Generations of past owners gather a historic home

Published 8:14 pm Thursday, August 3, 2017

Every home has a history, but so rarely is a history on display as it was at the Moss House in Washington last week.

Generations of Moss House owners and family members gathered in the circa 1902 home as guests of the current owners, Jeff Furst and Linda Harrington. It was a chance encounter that brought them all together — a knock on a door and a father’s request to show his son the home where he grew up.

“It all started about three months ago when this guy came to our door and knocked on it, and it turned out to be Lee Phillips and his son, Carson,” Furst said.

The father and son were in town from Greensboro to visit family and, under the impression the home was still the bed and breakfast it had been for two decades, they decided to stop. Though the home became a private residence last year when former innkeepers Beckie and Scott Sipprell sold it to Furst and Harrington, Furst was more than happy to facilitate Lee Phillips walk down memory lane.

“He was very hospitable and invited us in,” Lee Phillips said.

“We just had a nice visit,” Furst said.

Beckie Sipprell, with husband Scott, were the last owners of the Moss House Bed & Breakfast in Washington. (Vail Stewart Rumley/Daily News)

When it came out that the extended Phillips family would all be in town for a reunion in late July, Furst invited the entire crew to come over to see the house. Later, Harrington suggested they invite all the past owners over. And they did. On July 28, past owners converged on the Van Norden Street home: Preston and Miriam Phillips, their four children, several grandchildren and cousins; the Sipprells, Johanna and Leonard Hubers, who initially turned the home into the Moss House Bed & Breakfast; Derris and Bettie Bonner Bradshaw, granddaughter of the home’s builder, Frank A. Moss, and mother of Mary Havens Cooper-Willis, who also owned Moss House Bed & Breakfast in the early 2000s.

History was shared freely as they wandered through the house, pointing out changes and what remained the same since each owner’s tenure there.

“The biggest thing I learned is how much impact different people who owned the house have had on it,” Furst said. “I had no idea how much heart and soul has been put into this house. It’s awesome. It kind of takes my breath away to think of how much people have put into this house.”

Preston Phillips was the one credited with saving the house. In the late 1970s, the Moss House was dilapidated, on the verge of being torn down by the city. He, his wife Miriam and their combined family of four children were living in a 1,200-square foot house and needed more space. They decided to take a risk, swooped the property up for next to nothing, and Preston Phillips, with the help of the family, spent the next year gutting the house.

“Dad worked at National Spinning, and he would go after work and work on the house until 11. We hardly saw him. Then we all worked on it on the weekends,” Lee Phillips said. “It was a family effort. We all worked together.”

“We had a good time putting this house back together, because we pulled it completely apart,” Preston Phillips laughed.

PAST AND PRESENT III: Beckie Sipprell and Derris Bradshaw share a moment in the main hall of the Moss House. The main hall is also pictured stripped down to the wood lath after Preston Phillips rescued the house from demolition and restored it in the late 1970s.

The restoration included removing all the plaster walls in the house and sanding hardwood floors that were bowed from disuse, pumping insulation into exterior walls and removing radiator heat supplied by a coal-fired boiler in the basement, among many other tasks.

“Bottom line — we worked our tails off, but spent the next few years in what was very probably the most enjoyable time of our lives. The proximity to town. The access to the river. The library and the neighbors — it was wonderful,” Preston Phillips wrote in an email to Furst.

The biggest find, however, came when then 9-year-old Lee Phillips made a discovery in the attic while exploring: an intact, ornate Victorian mantle.

“We were told that it came from a fantastically beautiful quintessential Victorian house facing the waterfront and would have been the third house down Van Norden from where you are,” Preston Phillips wrote. “I could not believe that it was torn down and turned into a vacant lot.”

PAST AND PRESET IV: Today, the Moss House boasts this beautiful Victorian mantelpiece said to have hailed from the Fowle House, said to have been an archetype of southern Victorian architecture. Lee Phillips, son of Preston Phillips, found it in the attic and the Phillips restored the mantle, then dismantled and replaced the existing brick mantle and surround with the historic find.

The house he referenced was the Fowle House, once described as an archetype of southern Victorian architecture. The Phillips would replace a brick mantle in the dining room with the mantle from the long-demolished house.

While there have been cosmetic changes to the Moss House through the years, ultimately it still felt like home to those visiting.

“It was wonderful. I didn’t realize there would be so much emotion attached to the house,” Furst said. “This house is part of who they are. It just feels like it’s more than just a house for the people who lived here.”

Furst said he was happy to have facilitated the gathering of past Moss House owners and sharing such a personal, positive experience with them all. Hearing the stories of past family adventures and the dedication each had to its care made an impact, he said.

“It makes me want to keep the house up — I’ll tell you that,” Furst laughed. “Makes me feel like somebody passed the ball to me, and I don’t want to drop it.”

PAST AND PRESENT II: The Moss House is picture in 1908, six years after it was built by Frank A. Moss, then owner of Moss Planing Mill, and pictured again in its last year as a bed and breakfast in 2016.