A Cressman Christmas Carol
A historic Irving Park house glitters with Christmas present and the stories of those past
By Cynthia Adams
Photographs by Amy Freeman
“The house spoke to me,” the expression goes. If it speaks, what does it say? Does it whisper of families past, who have infused the very walls with memory and meaning?
Lisa Cressman, who is passionate about the story of her family’s home, knows as well as anyone that houses have a dynamic all their own. Case in point: Add a rich backstory to a beautiful house, surround it with neighborly people and you’ve got a powerful elixir. Next, add a dash of serendipity. For good measure, add a dusting of Christmas sparkle — courtesy of Lisa’s favorite time of the year. All combined, you’ve got true magic within — and without — those walls.
But for years, Lisa didn’t know the Colonial Revival house she adored was truly meant for her all along. As soon as it became hers, a cast of characters worthy of Dickens’ Christmas Carol walked straight out of its past.
Lisa’s story begins in the stifling heat of July 2019 — with Christmas six months away. Her heart suddenly raced with the realization that this particular house was meant for her family. It was a wedding cake of a house: perfectly, pleasingly symmetrical, filled with character, and beautifully maintained.
The Cressman family moved to the Triad 21 years ago, relocating from Canada. Nathan, president of Magnussen Home Furnishings, worked in the company’s Greensboro offices. The family business was established by Lisa’s grandfather, Ingwer Magnussen, a carpenter who immigrated to Canada from Germany in the late 1920s. Lisa had long admired a particular Irving Park charmer when cutting through the neighborhood. She considered it “the most beautiful house in Greensboro.”
But the Cressmans, including Lisa and husband Nathan, plus college-aged children, Ty, 22, and Georgia, 21, were already settled, having just “built and moved into our ‘forever home,’” she says.
The Cressmans’ Summerfield house was set on five acres, with high ceilings built to accommodate their son’s height — 6-foot-7. And, yes, he plays basketball — for Auburn, which his younger sister also attends.
But everything changed one summer’s day.
“Nate was looking on Zillow,” Lisa recalls, on a Saturday in late June, “when he noticed a nice house for sale in Irving Park.” Lisa stepped over to the computer to look at the listing, feigning interest. “I had no desire to move,” she admits. And then she changed her mind.
“I said, ‘Oh, that’s, like, my favorite house in Greensboro!’” Even so, she didn’t want to move, but was curious. “I acted like I was interested,” she confesses, wondering if the interior equaled its exterior. Realtor Marti Tyler scheduled a showing of the recently vacated house. Lisa and Nate arrived for the appointment with their daughter, Georgia. “But I stepped into that house and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I love this house!’ You could feel the soul,” says Lisa, describing her surprising, visceral reaction.
Lisa whispered to her daughter, “I could live here.” Georgia replied, “I could, too.” She describes the moment in the way one describes a great love match: with a shock of realization and recognition.
An excited Nathan asked Lisa, “Are you for real?” Lisa was already aware he was ready to leave the country and move into town. When she nodded yes, Nathan wasted no time.
“OK,” he replied. “Let’s put in an offer.”
Turned out the Cressmans’ Summerfield home wasn’t forever after all. But this was! And what a contrast between the two houses. The historic Mebane house, listed on the National Register, was over a century old. According to Benjamin Briggs, executive director of Preservation Greensboro, it was among the earliest constructed in Irving Park, quite possibly the second built.
“I can say with confidence that the Robert Jesse Mebane House was built 1912–1913 and designed by A. Raymond Ellis,” says Briggs. (The first, at 301 Wentworth Street, is profiled in “Southern Revival,” in the October 2016 O. Henry. See ohenrymag.com/southern-revival/.)
The stars had aligned — something that was to happen again once the Cressmans entered the house’s magnetic force field. Lisa sensed that the seller’s Realtor, Marti Tyler, loved the integrity of the house and was pleased to learn the couple wasn’t interested in a teardown. The three-story house had already been expanded by prior owners, was recently updated and was spacious by any standard
Lisa recalls assuring Tyler that she didn’t want to tear the house apart. “We wanted to preserve the house. I’ve always loved that Gilded Age, turn-of-the-century era,” she stresses.
By August 19, a home she had admired but never guessed she would possess became her own. And that “forever home”? It was on the market.
Not all the Cressmans were thrilled. Although “Nate and Georgia were with me on the decision,” Lisa says, “Ty was so annoyed that we moved. He wasn’t very happy when he came to visit. He did hit his head in several places . . . The house wasn’t built for people so tall.” He quickly adjusted.
Lisa discovered a neighbor, Chip Hagan, grew up in the house and now lived only blocks away. The Hagan family had lived in the Mebane house for the longest tenure in its provenance. In the 1960s, the Hagans had acquired the house from Robert Edward Holt’s widow, Frances Garner Holt, after his death.
As neighborhood block parties became a way to connect with others during the pandemic, the Hagans and Cressmans soon met and became friends.
Then Lisa met Frances Taylor during Christmas holidays in 2021. Taylor’s mother, Martha (Marty) Holt Ruffin, had grown up in the Mebane house. Ruffin’s mother was Frances Garner Holt, the same widow who sold the house to the Hagans. That connection led to a chain of discoveries, including a trove of vintage photos of the Holts at home over years.
“Through the preserving of the house, we got reconnected with the house,” marvels Lisa. “There are stories, histories — connection with the people who lived here. That has been the joy of living here, honestly!”
