the beginning. They were delivered by the same physician and grew up in the same Appalachian mountain community in North Carolina. Their first glimpse of one another was in the first grade. Sara remembers Thomas as the class clown who sashayed around the room sporting his absent teacher's faux fur coat and handbag to entertain the class, and Thomas remembers Sara as the quiet little girl who giggled at his antics. If love at first sight is possible at age six, Thomas and Sara experienced it.
Although Thomas moved away in the fourth grade, the two reconnected as college freshmen. She graduated from Greensboro College and he graduated from the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry. They married in 1966 while Thomas was serving as a captain in the United States Army Dental Corps. As newlyweds, a passion for historic preservation and collecting was not part of their plan. Once his tour of duty was completed, Thomas enrolled in the orthodontics department of the UNC School of Dentistry and the couple set up housekeeping in student housing. They furnished their apartment with a few basic pieces from Sara's parents; perhaps as a sign of latent interests, they also brought an antique spinning wheel and an old dental cabinet to use as a dining room sideboard. When a visiting friend saw the spinning wheel, he declared, "I see ya'll like antiques." They had no idea they liked antiques, but when their friend invited them to an auction in western North Carolina, they went, and Sara raised her hand for the first time. The couple drove back to Chapel Hill with a fifteen-dollar blue-painted grain measure.
After graduation Thomas joined an orthodontic practice in Greensboro, North Carolina, where the couple bought a small Cape Cod style house. Because they had so enjoyed their first auction, they soon began frequenting other country auctions searching for items to use in their new home. In 1970 they acquired their first piece of antique furniture at an Ashe County, North Carolina, auction-a cherry food safe with rusted-out tins made by a local woodworker. Once restored, it claimed a spot in their dining room, and their collecting path was set.
As their interest grew, Thomas and Sara met knowledgeable collectors such as fellow dentist Laurence Alspaugh and his wife, Helen. The Alspaughs became close friends, and under their tutelage, the Searses began to familiarize themselves with both architectural and decorative arts styles. Visits to New England, Pennsylvania, Winterthur, Colonial Williamsburg, and especially the restored Moravian town of Old Salem and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, helped them identify their style preferences.
After living in their first house for seven years, they decided to build a new one. A memorable day spent with legendary Virginia collectors Mac and Dolly McKenney looking at Federal brick houses in the Shenandoah Valley convinced them that they wanted a southern plan; they just were not sure which one. Ironically, a subsequent trip to New England provided the answer. While visiting Ignatius Weiss's Woodbury, Connecticut, shop, Thomas and Sara spotted an issue from the Monograph Series on colonial American architecture. This particular issue focused on buildings from Old Salem.1 Inside were measured drawings by George F. Lindsay of the simple but dignified 1819 Federal brick house built by John Vogler. They loved its symmetrical facade, the ornamental cornice with saw-tooth brickwork, and the pitched pediment with a clock painted in the tympanum-a trade sign for Vogler, who was Salem's silversmith and clock repairman. After returning to North Carolina, they revisited Salem and studied Vogler's design.2 They had found the house they wanted to build.
Later that year, their good friend Bill Moore, director of the Greensboro Historical Museum, drove them to an abandoned Guilford County, house with wonderfully intact "fancy" interiors.3 When Thomas and Sara walked inside, as Thomas puts it, the marbleized woodwork "blew our socks off." Built about 1815, the house had once been the dwelling of wealthy planter and civil servant Francis Lucas Simpson and his family. Having been untended for over thirty years, it had lost one chimney and was overgrown with poison ivy, infested with bees, and filled with large bags of grain and sheets of old tin. Except for the glorious interior woodwork, it was beyond saving. The Searses acquired four rooms of its painted woodwork, with the agreement that one would be installed in the Greensboro Historical Museum.4 The other three rooms would become part of their newly planned Federal style house.
During three bitterly cold weekends in January 1977, Thomas dismantled the wainscoting, trim, mantels, and doors by himself, while his father and Sara carried them out to a truck. The pieces were stored in the couple's basement. In his limited spare time, Thomas used dental instruments and cotton swabs to clean 162 years worth of dirt off the woodwork. Slowly, the vibrant colors began to emerge.
That same year the Searses began building their version of the John Vogler House. Fifteen months later, after close collaboration with a variety of expert regional craftsmen, especially master builder D. C. Patton and blacksmith Ken Barnes, and many hours of their own sweat equity, they moved in, even though the house was not yet complete. Over the next five years, they added cabinets, lighting fixtures, a garage, and storage buildings, waiting in each instance until they could add exactly what they thought would complement the two houses they had merged into their home.
