Leaving a Legacy

Frank Renfrow leaves more than $1 million to Matthews churches, requests 1926 house be destroyed

by Kara Lopp

In his will, Frank Renfrow – a descendant of one of Matthews’ pioneering families – requests that the house his father built in 1926 at 400 W. John St. (above) be burned or destroyed.

A house in downtown Matthews built in 1926 by one of Matthews’ pioneering families will either be burned or ­demolished.

It’s a shocking thought for a town that’s worked so hard to preserve its past, Matthews officials say. And the order comes from an unlikely place – the will of its owner, Frank Renfrow.

Renfrow, 77, died Dec. 13 as the last surviving Renfrow to own downtown Matthews’ 110-year-old Renfrow Hardware & General Merchandise.

In his will, filed at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse Jan. 3, Renfrow said he wanted his house at 400 W. John St. either burned by the Matthews Fire & EMS department for training or demolished. The will, signed May 3, 2006, also outlines how the history buff wanted his estimated $13 million estate distributed after his death, giving cash to two Matthews churches, his alma mater Davidson College, Renfrow’s employees and other friends and family members.

An only child, Renfrow never married and had no children.

Renfrow left:

Renfrow left $1 million to his church, Matthews Presbyterian Church.

• The largest local bequest – $1 million – to Matthews Presbyterian Church, 207 W. John St., where Renfrow was a member and once served as deacon, elder and trustee. He said he wanted the money used for a pipe organ.

• $100,000 to his father’s church, First Baptist Church of Matthews, 185 S. Trade St., and the same amount to his mother’s childhood church, Red Springs Presbyterian Church in Red Springs.

• $10,000 to Davidson College, where Renfrow earned a business degree.

Longtime friend and Renfrow’s current owner David Blackley serves as executor of the estate and will receive all commercially zoned property Renfrow owned in downtown Matthews, including the hardware store and Matthews Community Farmers’ Market next door.

Renfrow also left $100,000 to his father’s church, First Baptist Church of Matthews

The remaining money and property will be divided among family, friends and employees, with one long-time employee who managed property for Renfrow receiving at least $500,000.

‘A double loss’

Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor described the news about Renfrow’s house as “a double loss” for the community. After consulting an attorney and Blackley, the town has decided not to challenge the will, Taylor said in a written statement.

“Mr. Renfrow’s death ends the lineage of one of Matthews’ prominent families and the home where the Renfrow family lived for decades,” he said. “The town … decided it was not in the best interest of either party to challenge the last wishes of Mr. Renfrow. We regret Mr. Renfrow did not want to preserve the home (but) we feel that his wishes to do with his property as he saw fit should be honored.”

Paula Lester, president of the Matthews Historical Foundation, said the nonprofit is “saddened” by Renfrow’s decision. Volunteers researched how they could try to save the house but “found there was no opportunity to preserve the home,” she said in an e-mail.

Frank Renfrow’s father, Dow, built the house, which is a “classic example” of Dutch Colonial Revival architecture, she said. Lester first met Frank Renfrow at Matthews Presbyterian Church. He later became a confidant to Lester as she researched Matthews history for her book “Discover Matthews: From Cotton to Corporate” and gave his support for restoration projects throughout the town, she said.

“It is regrettable that Mr. Renfrow did not want to preserve his family home,” she said in the e-mail. The house sits next door to one his uncle, John Renfrow, built at 344 W. John St., Lester said.  Frank Renfrow was the grandson of Captain Renfrow, founder of Renfrow Hardware and General Merchandise.

Dan Morrill, director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, said the organization has never seen anything like this before. The town contacted him last week for advice, he said, but without a town-wide preservation plan – which could have specified the house be saved – already in place, the commission’s hands are tied.

“I’ve said for a long time that if Matthews wants to preserve its historic village, they have to develop a comprehensive plan,” he said. “Preservation cannot be approached on a piece-meal basis.

“There are things that could be done, but the will is the problem. Some people simply cannot accept the idea that somebody else will occupy the intimate space, the personal space, the family space of their loved ones. They just can’t deal with that. It’s a very emotional thing.”

Dennis Green, Matthews Fire & EMS interim chief, said this week that the department will not likely use the house for a burning exercise. Though he had heard rumors about the town getting the house, Green hadn’t yet officially been notified. But, he said, the Renfrow home is likely too close to its neighbors to be burned safely.

Town spokeswoman Annette Privette Keller went a step further, saying, “We are not going to burn it.”

‘A bountiful legacy’

Renfrow’s $1 million gift to his church left members and staff surprised and grateful, Pastor Bill Pederson said. According to Renfrow’s will, the money must be used to buy a pipe organ for the new sanctuary.

“Frank Renfrow leaves a bountiful legacy that will long be gratefully remembered by the people of Matthews Presbyterian Church,” Pederson said in an e-mail. “This generous endowment, in memory of Frank’s mother, is an extraordinary gift to the glory of God from which many benefits will accrue in the years to come.”

At First Baptist Church of Matthews, church members are already reaping the benefits of Renfrow’s generosity, Executive Pastor Frank Norwood said this week. While the will allots $100,000 to the church in memory of Renfrow’s father, the church already has received a check from one of Renfrow’s cousins, who wanted to give part of her share in the estate to the places he cared about.

Norwood was surprised to learn from Matthews-Mint Hill Weekly this week of Renfrow’s bequest. Both gifts will be used to complete renovations on the church’s fellowship hall, which is the focus of a current $1.5 million capital campaign, he said.

“Well, I’m excited to know that. Thanks for information,” Norwood said after learning of the $100,000 gift. “I’m very surprised. Apparently, he still loved the church.”

Renfrow’s $10,000 gift to Davidson College will likely be used for the school’s Davidson Trust grant program, which replaces student loans with grants to reduce the amount of college debt students must repay after they graduate. Renfrow had served on the Davidson College Board of Visitors.

“We’re very grateful for Mr. Renfrow’s bequest to his alma mater,” Bill Giduz, director of media relations for the college, said. “This gift also demonstrates the extraordinary loyalty of Davidson alumni. Obviously, Mr. Renfrow felt that loyalty strongly enough to show it in his will.”

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