Chinqua Penn Plantation, stately home of Jeff and Betsy Penn, destination for decades of public school field trips, will start to be dismantled this week as its contents are sold at auction.
The sale was ordered by federal bankruptcy court in the case of the estate's current owner Calvin Phelps. While the buildings and grounds are not part of the auction, their future remains uncertain.
In 2009, N&O writer Martha Quillin wrote about Chinqua Penn as part of a look at the history of Reidsville.
On the day in 1946 when his ashes were scattered from a plane, the wind sent the remains of Jeff Penn halfway back to Patrick County, Va., where he was born.
At least one part of him stayed at his mansion, Chinqua Penn, just outside Reidsville. As he had instructed, his heart was buried on the grounds, where it lies still, entombed in a small vault inside a water-meter box.
It took Betsy and Jeff Penn two years in the 1920s to build the house on 1,100 acres of rolling Piedmont farmland, using labor, materials and designs from all over the world. Enthusiastic travelers with seemingly limitless resources, the couple incorporated almost every architectural style into the stone-and-timber structure and its grounds, including a bedroom from Shanghai, a replica of King Tut's throne and a copy of Marie Antoinette's powder room.
Betsy Penn stayed in the house until she died in 1961 and was buried, whole, alongside her husband's heart. The house and most of its artifacts, from its 17th-century Flemish tapestries to its 1926 Skinner organ, went to the people of North Carolina.
Unlike the Penns, however, the people had limited means. First, UNC-Greensboro was responsible for the upkeep, then N.C. State University. Finally, in 2003, the state put the property on the market. Three years later, Lisa and Calvin Phelps bought it and reopened it for guided tours .... -- The N&O 8/25/2009
In 1999, N&O correspondent Lynn Setzer gave us a glimpse into the mansion and the treasures it held
After marrying in 1923, the Penns built their home in Reidsville, where he owned property. During the late 1920s and in the 1930s, the couple visited some 40 countries. Everywhere they went, they picked up an idea or a souvenir.
Stephen Helmer, conservator of Chinqua-Penn, says the couple accumulated about 4,000 items; not everything can be displayed at once, so items are rotated.
Turning into the parking area, visitors will first notice a stone clock tower. Then, on the walk to the house, a Chinese pagoda that was a bathhouse for the pool. Then the cupid fountain from Versailles at the entrance.
Inside, the world's diversity comes to life.
In the entry hall hangs a 15th-century Byzantine mosaic of Moses. The reception hall, dressed in 17th-century Jacobean oak, contains a replica of a chair found in King Tut's tomb, a Nepalese shrine and an 18th-century Chinese temple table.
The entrance to the living room is flanked with Italian stone columns with Spanish sgraffito tiles depicting the story of Don Quixote. The stone relief on the fireplace mantel, from Florence, portrays Boccaccio's 14th-century "Decameron" tales. Above the mantelpiece hangs a 17th-century tapestry of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. Ornate Chinese temple lanterns hang from cypress beams painted by a Scandinavian artist. An Egyptian silver bowl sits on a 16th-century Italian table, along with two 16th-century Delftware bowls. Over the radiator grilles are Limoges panels bearing the crest of Francois I, a 16th-century French king.
Ever wondered what Marie Antoinette's powder room looked like? On the first floor is a replica, done by an Italian painter, Pompeo Coccia, that the Penns hired.
Curious about the murals in the villas of Pompeii? Coccia painted replicas in the breakfast room. The English dining chairs, circa 1770, look right at home in a room decorated with portraits of Bacchus and with skylights made of Victorian leaded glass.
And how about the silver Russian goblets and the 6-inch silver salt cellars upon the dining room table? The pickled Baltic pine paneling? The sulfur dioxide refrigerator in the kitchen? The solarium with the Italian marble? The mud room with its stone floor and burial mask of a Mycenaean king?
Upstairs, the bedrooms are decorated with international themes.
The Chinese room is a replica of a room in Shanghai, complete with teakwood lacquered in green, wallpaper that looks like Oriental paper panels and bodhisattva statuettes. The Italian room contains a late 18th-century Italian commode with a Cipolina gray marble top. The Empire room sports 17th-century Venetian tiebacks on the French silk draperies.
The front guest room, adjacent to the library, contains mahogany furniture from the 1800s, along with art deco lights from the 1920s.
In the library, decorated with Spanish wrought-iron balconies, is an 18th-century illustrated Koran.
Chinqua-Penn was named for the chinquapin tree, a dwarf chestnut native to the Eastern United States and once abundant on the property. The Chinese chestnut tree just outside the greenhouse is one of the few chestnut trees on the property today.
Though called a plantation, Chinqua-Penn was not a plantation in the typical sense of the word. Helmer says no slaves ever worked there and the Penns didn't grow a cash crop. The "plantation" was derived from the Corn Jug Farm tract, known for champion Holsteins and hogs, that Penn bought in 1911.
The couple came from well-heeled and prestigious families. Thomas Jefferson Penn's family included William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, and John Penn, who signed the Declaration of Independence for North Carolina. Penn's father founded Penn Tobacco Co. in Reidsville, which was sold to American Tobacco Co. in 1911.
Margaret Beatrice "Betsy" Schoellkopf came from a prominent New York family. Her father founded Niagara Power Co. and was mayor of Niagara Falls in 1896.
The couple were active in community affairs. He supported Reidsville Hospital and was known to send baskets of flowers to patients. She introduced the Girl Scouts to town and opened the area's first 4-H center in 1964. Both were involved with the American Red Cross. -- The N&O 11/21/1999
Items available for auction may be viewed here