Unique architecture, tasteful decorations on Holiday Tour of Homes

By James Saxton
Times Correspondent

In that year, Germany was bombing France using rigid airships called Zeppelins, Charlie Chaplin was the big draw at cinemas nationwide, and one of baseball’s grandest cathedrals, Wrigley Field, was opened in Chicago.

It was 1916, and McDonough was observing a growth spurt of stately homes along Lawrenceville Street, including the Turner House, an Italian Renaissance-style home built by banker Ralph Leslie Turner and his wife Bonner Sims Turner.

The historic 100-year-old Turner House on Lawrenceville Street in McDonough, the stately home of Doug and Gina Riffey, is among the seven stops along the Henry Holiday Tour of Homes on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., beginning at the Winsor Gallery on the Square in McDonough. Photo by Seth Jackson

The historic house was among the first in the county to be constructed of brick with a tile roof, and included tile bathrooms, steam heat, six fireplaces, three bedrooms, double parlors, a bell-call system for servants and was among the first homes in the area to have an elevator added to it in 1956, earning it the local nickname The Elevator House.

The Turners lived in the impressive home until 1969, when Ralph Turner died and his wife soon thereafter moved to Atlanta. In 1975, Doug and Gina Riffey purchased the house and began the arduous task of renovating it themselves while living in it and raising babies.

“I remember my husband shoveling me a path through all the plaster and wall fragments of a torn-down wall,” Gina Riffey said, “so I could go to the bathroom.”

The ten years of work, along with two other renovation projects as late as 2010, was difficult but the fruits of their labor will be on display Saturday as the stately home is featured with six others in the 2016 Henry Holiday Tour of Homes, sponsored this year, after a two-year hiatus, for the first time by the McDonough Arts Council.

A McDonough resident who’d been involved in past McDonough Christmas Tour of Homes – a tradition begun more than 20 years ago by the youth of the First United Methodist Church of McDonough, and then by the Wesley Way United Methodist Church – said for years she’d been asking her friend Gina Riffey to include the Turner House in the tour.

“I have asked Gina personally for 30 years to put her house on the tour,” said Monterey Thompson, executive director of the Henry Holiday Tour of Homes and board member of the McDonough Arts Council. “When I asked her this time and she said yes, right after I picked myself up off the floor, I rejoiced. It’s the one house in McDonough I’ve been most anxious to see.”

“There were two reasons I’m glad I said yes,” Riffey said. “One, it’s the 100th anniversary of this wonderful home. And second, my granddaughter Chloe, who lives out West, is coming for Christmas. She’s six and Christmas means everything to her. With all the decorating, I’ll be ready for her when she gets to see her grandparents’ house all garnished for the season.”

In the 41 years they’ve owned the home, the Riffeys have extensively and painstakingly renovated it – to the point that Riffey said they’d “almost never not been renovating” – to include central heating and air conditioning, updated bathrooms, a gourmet kitchen and a family room with a fireplace.

Through their first ten years in the house, Riffey said they were raising a young family at the home while she and husband Doug “gutted the house,” steadily doing all the renovation work themselves. “They didn’t have shows like ‘This Old House’ on TV back then,” she said. “It was a lot harder to find the information about the things we needed to do. We bought the Readers Digest Book of Home Repairs, and used it, and just figured out the rest.”

The result of all three major overhauls is a grand structure that, while old and historic, “feels like a whole new house,” said Riffey’s husband Doug.

And yet “it’s a comfortable home, a lived-in home, definitely not ‘museum quality’ here,” his wife added.

And it has great memories for the couple’s children, Alyson and Grey, she said. “It’s a wonderful home and the only home they’ve known. When my daughter came home for Thanksgiving she said, ‘You know, Mom, it just felt so right to be coming home.’”

The tour Saturday begins at the Winsor Gallery, 34 Macon St., on the Square in McDonough. There tourists will receive a map to the seven featured homes in Henry County, three of them roughly within walking distance of the Gallery, “but take your car anyway, since there's plenty of well-marked parking,” Thompson said. “You’ll likely be greeted on most stops by the cadets of the Navy Jr. ROTC of Union Grove High School, and by the homeowners themselves, to answer your questions.”

A bonus to the tour is an exclusive high-vantage view of the Square afforded by the Gallery’s rooftop patio, decorated for the season as well. Wreaths decorated by Henry County residents and businesses will be on sale at the Gallery as well.

The tour is Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets will be available at the Gallery on the day of the event for $25 each. Advance tickets for $20 can be purchased until 7 p.m. Friday at Moye’s Pharmacy at 62 Keys Ferry St. in downtown McDonough, and groups of 10 or more may purchase tickets for $15 each.

Proceeds from the tour go to benefit the arts and art education in Henry County, said Jea Gackowski, president of McDonough Arts. “We believe as members of this community we have a responsibility to make sure that we adequately fund arts education throughout the county’s school system.”

Such funding benefited Joachim Taylor, a sophomore art student at Kennesaw State specializing in sculpture, who says he plans to get his masters degree in art education and teach high school art. “If it hadn’t been for all those art supplies and classes at Henry County (High School), I never would have discovered that I’m really gifted in creating things with my hands,” he said. “If students aren’t exposed to the arts, how will they discover their gifts?”

“We realize that art is important but we also realize there’s a business and personal give-back side to art,” Gackowski said. “Because we’re able to give funding to art supplies and whatever the art and music teachers need, that benefits our children. So, this Holiday Tour is fun and educational and a don’t-miss-it event for those who love our town’s history, but it also gives something to the next generation. What’s not to love about that?”