Mansion Redux

An old home finds new life as Memphis' first African-American B&B.

For nearly 80 years, the handsome foursquare-style residence at 810 East McLemore was home to a prominent black family. Dr. Christopher M. Roulhac, a physician and community leader, and his wife Isabelle, a teacher, raised two children there, and a daughter, Alma Booth, now 92, lived in the house until 2005, when poor health caused her to move.

Now the stately, two-story mansion is entering a new phase: Last month it officially opened as a luxury bed-and breakfast, with three suites -- one dubbed the Executive Suite, with a jacuzzi and fireplace -- and two cottages in the back of the main house. Historical experts say it's the first African-American home in Memphis to be converted to a B&B.

"I had no idea when I bought it that I'd make it into a bed-and-breakfast," says the home's new owner, Lois Johnson, an evangelist and banker in Salt Lake City. "I just loved old houses and when I learned it was [on the National Register of Historic Places], the B&B idea seemed to tie into that." Moreover, she adds, Memphis seems to have a shortage of hotel rooms. "I come here pretty often and lots of times there are no vacancies," says Johnson, who has family in the area. "So I think I'm filling a need."

Johnson first heard of the 4,500-square-foot house through a cousin who was a caretaker for Alma Booth. Later, she saw pictures of the home's exterior and admired its columns and wide front porch. But not until she closed on the property, in May 2005, did she actually lay eyes on the interior. "I thought, 'Oh, my, what have I done?'" The house had been vacant for more than a year, and vandals had worked their mischief, taking fixtures, fireplace mantels, and anything they could rip off. Some ceilings were collapsing and floors were caving in. "I really tried to save the floors," says Johnson, "but I had to replace them all."

Her husband, Chester Johnson, a general contractor, completed a lot of the work on the house. She says their goal was to preserve the architectural integrity as much as possible, and to ensure that any additions -- which include crown molding and columns leading into the dining room -- fit the style of the house.

Now the Roulhac Historical Mansion, with its neat front yard surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, serves as a gracious setting for reproduction antiques. The emphasis, says Johnson, is on elegance, luxury, and comfort. As a B&B, the mansion offers a "light breakfast" either in the rooms or in the dining room, based on the guests' preferences.

Transforming an old home in South Memphis, an area not usually associated with elegance, into a luxury B&B might make other folks think twice. And after seeing the neighborhood, Johnson admits, she had a few qualms. "I was a little concerned," she says. "But after coming here and paying attention, seeing the fire and police stations nearby, meeting some of the people, I don't think it's as bad as some other neighborhoods I've seen."

Certainly the nearby presence of Soulsville USA and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music has pumped fresh blood into the area. And as Johnson sums up: "If you offer something nice, I think people will come."

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