It’s a Wonderful Chaos

Sam Howard and Mickey Richey’s traditional Christmas extravagance

By Cynthia Adams     Photographs by Amy Freeman

Neighbors know that by December, Sam Howard and Mickey Richey’s home in Greensboro’s Browntown neighborhood is no place for a Grinch. When it is decked in holiday finery, there’s more good cheer per square inch of their classic ranch-style home than a curmudgeon could take.

Each year, the doors are open to their many friends and neighbors as their spacious home becomes the annual setting for an outrageously over-the-top family extravaganza of Christmas trees, lights, garlands, trim, bows and a bounty of beauty and fun.

“There’s a little bit of Christmas in every room,” Richey says with classic understatement.

Apart from the holidays, the house has enviable good looks that the owners have, over the last seven years, tastefully polished, painted, spruced up and enhanced.

The couple had looked in the area for a home that resonated with them. This house, Richey explains, spoke to them from the start.

It had them at hello — at the foyer, in fact.

“The minute we walked in, Sam said it had good vibes,” Richey recalls. “We immediately liked it . . . and the more we saw, the more we liked it.”

For many years, the Howard-Richeys had entertained a circle of women they affectionately called, “the Girls.”  The women of a certain age, as the French express it, knew “Sister” Sherill, an original owner of the home. 

“Katherine [Sister] Sherrill lived here with her husband, John,” says Richey, opening the front door into a Hollywood Regency–style foyer featuring Asian accents.

Built in 1959, the house is otherwise mostly traditional. That has suited the couple just fine. In fact, the house seemed somewhat modern to them, given that for years they had lived in nearby Latham Park in a quaint, rambling, 1920s house facing the park. Come the holidays, there was always a large tree, heavy with decorative effects and family keepsakes, prominently placed so it was visible to park goers and passersby.

The tree in the living room was at Howard’s urging, one trimmed in red and gold and a bit more formal.

“Because Sam wanted one on the front of the house.”

The trees are usually up within the first week of December, but the entire decoration takes a bit of time. 

They started to deck the halls by late November, to the delight of their son, Cameron.   

In the years since the couple first met, Howard had rediscovered the pleasures of the holidays. Richey says he was always nuts about Christmas, and Howard became a convert. 

“Sam was never that big on Christmas until we got together. Now he’s even crazier about it than I am.” 

First, the front door and windows get decorated. Then exterior lights go up.

Last year, Richey says, “Sam made lighted Christmas trees out of topiary frames.”  Howard also put together the dining room and den mantels. Then they decorate the main tree together. 

Family, he explains, was the underlying reason for making such a fuss. Raising a son made them both go all-in when the holidays arrived.

“He was 6 months old when Sam and I started living together.”

Eventually, the time had come for the couple to sink down permanent roots after living in northwest Greensboro for years. They narrowed their search in order to remain near to their workplaces, school and friends.   

Browntown fit that bill as well.

Browntown assumed its name from Brown Realty during the postwar era. The architectural styles built there were notably more formal, given the residential development was adjacent to Irving Park.

“It may be a Guy Andrews-–built house,” muses Tricia Costello, owner of Carriage House Antiques & Home Decor. “He built a lot of the homes.” Costello was familiar with the Howard-Richey house, having grown up in Browntown.

The couple acquired the dwelling in 2007. Once they moved in, the Howard-Richeys set to work, making an indelible stamp on the house. Of course, that included going all out for their first Christmas.

Although Richey is a longtime interior designer who returned to school after earning his initial degree in order to study design, Howard took charge of the annual Christmas décor. Howard works in finance.

“He’s just a big kid,” laughs Richey.  “And he loves to decorate for all holidays.  I help, but he just really gets into it.”

Crossing through the foyer, he pauses.

“It used to have a black-and-white foyer floor,” says Richie, “with a compass-like astronomical design.” His voice is heavy with regret. “Unfortunately, that’s probably lying ruined beneath layers of mastic.” 

The design was by Otto Zenke.

Years before, the Sherrills had hired Zenke to lend their home special touches. The original owners were, like many affluent residents, in thrall of the designer whose main showroom still stands today near Greensboro’s City Hall. His name became synonymous with elaborate millwork and unmistakable architectural detail.

Zenke decorated the Sherrill residence in the 1960s when his popularity was at its zenith. “He faux painted the den siding and probably installed the [still remaining] trellis in the sun room,” says Richey.

 

Fast-forward to the Howard-Richeys, who later added their own special effects, intended to complement Zenke’s signature style. 

They meticulously hand-painted stripes in the hallway and applied decorative finishes themselves, including a faux Venetian plaster, which is featured in a bathroom.

Richie, now a freelance designer, had honed his craft over the years. He formerly worked as an in-house designer with Furnitureland South. In addition to other clients, he works with Carriage House at Golden Gate Center.

Today, the 60-year-old house reveals the imprints of both Richey’s flair and Zenke’s. 

Quickly he moves through the living room, formal dining room and newly redesigned kitchen, refreshed in white, clean finishes, through to the private areas where the family spend much of their time. 

