The Fennell House may not have received this many visitors since its builder and namesake lived behind its walls.
The historic house on North Confederate Avenue was once the home of William Wallace Fennell, a prominent local doctor and operator of the Fennell Infirmary that stood next door. Since Fennell constructed the three-story house in 1910 as a family residence, it has served as everything from a boarding house to a nunnery.
For the last 18 years, Russell Frase has been trying to restore the old house to its former glory – or at least close enough to keep the aging structure from being demolished. On Sunday, he opened the doors to the public to show what progress has been made and drum up more interest in saving the aged building.
“It’s always been a house of many people,” he said. “Even when it was Fennell’s home, visiting doctors and nurses would stay on the lower level... and it’s been through four or five phases since then.”
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Frase had the living room furnished by interior designer Kimberly Neill as an example of how the house might look again. Included among the items were some from the original house, such as a photo of Dr. Fennell and family that was discovered behind the mantle of the room’s coal-burning fireplace.
“Nobody had that picture before he found it,” said Fennell’s grandson, Wallace Fennell, who stopped by the house on Sunday to admire the snapshot that includes his father, who went on to perform surgery in the Fennell Infirmary, as a baby.
Fennell remembers the home’s glory days, when his grandfather kept the site of today’s Confederate Park as a private deer park, until “there was a chemical spill in the hospital. It got into the water, and the deer drank it and died.”
Other rooms in the house, piled high with construction materials, could still use some work. A few still have graffiti on the wall from when the house sat abandoned. Those passing through Sunday on the tour were asked to sign a liability waiver before crossing the threshold.
The dining room has a hole in one wall, across from a photo of how it looked when the Sisters of St. Francis kept it as their chapel, complete with an elaborate altar. About a dozen nuns lived in the home when their order took over management of the hospital after Dr. Fennell’s death in 1926. Wallace Fennell remembers visiting the home then, during a time when his grandmother continued to live there even after the sisters turned the house into their convent.
“For a little Protestant boy, it was almost like voodoo,” he said.
The chapel photo was snapped by Joyce McGarity, a neighbor who helped the nuns care for sick children as a teenager in the ’50s. Before Sunday’s open house, McGarity said she’d never got past the front hallway and the chapel where the nuns let she and her sister attend services.
“They had a priest who would come in to give them communion,” she said, “but not us. We would just sit in the back.”
The sick children were kept in a convalescent hall downstairs, where McGarity remembers playing with two boys around the age of 4, Kenny and Emil, who appeared to have been stricken with polio.
“We would take them up and down the street here in strollers made out of metal,” she said.
It would be a crying shame if he did this much and they let some rules and regulations get in the way.
After the nuns moved out and the old hospital was eventually torn down, the home became Hill’s Boarding House between 1960 and 1980. Vanessa Hill Farnell lived in the first-story bedroom while her grandmother rented the rest of the house to as many as 30 boarders.
She remembers the refurbished sitting area as the common TV room, while the former chapel was converted back to a dining room where even non-residents would pay to enjoy her grandmother’s home-cooked meals. When work crews rented out the house during construction of the Catawba Nuclear Station, Farnell’s grandmother would pack the men’s lunches as they went out the door every day.
“I cried like a baby the first time I saw it,” said Farnell, who traveled from her home in Matthews a few months earlier to check the progress of the house. “If I could (restore it) myself, I would. I’d love to see it back to what it originally was.”
In the early 1980s, it was known locally as Confederate Hall and housed up to 25 college-aged residents. But the home soon fell on hard times. By the time Frase came on the scene in 1997, there were liens against the property, and the house was targeted by vagrants and vandals. Frase and his wife have spent an estimated $200,000 buying and restoring the historic home, which could still face demolition by the city after years sitting empty and incomplete.
“It would be a crying shame if he did this much and they let some rules and regulations get in the way,” Wallace Fennell said. “(Frase) hasn’t asked the taxpayers for anything to do this. He just wants to save one old home, and it seems like they’re trying to stop him.”
“It’s still in good shape, if you just put some paint on the walls,” McGarity agreed. “I can’t believe they’d tear this down. It could be a great attraction.”
Frase hoped the turnout of curious neighbors and history buffs to the open house could bring more attention to the home.
“It’s great to talk to the people who actually lived here. This house was a part of their lives,” Frase said. “It’s great that so many people came out.”
Frase hopes to get the financing necessary to turn the Fennell House back into a private home or possibly space for business offices, “or if there could be a way Nancy and I could finance it and move into it ourselves.”
“Now that a lot of people have shown an interest in it, I’m looking for good things to come out of today.”
For more information, visit the William Wallace Fennell House profile on Facebook.