They then turned their attention to collecting objects that were used in early nineteenth-century piedmont North Carolina houses. Because of the history of their home, they were especially drawn to objects made by Moravians in Salem and craftsmen in Guilford County, but they were also interested in objects made by other nearby artisans. Since Sara was helping in Thomas's new office and the two were working twelve-hour days building up his practice, they had little time to search for the right pieces themselves. They became acquainted with local dealers who brought them items to consider, particularly Robert Pearl, one of the region's most knowledgeable dealers. Through Pearl, who became their friend, they were able to obtain many Moravian items, such as a portrait of Vogler from the de Schweinitz family, a sofa from the Meinung family, and a child's windsor chair signed by the cabinetmakers Jacob and John Siewers.
Busy as they were, Thomas and Sara made time to attend significant local auctions. Probably the most exciting was in Davidson County, at the 1845 homestead of John Spurgeon (or Spurgin; 1797-1881), whose family had migrated from Maryland and settled on the headwaters of Abbotts Creek in the early 1750s. Working nearby were Mordecai Collins, one of the most talented cabinetmakers in the region, and his apprentice John Swisegood.5 Three important Spurgeon family pieces were being sold that day: a signed Collins chest, a Swisegood corner cupboard, and a desk made by a local but unknown cabinetmaker.
When Thomas and Sara saw the Swisegood corner cupboard in situ, they knew it was the perfect anchor piece for their dining room. The temperature was 103 degrees on the day of the auction, but the bidding for the corner cupboard was even hotter. By the time the gavel fell, a record had been set for the price paid for a North Carolina corner cupboard, but the couple had the piece they wanted.6 The Spurgeon family desk and chest went home with other bidders that hot August day, but serendipitous events eventually brought both back to the Searses. Over the years, Thomas and Sara have been able to acquire additional pieces from the Collins-Swisegood school, and they now have the single largest collection of furniture from this group.
Although their collection is primarily a regional one, Thomas is quick to admit his passion for finely made late baroque Chesapeake chairs. The couple's most important examples are six from a set of at least seventeen (one is numbered XVII), probably made for the Sands family of Annapolis around 1755. Because of the rarity of these chairs, Thomas is making exact reproductions of them for everyday use. Since his retirement in 2002, he has become an accomplished woodworker and currently serves on the Executive Council of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers. He is especially skillful at creating modern finishes that mimic the patina found on period pieces. Anyone who has seen his work knows that his modest claim, "I guess I'm pretty good with my hands," is an understatement!
During the last ten years the couple has generously dedicated much time to the piedmont North Carolina museum community. In addition to attending almost every program sponsored by MESDA, they were both on its advisory board for six years, and Thomas was its chairman for two years. Presently he is a member of the Old Salem Board of Trustees, serving on the Collections and Building and Grounds Committees.
People are often surprised to learn that the Searses' preservation interests are not limited to nineteenth-century structures. In 2003 they undertook the restoration of a post-modern house designed by Edward Lowenstein, one of the area's most talented twentieth-century architects. They did much of the work themselves. Their efforts resulted in their receiving the Greensboro 2005 Historic Preservation Award for Outstanding Renovation and Rehabilitation.
Thomas and Sara Sears have been a team most of their lives. Together they have supported numerous museum and preservation efforts, but most importantly, they have created a home that reflects their passionate interest in historic architecture, their love of southern antiques, and their deep devotion to one another.
1 Hall Crews, Old Salem, Now a Part of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Monograph Series: Recording the Architecture of the American Colonies and the Early Republic, vol. 15, no. 2 (Russell F. Whitehead, New York, 1929), pp. 40-45. 2 The John Vogler House is part of Old Salem Museums and Gardens in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Visit oldsalem.org for more information. 3 For an explanation of the fancy aesthetic see Sumpter Priddy, American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840 (Chipstone Foundation, Milwaukee, 2004), pp. 100-103. 4 An upstairs bedchamber from the Francis Lucas Simpson house is now installed as a permanent exhibit in the Greensboro Historical Museum. It is titled the Mendenhall-Simpson Room. In addition to the woodwork, the exhibit showcases decorative arts with a Guilford County, North Carolina, history. 5 Frank L. Horton and Carolyn J. Weekley, The Swisegood School of Cabinetmaking: An Exhibition (Hall Printing, High Point, N.C., 1973). 6 Joe Byerly, "Opinion," Carolina Antique News, October 1983, pp. 2, 8. Recently an almost identical Swisegood cupboard set a new record for the price paid for a southern corner cupboard. See "New Record Likely for Southern Corner Cupboard at Brunk Auctions," Maine Antique Digest, April 2010, p.11A.