But the den, for aficionados of Zenke, Greensboro’s most celebrated designer, is the gem. This is also the room the residents use most.

It is vintage Zenke.

“The den is still painted like Zenke painted it in 1961 or 1962, when he ‘pickled’ it,” explains Richey. Pickling was a popular whitewashing-style painted effect.

“The latticework in the sunroom, and the cornices still hanging in the living and dining room, were all done by him.”

Those finishes are classic Zenke, he says, and will remain untouched and intact.

Yet in December, posh finishes and furnishings are overshadowed by the exuberant Christmas decoration, which bring an entirely different sense of nostalgia and soulfulness. The home’s holiday décor is top-to-bottom festive. Tradition and a bit of nostalgia, as Richey points out, always prevails.

Stockings, ornaments and the works are brought out of storage and Howard sets to work.

“We’ve been collecting Christmas items since the two of us got together in 1982,” says Richey. 

“Sam does most of the decoration. It takes a good week to get it all down from the attic and out [on display].  Then, we decorate the tree.”

Red and gold rule. The family even used to string popcorn and cranberry garlands on the trees when Cameron was still a child. 

“Cameron would count,” Richey laughs, “while stringing one-two-three pieces of popcorn and one cranberry.”

The holidays showcase the owners’ many collections, some specifically displayed solely at Christmas, like antique toys that date back to great-grandparents.

Many of the couple’s favorite decorative items are long-loved and well-used family heirlooms. Cameron, who is now 37 with a family of his own, once played with those heirlooms. 

There are antique toy cars, mostly owned by Richey, and many rarities among them. 

“They are cars I actually played with,” Richey says. “When we closed out my grandmother’s house, they were in the toy box at her house. There’s a Cadillac, a Corvair, a Plymouth Valiant. And they look like new.”

The family treasure those toys.

“Other toys include a really old toy car that might have been my uncle’s. It says it’s a Falcon, and I would guess it’s from the late 1940s. It’s 2-feet long and we display it on the bookcase in the den.”

A gorgeous nativity scene is one acquired by Richey’s great-grandmother is “still in the box — from Woolworth’s!” 

Richey’s great-grandmother’s baby doll crib remains on display year-round in a guest bedroom. It is a true antique. “She was born in 1900,” he explains.

He says he inherited a great deal of the family heirlooms his grandmother “entrusted with me.  She knew I valued it.”

She was more valuable than any of her cherished objects, he adds. “She was everything to me.”

When he was a toddler, Richey’s parents would put him on the train from Columbia, South Carolina to the Triad for visits with his grandmother, who worked for Southern Railway. He laughs. “I was too young to remember it.”  Railroad employees watched out for their treasured young cargo.

Then there are the Richey-Howard’s nonholiday collections. 

The collecting-mad couple displays only a portion of the bar paraphernalia they own. They’ve amassed shot glasses from travels and gifts that they guesstimate number in the hundreds — easily 500. They simply cannot display it all.

“We don’t have it all out at this house,” says Richey. In other words, at least half is left in storage.

A framed collection of foreign tobacco brand labels hangs over the mantel. They bought them because they liked them and wanted to help someone who needed cash. “We bought those from a friend going through a divorce,” Richey explains. Only later did they learn the labels were valuable.

They also collect salt-and-pepper shakers, demitasse cups that were passed down in the family — and holiday items. They cannot resist adding at least one more Christmas ornament each year. 

“All of our ornaments are either homemade or we bought them at craft fairs,” Richey says. “We might buy one a year.” After 37 years, Richey admits, “That’s a lot.”

“It meant a lot to the two of us, having our own Christmas, and our own Christmas tradition,” says Richey.  “Cameron thinks it’s not Christmas unless we decorate the tree, have eggnog and play Christmas music.”

Traditions are deeply instilled in their son Cameron, who now has a baby girl, Addison. Their first grandchild is now 15 months — too young to fully grasp it all.   

“Next year will be amazing,” Howard says. “I can’t wait!”

“Some of Cameron’s toys, including Fozzie Bear from a Happy Meal, have been part of the Christmas tree for 30 years, along with his elementary school art ornaments,” says Richey.

The colorful Fozzie Bear, a Muppet Babies Happy Meal toy from McDonalds in 1986, is stationed upon the ladder that leans against the Christmas tree — this is as it has always been. Even Fozzie, after 24 years, is now a collectible.

The family is blending new traditions into old ones. On Christmas Eve, they still have dinner with Cameron, but now it is a much larger affair, including his wife, child and Cameron’s sister, Alyson, and her family.   

After dinner, “a few gifts” are opened. 

On Christmas Day, Richey and Howard travel to Lake Norman to spend time with Richey’s extended family, where 28 gather for lunch.

It’s wonderful chaos, Richey laughs. “My grandmother used to say, ‘I love all my grandchildren. Just not all at once.’”

He understands her point. On Christmas night, “we just enjoy the peace and quiet.”  OH

Cynthia Adams lives amid wonderful chaos year round.

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