Spreading east from the Mississippi River, Memphis offered up some memorable attractions during my two-day visit. The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art had a temporary exhibit of Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s extravagantly zaftig figures, the Memphis Zoo was excited over its energetic three-week-old giraffe (as tall as me), and the Memphis Botanic Garden was in full bloom. In between all that, some wonderful buildings with fascinating histories captured my attention. These are my favorites.
#1 James Lee House
I strolled through Victorian Village, a small enclave listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. During Memphis’ boom period in the mid-19th century, some wealthy Memphians built grand homes in what was then the outskirts of the city. They were the most opulent residences in the city and set the tone for Memphis’ society scene. After World War II, the neighborhood steadily declined for about 30 years, and now only a handful of homes remain. One of them is the James Lee House. Built in 1848 and expanded in 1871, this 8,100-square-foot home was purchased by riverboat captain James Lee in 1890. Over the years, it became the James Lee Memorial Art Library and then wasted away as an abandoned and decaying wreck from 1959 until 2014, when it opened as a luxurious bed and breakfast. I could only imagine what it looked like during its vacant years, because even now, after painstaking renovations and its return to its original grandeur, it looks like the ideal setting for a haunted house movie. The three-story building features a front and three side porches, interrupted by a projecting tower with a keystone over its arched entrance and capped by brackets and a gorgeous mansard roof with fishscale tiles. Inside, the elaborate interior features plaster trim and ceiling medallions, shaped moldings, and marble mantels. Pop inside and listen for the echoes of the ghosts of Memphis’ most prominent citizens, in an era of unimaginable wealth, men in tuxedos, and spendthrifts with enormous bankrolls.
#2 Mallory-Neely House
Two houses down from the James Lee House stands another Victorian Village survivor. Built in 1852 in the Italian villa style, the Mallory-Neely House was the home of several different families until 1969. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, it became a house museum the following year. This gorgeous 25-room building is filled with parquet flooring, ornamental plasterwork, ceiling stenciling, arched doorways, stained-glass windows from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and many of the original furnishings. The front staircase leads to the main entrance in the four-story tower that breaks up the wide front porch and the asymmetry of the facade. Lovely balustrades enclose the porches as well as the second-story terraces and the third-story balconet in the tower. The steeply pitched roofs feature slate tiles, full copper trim, and no fewer than five chimneys. A bay window on the left side allows extra light to enter the building, and a three-story tower juts out from the right. Go inside for a tour and step back in time for an unforgettable throwback to Memphis’ era of lavish living.
#3 Lincoln American Tower
For a split second, I thought I was back in New York, and I had to jump out of the way of an oncoming trolley car before I could assure myself that I was still in Tennessee. The 22-story Lincoln American Tower, the 10th tallest building in Memphis, looks strikingly like the Woolworth Building in downtown Manhattan. And, as I soon discovered, that was a deliberate design choice. Erected on the site of a Civil War prison by the president of the Memphis branch of the Columbia Mutual Insurance Company (precursor of the Lincoln American Insurance Company), the building was christened the Columbia Mutual Tower when it was completed in 1924, about 11 years after the Woolworth Building. The gleaming-white tower is a replica of Woolworth, but at only one-third its size. Although the two buildings, at first, look like twins of different heights, closer inspection reveals some differences. Both have exteriors covered in white terra-cotta glaze, verdigris-green mansard roofs about halfway up, a central tower with a pyramidal cap with a lantern, strong vertical piers, highly ornamented cornices around the building, and decorative bas-reliefs. Woolworth’s ornamentations are more intricate, and it presents a much stronger Gothic style, but you can’t look at one without thinking of the other. One of the first steel-frame skyscrapers in Memphis, the tower—on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978—is now a mixed-use building, with residential apartments, commercial offices, and ground-floor retail space.
#4 Mollie Fontaine Taylor House
Not everyone receives a beautiful house as their wedding present, but the lucky Mollie Fontaine did, back in 1886, when she married Dr. William Taylor on Valentine’s Day and her father—a merchant, financier, and president of the world’s third-largest cotton company—presented his gift. Located across the street from the James Lee House in Victorian Village, the house was built in the Eclectic Revival style, with Victorian and Queen Anne touches. A staircase breaks up the retaining wall along the sidewalk and leads up to the main entrance, a small porch underneath the romantic second-floor balcony. The red-brick façade features an arch, with a face keystone, above the three ground-floor windows. Brackets and dentils define the roofline, with a double gable. Mollie lived here until her death in 1939. Neglected and occupied by transients after that (the stained-glass windows were stolen), it was saved from the wrecking ball in the 1960s by a local Memphian who sold it a short time later. The new owner turned it into a party palace, with shag carpeting and mirrors on the ceilings. In turn, he sold it to a lighting director in 1985, who turned the carriage house for horses into a recording studio, and whose wife relocated her catering business here, followed by a restaurant that opened in 1996, with Francis Ford Coppola in attendance for the grand opening. In 2007, the restaurant morphed into a lounge that, ultimately, closed a little over a year ago. Although I couldn’t gain access to see the framed doorways inside, the wonderful banisters, and the other treasures of a bygone era, I was still pleased to see yet another survivor along Memphis’ former Millionaire’s Row.
#5 Peabody Hotel
The massive Peabody Hotel has been one of Memphis’ most majestic and legendary hotels since it opened in 1925. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, “the South’s Grand Hotel” boasts an elegant Italian Renaissance design. The 12-story skyscraper cost about $5 million and featured 625 guestrooms (now reduced to 464). Urns rest on the balustrade that wraps around the spacious terrace created by the setback of the upper stories. Look up and you’ll spy them at the roofline, too, where you can also see the large red neon “The Peabody” sign atop the ballroom. The hotel and its ritzy amenities soon attracted such celebrities as Dorothy Lamour, Tommy Dorsey, and the Andrew Sisters. CBS Radio began broadcasting the musical acts performed here to a national audience in 1937. Those heady days didn’t last terribly long: The hotel was sold in 1953 to a company that accumulated massive debt by the early 1960s, went bankrupt in 1965, and sold it in a foreclosure auction. The economic downtown in Memphis forced the hotel to close in 1973, and, in a case of history repeating itself, the new owner declared bankruptcy, in 1975, and shuttered the hotel once again. Another new owner purchased it that same year for a measly $400,000 and then re-sold it to his son-in-law, who spent $25 million in renovations, leading up to a grand reopening in 1981. Those renovations were money well spent, and I stepped inside to the luxurious two-story lobby with a travertine fountain and magnificent stained-glass panels on the ceiling, framed by beautiful wood brackets. Amid all the luxury, the Peabody presents something that is anything but luxurious: the daily Duck March, when five Mallard ducks—four hens and one drake—make their way via elevator every morning from their home on the roof down to the lobby, march along a red carpet, and hop into the fountain to splash around until sometime in the afternoon, led by the world’s only Duckmaster. This bizarre, and admittedly entertaining, tradition began in 1933, when the then general manager of the hotel and his friend returned from a hunting trip in Arkansas and, in an unspecified state of intoxication, thought it would be funny to place their live decoy ducks in the fountain. Instead of creating a scandal, they created a tradition—guests were delighted by it, and 87 years later, you can still catch this quirky show in a sumptuous setting.
- Burrow Hall, Rhodes College (1953)
- Calvary Episcopal Church (1881)
- Tennessee Club (1888)
- Buckman Hall, Rhodes College (1991)
- Orpheum Theater (1928)
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