Historic home rich in local lore featured on York tour

jbecknell@enquirerherald.comDecember 10, 2013 

  • Want to go?

    What: 31st annual Christmas in Olde York holiday historic home tour.

    When: 3-9 p.m. Saturday, Dec.14, and Sunday, Dec.15.

    Tickets: $10, available in advance from the Greater York Chamber of Commerce, 23 E. Liberty St., or by calling 803-684-2590; and on event days at the chamber and at McCelvey Center.

    Homes on the tour are:

    • Pratt House, 7 College St., owned by Jason and Sarah Lane.

    • McElwee House, 8 College St., owned by Henry and Elizabeth Owen.

    • Witherspoon/Hunter House, 15 W. Liberty St., owned by Edward and Carolyn Wood.

    • Spencer House, 102 Kings Mountain St., owned by Terry and Robin Sartain.

    • Snyder/Gilliam House, 109 E. Jefferson St., owned by Murray and Hazel Somerville.

    • McCelvey Center, 212 E. Jefferson St.

    Related event: Concert of the N.C. Baroque Orchestra Chamber Ensemble at 7:30 p.m. Dec.13 at McCelvey. Tickets are $10 at the York chamber and McCelvey. The concert is sponsored by Murray and Hazel Somerville and The Men’s Shop in downtown York.

— Since her childhood in York, Hazel Somerville had admired the historic Snyder/Gilliam house at Jefferson and College streets.

The quaint cottage-style home was the subject of much local lore, including that it might have been part of the Underground Railroad.

The oldest part of the house, a wide hallway at the center that might date as far back as 1790, features a trap door in the heart-pine flooring and a cramped, narrow stairway down to a basement with two fireplaces, where a Civil War-era school for boys was held.

“Every time we would pass this house,” recalls Hazel’s husband, Murray Somerville, “Hazel would say, ‘That’s my house.’”

During a visit to her hometown for the 2006 Summerfest, Hazel drove by and saw a “For Sale” sign on the house. The couple made separate visits to look at the house and quickly agreed they should buy it.

The home is one of five featured in York’s annual Christmas Tour of Homes on Dec.14 and 15, presented by the Yorkville Historical Society. The Somervilles, both musicians and organists, also are co-sponsoring a Dec.13 concert of the N.C. Baroque Orchestra Chamber at McCelvey Center.

The Somervilles moved back to Hazel’s native York in 2012 to retire, and they did some significant restoration work on the home’s exterior, and in the basement to fix water damage and ensure its preservation.

The couple also built a large music-room addition and an open-air porch behind the house to indulge their shared musical passion.

The music room, built with special features for acoustics, includes a pipe organ, chamber organ and a harpsichord acquired by the couple during the course of their music careers; the Somervilles, who enjoy sharing their passion for music with others, have hosted house concerts there.

Murray Somerville, who was born in London and grew up with his family in the African country of Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – had an international career as an organist and conductor.

His career included 13 years as university organist and choir master at Harvard University, where he helped found the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra.

The two met at Union Theological Seminar in New York City, where both studied the organ in graduate school. Hazel, who also has performed on the organ and conducted, had done undergraduate work at Winthrop University.

The couple lived and worked in Connecticut, Florida and most recently Nashville before retiring last year, although they often returned to York to visit. Hazel is the sister of Ronnie Bailes, owner of The Men’s Shop in downtown York.

Hazel, who attended elementary school at the present McCelvey Center across the street in the 1950s, said she was always captivated by the Jefferson Street house.

“I thought it was so pretty,” she said. “It was a cottage, and it was always white in my mind, with a picket fence. I’d always thought it was a charming place.”

The exact age of the house isn’t known, but Murray Somerville said certain features, like the hand-hewn joists under the floor in the oldest part of the house, help date it.

Records show the home was in the Snyder family for about 75 years, until 1936, and then was owned by a teacher at McCelvey Center named Gilliam.

The original structure likely was just a log cabin, Murray said, but the house has been added on to several times. The living and dining rooms at the front of the house probably date to about 1830, Murray said, because of the tall windows with 16 panes over 12 panes, and the fireplaces, which are held together by wooden pegs.

A grand piano in the living room is a Hamburg Steinway from the 1890s; it was inherited from Murray’s father, who bought it in England in the 1970s. There’s also a framed letter from Queen Elizabeth, with a photo of the British monarch, received by Murray’s mother on her 100th birthday.

The home also has some recent additons, including a modern kitchen at the back of the house. One of the most recent owners, Steve McCrae, added the second floor, with two bedrooms, in the 1970s.

In the dining room, the couple’s Christmas tree is decorated with ornaments collected from the German Christmas markets they visited last year, and other German holiday decorations.

Murray Somerville said the home didn’t require many cosmetic improvements but that it needed exterior paint and significant structural improvements to fix and prevent further water damage in the basement.

The two fireplaces in the basement, and the painting over the left mantel, are reconstructions made by local artist Johnny Wine, from photographs, he said.

The Somervilles hope the improvements they have made will ensure the home is part of York’s history for many years.

“Hazel has felt a strong responsibility,” Murray Somerville said, “that this house is a part of the history of the town and that it should be preserved.”

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