A Tasteful Spirit—Greensboro, North Carolina

Guilford County Sheriff’s Office
400 West Washington Street
Greensboro, North Carolina

 In a recent article about the strange goings-on at the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, the niece of Otto Zenke reported that his spirit may not approve of the vertical blinds used throughout the building. “He would never have approved of all those vertical blinds,” Ginia Zenke responded. “Not when his workrooms churned out beautiful draperies and furnishings for decades.” The sheriff’s office occupies a building that once served as noted interior designer Otto Zenke’s showroom and residence in his final years.

Brooklyn-born Otto Zenke arrived in Greensboro in 1937 to work for a furniture store. After going into business for himself with his brother in 1946, Zenke made a name for himself as one of the leading interior designers of the day as he worked on projects for wealthy clients in the area. He collected fine antiques and acquired the delicate, Italianate-styled Eugene Morehead House at 215 South Eugene Street which he turned into a local showplace. In the European style, the home’s library featured murals and paneling. The exquisitely executed gardens surrounding the house became a noted feature on the tours of local garden clubs. Sadly, city officials didn’t see this home as a treasure in their city.

In the 1960s as Greensboro began to execute a plan for “urban development” Zenke’s magnificent home and gardens sat smack dab in the middle of a proposed government center. The property was seized under eminent domain in 1968 and replaced with a Brutalist monstrosity by Argentine modernist Eduardo Catalano. The delicate cottage was razed over two days and the unadorned cast concrete walls of the government center rose over the next few years in its place. While the city did well in hiring a noted architect for the design, the bold architectural lines have always stood very harshly against the more classically based traditional architecture of the city; so much so that Preservation Greensboro remarked in its blog that the style, “has never been at ease” in the city.

Zenke, never one to back down from a challenge, moved across the street into the series of buildings that housed his showrooms and workshops. There, he created a fine residence that rivaled any in the city, though his heart still longed for the delicate cottage that he had lost. Otto Zenke died of cancer in 1984. Not long after his death, when the city bought Zenke’s last residence and converted it to the sheriff’s office, locals noted the irony of the situation.


The building behind the trees with the chimney is the sheriff’s office, formerly Otto Zenke’s residence.

Otto Zenke has a good reason to stalk the halls of the sheriff’s office and he seems to be particularly active. Law enforcement officials and staff have reported having items on their desks and in their offices rearranged, perhaps to suit Mr. Zenke’s taste. Some employees have had their names called by a male voice while working in the building after hours. Others have heard distinct footsteps rambling through empty rooms and hallways. While the spirit may not be malevolent, it does seem he may be a bit judgmental. If you work in the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, you may want to keep your office tidy.

Sources

  • Associated Press. “Could ‘weird things’ at Guilford County Sheriff’s Office be a ghost?” Burlington Times-News. 13 September 2015.
  • Bishir, Catherine W. and Michael T. Southern. A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina. Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
  • Zenke, Ginia. “Lost to progress: The Otto Zenke Buildings.” Let me get this straight… 25 March 2012.

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2 Replies to “A Tasteful Spirit—Greensboro, North Carolina”

  1. Dear Mr. Powell,
    Thank you for posting this. Most of it is on point, but I hope you will accept my assistance in a couple of corrections. Otto moved here to work for Morrison-Neese Furniture Store in 1937, but did not open his own business until 1950, with his brother, Henry Zenke (our dad) and Margaret Thompson, who oversaw his workrooms. His studio was not Italianate; that would be Blandwood Mansion, belonging to Gov. Morehead and designed by A.J. Davis. Otto’s place was what was known as “raised cottage”; a one story, central hall, with front and southern porches. It was lovely – rolling lawns, mature boxwood, shady trees – an oasis much loved and missed.

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