On a driving tour of Chapel Hill, you’ve likely passed Sandra and Stephen Rich’s home on East Franklin Street. Perhaps you’ve come to a stop at the traffic light at the Boundary Street intersection and noticed the Richs’ array of almost 50 rose bushes, which – like the many collections in and around their 92-year-old home – can tell many stories in and of themselves. First planted by Emma Estes Cobb, who lived with husband Collier Cobb Jr. at the residence from the 1940s through the 1980s, the roses have remained a steadfast feature.
Actually, this scene of the stoplight-induced pause and roses galore is what first drew Stephen to the home he and Sandra have shared since 2003. “We had established a fund at the UNC library for Jewish studies,” says Stephen, who is a UNC alumni along with Sandra. “They had invited us up [from Atlanta] for a library event and football game.” Driving into town that crisp Saturday morning, Stephen and his former college roommate looked over to see a ‘for sale’ sign in the yard. Luckily – in this time before cell phones to snap a pic – his friend had a pen in his pocket to write down the realtor’s name. A few weeks later, on Halloween, Sandra and Stephen found themselves again visiting Chapel Hill and touring the 4,700-square-foot house stretching over four levels. “We fell in love with the floor plan and the fact that [the house] was on Franklin Street,” Stephen says.
“And I had already decorated it [in my mind],” says Sandra.
But they were warned to get out of town fast before the nighttime activities began. “That’s how we learned about Halloween [on Franklin Street],” Sandra says, “now we go every year.”
ONCE A TAR HEEL
Sandra and Stephen were students at UNC in the early ’60s (before the town’s now-infamous October 31 festivities began to take shape). They married the summer before Stephen’s senior year and Sandra’s junior year and moved back to their hometown of Atlanta after Stephen’s graduation in 1964. They were primarily based there for the next 30 years and Stephen worked for Coca-Cola in various finance positions while Sandra was an elementary school teacher.
“We always talked about retiring back here, but while working, it wasn’t going to be a reality,” says Stephen. So, the Richs gave themselves excuses to visit, getting involved with the university as a representative of Coca-Cola to match gifts, serving on various boards and sending financial support themselves as they had for the library.
Since moving back to town, the Richs have thrown themselves into the town’s affairs. They served as Preservation Chapel Hill co-presidents for a time and have been active on boards like those of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, North Carolina Hillel, Chapel Hill Public Library Foundation, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center and many more between them. And living in the Franklin-Rosemary Historic District, specifically on a lot carved out of the original Horace Williams property, helped kindle a love for history, too.
“We call ourselves incurable collectors,” Sandra says of their home brimming with storied treasures starting with a top-floor Carolina room with coach caricatures, a Michael Jordan cutout and a fragment of the Woollen Gym floor. Down in the basement, there are hundreds of Coca-Cola collectibles and a few pieces special to Sandra as well, like the Coke aisle sign from her dad’s former grocery store, Danneman’s, in Atlanta.
But despite their many museum-caliber acquisitions – there’s also a wall of landscapes, a cabinet full of Chinese Export dishware from the 1700s and floral door stoppers leading all the way up the stairs – Sandra and Stephen strive for a well- lived home, frequently inviting folks over to enjoy their company… and the short walk to Sutton’s.
“We like English antiques,” says Stephen, but when creating their living space, Sandra strove for warm, comfortable and cozy.
“Not like the old days when everyone had plastic on their furniture so you couldn’t sit on it,” she says. “[Our space] is to be enjoyed by people who come to our home.”
Take the collection of walking canes beside the front door, for instance – the bulk of which were Stephen’s mother’s with a few picked up from estate sales. There are likely dozens of stories the Richs could tell about the assortment, but the first memory sparked is of their 12-year-old grandson. Visiting from Denver, he’ll come down the stairs, grab a cane and become a drum major.
“Again, to be used and enjoyed,” Sandra says.
THIS HOME’S HISTORY
Originally built in 1925 by Brodie Thompson for Professor M.R. Trabue and his wife, Emma, the Richs’ home has been formed by many families. Here are a few:
• The Cobbs (1944-late 1980s) – Collier Cobb Jr. and Emma Estes Cobbs were both from established Chapel Hill families. Collier was a successful insurance and construction surety bonds businessman, and Emma is to thank for the rose garden in the front of the property.
• The McVeighs (1992-2000) – Brian and Sheila McVeigh bought the home for their young family, but before they could move in, they discovered a disastrous leak coming from a former owner’s addition. $200,000 worth of repairs later, the couple could finally take up residence in the bright, new interior.
Photography by Briana Brough