Lost Memphis: The Fargason Mansion



Image courtesy Lee Askew

One day not too long ago, my pal Lee Askew — principal with Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects — showed me a nine-volume set of books in his office called The Art Work of Memphis, just filled with wonderful images of old homes, churches, and other buildings in our city as they looked in the early 1900s. Most of those structures fall into the sad category of "Lost Memphis" since they have succumbed to the bulldozers of Progress, and anyone looking through the books, as I did, must think, "What a shame!" when they see many of the pictures.

But the elegant Fargason Mansion, shown here as it looked in 1918, suffered a more disgraceful fate than most.

In the early 1900s, John T. Fargason amassed a fortune in the wholesale grocery business. A 1903 telephone directory ad for the J.T. Fargason Company, located at 115 South Front Street, notified customers that the firm offered "fancy and staple groceries, cigars, and tobacco," and was the sole distributor of Omega "highest patent" flour, Santee Syrup, Heekins & Company roasted coffee, and even Zebra & Whale brand axle grease.

Farguson had this monumental stone residence constructed at 1318 Lamar around 1915, at the present-day corner of Lamar and Cleveland. (The architect's name, along with most other details about the home, have been lost to history.) The Farguson family, prominent in Memphis social circles, lived and entertained here for three decades. In the mid-1930s, however, they sold the property.

The next owner lived here for only two years, and then the old house stood vacant. In 1940, Phi Rho Sigma, a medical fraternity at the University of Tennessee, turned the home into its chapter house, thus beginning its inevitable decline. The fraternity, unable to maintain the sprawling mansion (just imagine the heating and cooling costs!) moved out in the late 1950s, and again the house stood empty, a target for vagrants and vandals.

In 1960, bulldozers pulled down the once-grand home. The Howard Johnson chain built a 145-room high-rise hotel on the spacious grounds, which became the Coach and Four Motor Lodge in the late 1970s. That property closed long ago, and the building stood abandoned and empty for years, a boarded-up eyesore on the edge of Central Gardens. It was finally demolished, leaving behind nothing but a parking lot — quite a depressing change from the lovely estate built by John T. Fargason almost a century ago.

PHOTO FROM "THE ART WORK OF MEMPHIS" PUBLISHED BY THE GRAVURE COMPANY OF CHICAGO. COURTESY LEE ASKEW.

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and MBQ: Inside Memphis Business.  Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

You can find him from time to time in the pages of the Memphis Flyer and MBQ, on WKNO television, and on Facebook. When he is not exploring the highways and byways of Memphis, he spends his time sleeping, napping, and dozing.

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