“That’s Miss Gertrude; she’s here with us,” Cindy Puckett said quietly.
A visitor to the Gertrude Smith House, Sue Johnson, had just opened an old prayer book, one loved for many years and owned by Gertrude Smith’s mother, a book that contained handwritten passages and memories from their lives.
The first page she opened was for April 14, and “Gertrude’s birthday” was handwritten on the page in pencil.
April 14 was indeed Gertrude Smith’s birthday.
Gertrude’s spirit may still live on in the rooms of the Gertrude Smith house, for those inclined to believe in ghosts and spirits. Her spirit certainly lives in the love and care taken by Cindy Puckett and Brenda Golden, who, for more than a decade (15 years for Puckett and 14 for Golden) have devoted their lives to preserving Gertrude and the spirit of her life in those room, along with the board of the Gilmer Smith Foundation.
They are preserving a legacy — a legacy left by Gertrude upon her death at age 90 in 1981, when she established the Gilmer Smith Foundation with her will.
It is a legacy that more than 33 years later is still supporting the house and keeping its doors free and open to the public.
The Gertrude Smith House is a living museum, one that is still progressing, changing, just as if Gertrude still lives there.
Books lie open next to the bed, with reading glasses waiting to gaze at the pages. Soap, as if it arrived home from a trip to Paris just yesterday, sits in a decorative case beside the sink, smelling just as lovely as it did more than fifty years ago.
Corner cabinets are now open, after sitting closed for years, revealing Gertrude’s cherished collections of pottery, tea sets, and Blue Ridge Pottery dishes.
The table is set for a family dinner, with a still-working buzzer on the floor, one once used to call the staff.
Family photos adorn the walls and shelves, telling the story of an old, wealthy family who truly enjoyed life to its fullest, calling Mount Airy home yet travelling all over the globe, bringing back treasures from the far corners of world.
“It is our goal to make it feel like home, like the family just walked out the door a few minutes ago,” Puckett shared. “The furnishings, the accents, they were all Miss Gertrude’s.”
The entire house has been opened up, and the home that once felt like a museum with ropes preventing visitors from exploring the rooms, now feels like a home again. Bathroom doors are left open, with visitors allowed to go inside. Gertrude’s beloved corner cabinets are open wide, as they should be, Puckett said.
“The house now has a homey feel. Everything is opened up, with her fine things pulled out. These were her treasures, and we want everyone to love and appreciate them.”
Nothing has been added to the home, Puckett said, except for a few light touches, such as a flower arrangement here and there. All of the items the family owned are on display, as if the family simply placed them there as they walked by.
“Gertrude had wonderful taste. She was a talented interior decorator. She loved corner cabinets and high daddies, which you can see all over the house,” Puckett shared, as she stopped to straighten a painting that was hanging crooked since she last walked through just minutes before.
“I think Gertrude does that to us,” Puckett said with a twinkle in her eye. “She is reminding us that she’s still here.”
The house is a veritable treasure trove, with items still discovered hidden away in cabinets and chests in the attic, items found during every off-season, when the house is closed during the fall and winter months.
Original receipts still exist for most of the items in the home. The foundation has a list of every item in the home, and Puckett and Golden are still discovering matches for many of the descriptions.
“Could this be the partially-glazed pottery?” Golden asked Puckett, picking up a large vase holding Gertrude’s umbrella and checking to see if it is marked. “I believe it is,” Puckett responded with a huge smile, walking over to look at the large vase. “See? We are still making discoveries, after all these years.”
“We go through the attic when we are closed [from Jan. 1 to April 1]. We go through drawers, chests, cabinets…looking for treasures,” Puckett described. And treasures are still being found, from photographs to bed skirts, from receipts to folding screens, such as the Cora Mandell screen in an upstairs bathroom.
Many of the items in the home are priceless, such as a square grand piano that sits in the living room area. “There are very few left in the country,” Puckett said, gesturing to the huge piano that takes up most of one wall. “It belonged to her grandmother, Matilda Carolina Moore Gilmer, and it’s been in the house ever since. It’s made of Brazilian Rosewood.”
There are more than 3,000 books in the home, with 1,700 books in the library, many that are rare and first edition volumes. A sparkling Venetian glass chandelier hangs above the dining room table.
Every winter, when the home is closed, the foundation takes on a special project. Last year, it renovated Gertrude’s bedroom, after discovering a photograph that showed exactly what it was like when she lived there. A former curator had painted the room pink, so it was restored to the original color, with drapes recreated just as she used. The entire bed set, including bed curtains, was found in a trunk, and matched with Gertrude’s bed from the picture, so it was placed once again on her bed.
A huge discovery was added this winter, after Puckett and Golden realized the shiny brass pieces they were finding all over the house, in cabinets and drawers, belonged to the brass cornices above the windows in Gertrude’s bedroom. At some point, they were broken, and pieces were stashed everywhere.
“We put it back together again,” Puckett said, of the work she and Golden painstakingly did over the winter months. “It was like putting together a huge puzzle,” Golden added.
“We think it was Miss Gertrude giving us pieces of the puzzle, because she wanted to tell us to put it back the way she had it.”
This year, the special project was renovating the bedroom of Gertrude’s brother Cameron. They plastered, painted, and made it look more like someone lived there, as Gertrude would have wanted.
Miss Gertrude, eldest of seven children
Gertrude Smith was born to a local merchant, Jefferson Davis Smith and his wife Gertrude Gilmer Smith, a Mount Airy native. Gertrude was named after her mother, and was the eldest of seven children. Her father owned the J.D. Smith General Store, which was on the corner of N. Main and Oak Streets, to the right of modern-day Old North State Winery.
Four of the couple’s children moved away from home, but Gertrude and her two brothers Cameron and Robert never married and lived for the rest of their lives at the home, located at 615 North Main Street.
Gertrude left home in the 1930s for a brief time, to study at Parson’s School of Design in New York City. Upon returning, she worked as an interior designer, and Puckett said her work can be seen to this day in many of the old, stately homes around Mount Airy. One of her trademark designs were stamped brass cornice boards over the windows, which can be seen over almost every window in the home as well as large pier mirrors and corner cabinets.
All of the furniture, decorative, and personal items in the home belonged to the Smith family and many were collected by Gertrude herself. Puckett shared that she loved to travel throughout the mountains and surrounding areas to find antiques and other treasures, which she proudly displayed in her home or homes of her clients. She also loved artwork, which is on display in every room of the home. Much of the art in the home was collected by her brother, Dr. Robert Smith, when he travelled around the world while serving in World War I and World War II.
Visitors from all over the country, and even international visitors, stop by on any given day, with most of them hearing about the home from staff at the visitor center. Occasionally, Puckett said they will have a visitor who traced their ancestry back and found a connection to the Gilmer-Smith family, and they are always delighted to find the home so well preserved.
“Gertrude was a smart and forward-thinking lady to do what she did. Our goal is keep this place as it was, so she would be proud and happy. We want to show this place off. And she does too,” Puckett said, referring to the spirit of Gertrude who could possibly be looking down on everyone, floating through the halls of her beautiful home, delighted to find her home still full of life, beauty, and happiness.
The Gertrude Smith House, located at 615 N. Main Street, is open on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., for free tours.
Reach Jessica Johnson at 719-1933 and on Twitter @MountAiryJess.