Posted: Saturday, September 5, 2015 5:00 pm
GREENSBORO — Deep in the halls of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, in the wee hours when no one’s around, things go bump in the night.
Footsteps echoing where no one’s walking. Employees hearing their names called from empty rooms. Objects that are left in one place at the end of the day and show up somewhere else in the morning. Faucets and lights turning on and off at random.
“I don’t know whether it was haunted or not, but I did hear and see some weird things,” said Maj. Tom Sheppard, who retired from the sheriff’s office two years ago.
During his time in the office, Sheppard had pencils move around on his desk and saw full pots of coffee mysteriously go empty.
“If it was a ghost, it was a benevolent ghost,” he said. “I never believed in ghosts, to be honest with you, but now I’m kind of having second thoughts.”
The building, located at 400 W. Washington St. between Eugene Street and Blandwood Avenue, isn’t particularly old, but it does have a bit of a checkered past. Sheriff BJ Barnes and his staff have worked there since late 1995. Before that, this L-shaped building served as a furniture showroom and residence for famed interior designer Otto Zenke.
Zenke, according to reports, was a “private, shy man” and “scholarly looking gentleman” who collected antiques and designed houses for wealthy families and prominent businesses in Greensboro and around the world. His portfolio included the Biltmore Hotel, mansions in Palm Beach and a 10-room, 18th-century house in Ireland.
Born in Brooklyn, Zenke came to Greensboro in 1937 to take over the top floor of the Morrison-Neese Furniture Co. on South Greene Street.
His brother Henry joined him in 1946, and they went into business for themselves.
Five years later, they renovated a downtown house at 215 S. Eugene St. that was once owned by the family of former Gov. John Motley Morehead.
Zenke lived and worked there for nearly 20 years.
And then the city of Greensboro came knocking.
Officials wanted to revamp downtown, a plan that included building a governmental center that would house both county and city offices.
Zenke’s home sat right in the middle of the proposed construction site.
Officials tried to negotiate with Zenke to buy the property, but the family fought the process. Because the 19th-century house was once owned by Morehead’s family, it qualified as a historic site, they said.
“If you condemn it, you will be condemning not only this property but yourselves,” Zenke’s sister-in-law told the City Council in 1968. “It is the one beautiful spot in a sad and weedy downtown.”
Despite protests, the City Council rejected their pleas, condemning the property on the grounds that it was “indispensable for the purpose of erecting, constructing and maintaining a county law enforcement center.”
Zenke moved across the street to 220 S. Eugene St. — a 28,000-square-foot L-shaped building that housed both his furniture showroom and his personal residence. But the situation never sat right with him.
“That was an enormous disappointment to him,” May Belle Jones, a friend, told the News & Record in 1984. “It was a perfectly lovely house.”
Zenke died of cancer in April 1984 at the age of 79. His design business folded not long after.
That November, Guilford County announced plans to buy the house and showroom for $1.3 million, saying that the property would be developed “into office space and additional jail capacity, although actual construction is at least a decade away.”
News reports noted that there was “a certain degree of irony” in the sale, given the stormy relationship between the designer and the county over property.
Zenke’s employees said at the time that he would have been fine with the business closing rather than “limping along,” but “what would trouble him today — unquestionably — is the idea of the public trooping through his beloved studio-showroom-home.”
As the facility for the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, the building isn’t currently open to the public. But it’s not being used as Zenke had intended.
And since they moved in 20 years ago, law enforcement employees consistently have reported strange happenings. Footsteps when there’s no one in the office. Objects moving around. Names being called — loudly, distinctly — from empty rooms.
And the epicenter of all that activity seems to focus on Zenke’s master bedroom, now used as an administrative office.
“I’ve had employees that said they’ve had furniture move and things have fallen,” Col. Randy Powers said. “They’ve heard voices. It’s usually down in the front part, the older part, where (Zenke) actually lived.”
Employees may not know when things are going to happen.
But they have a pretty good idea of who’s behind it.
“The running joke around here is, ‘Well, there’s Otto again,’ ” said Capt. Randy Shepherd, who worked in the building for nine years.
Most of the eerie things that Shepherd said he experienced happened during watch command shifts, when law enforcement officials work alone in the building late at night.
“Frequently, I’d have to walk from one end through to the next to drop paperwork off, and it wasn’t uncommon to be sitting there and hear the sounds of somebody walking around upstairs,” he said. “You know nobody’s up there. There’s only one way up, and it was the staircase right outside my office. But I’d get up and go check, and nobody would be there.”
Things also happened in the morning. Shepherd said he came in one day around 6:30 a.m. and walked through the main part of the building, stopping short when someone called his name.
“It was a male’s voice. I checked the kitchen and the office areas, but nobody was there, obviously, at 6:30 in the morning,” he said. “But it was very, very distinct, like somebody was standing right in that hallway. The voice very clearly said, ‘Randy.’ ”
Most things seem to happen when the top brass are out of the office. Powers, Barnes’ second-in-command, whose office used to be in Zenke’s bedroom, has just one weird story — a vacuum backfiring — that could easily be a technical malfunction.
But other stories are more difficult to explain.
Once, Beverly Stewart, the sheriff’s office manager, tried to enter the bedroom-turned-office and found the door stuck. The room has just one entrance, and Powers wasn’t in the building at the time.
When Stewart tried to push the door open, a pedestal fan blocked her way.
“I had to reach in, push the door open just a crack, lift the fan up and move it so I could get in,” she said. “Nobody had been in there. There’s only one way in and one way out. And the fan was right up against the door. I went to Col. Powers and said, ‘Tell me there’s not a secret door in there somewhere.’ ”
Her belongings would also move from time to time, Stewart said. Sealed drinks mysteriously would become half-empty. She would leave her desktop neat and tidy at the end of the day and come back the next morning to find pens strewn about, with the receipt tape from her adding machine unfurled in long loops.
When Powers moved his office upstairs, out of Zenke’s old bedroom, Stewart’s work space moved with it. Nothing has happened to her since.
The building’s reputation is fairly well-known, at least in certain circles. It is featured on a Carolina History & Haunts tour of downtown Greensboro.
Dan and Bridgette Riedel, who own the tour business, researched the building before putting it on one of their downtown routes.
The prevailing theory, Bridgette Riedel said, is that Zenke remains in the offices, protecting his property.
“The great thing about ghost stories is that it’s the unknown that draws people to it, so you never know for sure,” she said. “But for us, the fact that they tore down his first house and the sheriff is in his current house is enough of a reason for him to be there.”
Zenke’s niece Ginia is also aware of the haunting tales. She doesn’t find it difficult to believe that his spirit would be agitated there.
“He would never have approved of all those vertical blinds,” she said. “Not when his workrooms churned out beautiful draperies and furnishings for decades!”
Whatever is behind the strange happenings in the old building, employees say they never have felt particularly frightened or worried for their safety. Yes, things move around and sometimes the air in certain places feels kind of clammy, but the ghost — if there is one — seems to be largely a gentle soul.
“I never felt threatened by any spirits, but I would say there’s definitely some odd things that go on in that building,” Shepherd said. “What they are, I’m not sure.”
As for the building’s current head honcho? The sheriff said he has heard all the stories, but he never has experienced anything spooky firsthand.
Not that he’s afraid, really.
“I work there oftentimes late at night, and I’m kind of hoping he shows up,” Barnes said. “I’d like to talk to him.”
Contact Kate Elizabeth Queram at (336) 373-7003, and follow @KateElizabethNR on Twitter.