Slowly, the Cressmans unearthed more about the home’s unusual beauty and condition. It had always been lovingly maintained, as photos and history revealed. With the trusted assistance of Canadian transplant and longtime friend, Magnussen designer Sil (Silvana) Lewis, the historic Mebane house received the Cressmans’ personal imprint.
“It’s a house loved by generations of people,” says Lewis, who is also involved with decorating the home for the holidays.
The Cressmans moved in during September three years ago. Before long, Lewis was planning the first Christmas decorations in the family’s new house.
By Christmastime each year since, the house is completely decked out in strands of twinkling lights. Windows and entryways are wreathed in greenery.
The exterior trees, shrubs, windows and doors are infused with more glimmering lights, and bedecked with ribbon and holiday sparkle. And it is magical to behold.
The setting itself was planned to best effect — over a century ago. And the park-like neighborhood, populated with elegant homes set on generous lots, was designed for a pleasing impact.
Irving Park was intended as the “urban ideal,” set a mere mile from city limits, soon after the development of nearby Fisher Park. According to Briggs, it was created in 1911 by the Irving Park Company. Alexander W. McAlister, Alfred M. Scales and R. G. Vaughn were central to the neighborhood’s planning.
At that time, Briggs writes, the once rural development was created as a “planned, heavily restricted and landscaped community that set a standard for suburban development in Greensboro for the next century and establishing it as Greensboro’s most exclusive neighborhood.”
And executives responded to the luxury of spacious lots and homes. The original owner of the Cressmans’ home, Robert “Jesse” Mebane, was a busy executive who juggled multiple roles.
“At the time of construction, Mebane was assistant manager, Southern Life and Trust Company, though later acquired new titles and interests [developer of Durham’s Hope Valley and owner of Mebane Motor Company.] “In the 1920 Census he lists himself in the automotive industry as a distributor, and he lived next door to Aubrey Brooks . . . which was true,” says Briggs. “Around 1924 he sold the company to his brother-in-law, Rossell. The company was renamed Mebane, Rossell, Cress, Inc.” The house remained Mebane’s for 10 years, before buying another and moving just around the corner.
Yet the Mebane Colonial Revival was graced with a balanced design and pleasing symmetry. A steep, slate-covered gambrel roof, front and rear shed dormers, tapered brick chimneys, and a central, classical entrance porch combined for charming effect. The west side featured a sun porch and symmetrical boxwoods lined the front walk.
A century later, the home is in fine fettle, thanks to the ministrations of the families who once lived there.
The Cressman family would come to know some personally. Three years later, Lisa smiles thinking of eureka moments. But first — back to August 19, 2019, when the Cressmans’ offer was accepted and the home became theirs.
The house had six baths and five bedrooms, unusual for the period. The third floor was once servant quarters, according to Marty Ruffin, who moved there in 1947 as an 8-year-old with her brother, Ed, and her parents.
“Then the Hagans bought it,” confirms Marty. “My father had died, and so my mother built on Lafayette.” Thereafter, she says it became best known in the present era as the “Hagan house.” After Lisa met Martys daughter, she urged Frances to bring her mother for a holiday visit. The house, which featured countless confection-colored tabletop trees and too-many-to-count full-sized trees, twinkled like a star ready for its close up.
Lisa welcomed Marty and Frances for tea last December, igniting an immediate friendship. Marty, now 83, was overwhelmed with nostalgia. She had not returned to her childhood home since her marriage in the early 1960s. “I never had gone back,” says Marty.
“It was such a delight to go — sixty years later,” she muses. “I cannot even believe it!”
Marty laughs, “And, I did not realize my room was so small!” As they explored the house together, Lisa plied Marty with questions, curious about the diminutive closet doors and other idiosyncrasies. Like all old house lovers, she mentioned often visualizing the house and those who had lived there in years past. Marty brought photos to share with Lisa, and they happily pored over them, spread across the kitchen counter.
In an extraordinary way, both women expressed love for the house. And it was especially beautiful when all dolled up in holiday finery. “We believe Christmas is much more than Christmas lights,” says Lisa, who chose to be a Christmas bride in 1996, when she married Nathan. Of course, she had long known Nathan, as their parents were best friends.
“My mom so loved decorating for Christmas, so I inherited it from her,” she says. “It’s a time to bring the people you love together. I love Christmas for that reason . . . I think that is when we do make a house a home!”
She was only 19 when she married Nathan during Christmas 26 years ago. She wore a fur-lined cape that kept her warm in the midst of Canadian cold. Of course, she would marry at Christmas, she smiles. “It’s my favorite time of the year.”
As has long been the case, the spirit of Christmas manifests early in the Cressman household. Lisa decorates before Thanksgiving. (Canadian Thanksgiving falls earlier.) “The lights on the tree at night — I decorate early so I can enjoy it! I have people over for tea, and we’ve had neighborhood parties. And connect again, with neighbors who share stories about the house . . .”
The holidays are the starting point of so many things the owners hold dear: family, tradition, even their wedding anniversary.
“A home is who lives there, and the memories that are created,” says Lisa. “I am so happy. That was the draw; I don’t know why, but she (the house) felt like a grand old lady to me!”
Over three years, the serendipitous has become the norm for the Cressmans as people continue to enrich the story of their home.
“Even people who would walk in to do the renovation, would say, ‘Oh my gosh, I remember when my dad did the floors 50 years ago,’ or, ‘My parents used to come here when they were teenagers.’ There is a thread through the neighborhood about this house,” says Lisa, “and fond memories. And you’re a part of the story. Preserving the history.” OH