GREENSBORO — Every time I pass the corner of Washington and Edgeworth streets, I see it.
It’s not the house on the corner. We’ve all seen that for five years — the two-story duplex in the shadow of the new jail, sitting on steel beams and white oak timbers like a pickup on concrete blocks.
I’ve become used to that.
No, what I see these days is the hand-painted sign perched on the porch’s roof. It reads: “Save The Zenke House. Google It.”
Chris and Ginia Zenke, brother and sister, would like to save it. They own the house. They used to work in the house. Yet, since the house was moved 600 feet in 2009 to make way for the new jail, Chris and Ginia have worked to find a solution for their duplex built in 1910, they say.
But they don’t have the money, and without a tenant and a firm business plan, they can’t get a loan to pay for improvements that could cost well north of $200,000.
Attorneys, organizations, even Greensboro College have been interested in moving in — or moving the building.
But those discussions tanked.
In the meantime, the city has waited. It gave the Zenkes more time to bring the duplex up to code because the city wanted the house saved.
But the city is done waiting. Its next move? Demolish the Zenke duplex.
That would be painful to see.
The house has good bones and nice big rooms, enough for seven offices. But it’s also the Zenke name, a name linked to the city’s history, beauty and architecture.
Start with the Zenke Three: Henry and Virginia Zenke, the parents of Ginia and Chris, and Otto Zenke, Henry’s brother.
From the 1950s until the early 1980s, they ran an interior design business that turned homes into showplaces in Greensboro and all along the East Coast.
Moreover, Henry and Virginia helped make historic preservation a local priority. They helped create Preservation Greensboro, the nonprofit organization that now spotlights and saves the city’s architectural history.
Nearly 50 years ago, Henry and Virginia — and dozens of others — helped raise $400,000 and saved the Guilford County’s equivalent of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. That happened in 1968. And that was Blandwood, the fancy farmhouse of Gov. John Motley Morehead.
I wrote about Blandwood on Sunday, and as I sat in Blandwood’s ornate front parlor last week, reading newspaper articles yellowed by age, I ran across the names of Virginia and Henry Zenke time and again.
Then, I’d look outside — down a sloping hill, past a canopy of stately oaks to a hand-painted sign, a sagging chain link fence and a jacked-up house across from the most historic structure in the county.
It’s the city’s most bizarre sight.
“When people complain, I feel like telling them, ‘Take a number. Get in line,’ ’’ says Chris, 49. “We’re the first complainers.”
Henry died in 2001. He was 83. Virginia is now 89. Their children are doing what they can to save the house where their family ran the business for a quarter-century until the duplex’s move.
Chris and Ginia are the family’s second generation of designers, and they’re the stewards of the family’s legacy. But city officials and elected leaders are frustrated because they say they don’t see any action from siblings they describe as uncompromising and stubborn.
That brings us to today — and a possible solution.
Catherine Drake, a local attorney, wants to put her law office there, and she sent a letter of her intention to Mayor Nancy Vaughan. Meanwhile, her husband has bigger plans.
He’s Lawrence Jenkens, the chairman of UNCG’s art department. He wants to put an art gallery in the Zenke House and involve the city’s colleges and universities. Guilford College and N.C. A&T are interested, and right now, Jenkens is putting together a business plan to make it work.
He has big ideas: Create a nonprofit group, involve the art departments from 10 of the Triad’s colleges and universities, and have a place where students can showcase their art and learn the business side of making and selling art.
The name of his nonprofit: Students Art League of the Triad, or SALT.
But can SALT save the Zenke house?
Elected leaders are worn out with Chris and Ginia. But the SALT plan is a town-gown collaboration that could sway political will. Me? I drive by that jacked-up house, see the hand-painted sign and think of what was.
Or maybe, what could be.