The Wright Idea

Meet the Man Who Dedicated a Lifetime to Preserving Victorian Village




Unless you grew up in Memphis before 1960, it's difficult to imagine Adams Avenue as it might have been 150 years ago. Today, only a handful of Victorian-era homes, with their soaring rooflines and tall windows, offer visitors a look back into Memphis history, the days when Mississippi riverboats meant big business, and cotton profits lined the pockets and purses of the families up and down Adams. In its former glory, the street and those around it, in an area now known as Victorian Village, were flanked with many such homes, leading locals to call the neighborhood "Millionaire's Row." >

In the city's infancy, Adams rose up out of the riverboat landing on the banks of the Mississippi, continuing east into the fertile delta wilds. As landed gentry sought country estates worthy of their kingly cotton status, stately farmhouses and mansions sprang up along the avenue. The first home of Millionaire's Row, the Massey House, was built between 1844 and 1849 by a lawyer named Benjamin Massey, and became an outpost just outside Memphis' bustling commercial district.

Over the next 60 years, as Memphis grew, other families joined the Masseys: the Woodruffs, the Lowensteins, the Lees, the Fontaines, the Pillows, the Mallorys, and the Wrights. The careers of the patriarchs read like an economic history of nineteenth-century Memphis — cotton factors, riverboat and railroad tycoons, grocers, merchants, and bank presidents.

Although many of the homes and families survived the Civil War and the barrage of yellow fever epidemics in the 1870s, those events didn't come close to the damage inflicted by the menace called urban renewal. Even the remaining homes, cloistered today behind magnolias and dogwoods, might have been forever lost had it not been for the work of one man — Luke Eldridge Wright — and the men and women he gathered as disciples of restoration.

A LESSON FROM POSTWAR EUROPE

 

born in 1924, Wright grew up in Memphis. As a boy, he would hear fascinating tales of dignitaries who came to Memphis to visit his great-grandfather, Luke E. Wright, in his home at Orleans and Jefferson. Among these visitors were Spanish-American War leader Admiral George Dewey and President Theodore Roosevelt. The house on Jefferson hosted Roosevelt during his legendary hunting trip to Mississippi where he declined to shoot a chained bear, prompting newspapers and toymakers to dub the animal "Teddy's bear." The elder Wright, a former Confederate officer and Shelby County attorney general, was the first American ambassador to Japan, the first governor general of the Philippines, and secretary of war in Teddy Roosevelt's cabinet. Upon his death, the house changed hands and slipped out of the family's ownership. Young Eldridge Wright hoped one day to bring it back into the family and restore it.

During World War II, Wright followed in the military tradition of his family and joined a naval amphibious force stationed on a ship landing tanks and soldiers. His unit carried some of the first Marines to the invasion of Iwo Jima in February 1945. Toward the end of the battle, Wright's ship took news photographer Joe Rosenthal ashore. With no helmet of his own, Rosenthal borrowed Wright's to go inland and take one of the most famous modern photographs, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. That helmet also became one of the many valuable historical items of Wright's youth that has been lost. "[Rosenthal] gave me back my helmet," says Wright, "but I turned it in at the end of the war. I wish that I had kept it."

In his early 20s, just after World War II, Wright took off to France as a student on the GI Bill. He came back to the University of the South at Sewanee to complete his bachelor of arts degree in French. After graduation, he got a job with American Express in New York as a travel agent. He was quickly transferred, first to Frankfurt and then to Salzburg. As he traveled postwar Europe, where so many beautiful buildings had been decimated by bombs and battles, Wright fine-tuned his designer's eye and his appreciation for craftsmanship and architecture.

After two years in Europe, he returned to Memphis to open an interior design business, Eldridge Wright and Associates, that is still open today. He returned just in time.


BULLDOZERS WERE POISED.

when wright talks about Memphis' urban renewal of the 1950s and '60s, you can hear the contempt in his voice. It was a time when the city had its eye on the future, when everything that stood in its way was destined for the junk pile. Urban renewal was described as a process of clearing out the slums and preparing urban property for commercial and so-called "garden apartments," a term Wright also utters with scorn.

Removal of the Victorian Village homes was part of the Memphis Housing Authority's Court Avenue No. 3 project, which was slated for residential use, and a piece of a greater plan to revitalize the Medical District. Although slums between downtown and the University of Tennessee College of Medicine and Baptist Memorial Hospital were the targeted blight, many historic buildings in the area were also demolished because they blocked the expansion of businesses that had more influence with the city.

"They had the bulldozers practically poised to take down the Mallory-Neely House, the Goyer-Lee House, the Woodruff-Fontaine, and this house," says Wright, referring to his 115-year-old late Victorian home at 657 Adams. "I got so infuriated by what urban renewal was doing, and the damage being done."

When no one else seemed to care about "these gems scattered about," Wright found himself taking up the mantle of preservation. Although his family had owned property in the neighborhood, he himself had yet to put down roots there. So beginning in 1954 and over the next seven years, he purchased three houses: 671 Jefferson; his current home at 657 Adams; and 688 Jefferson, which was the home and carriage house belonging to his great-grandfather.

He started renovations at 688 Jefferson first because, he says, "it was such a colossal job." But his plans for the main house changed when the city widened Jefferson Avenue. The front façade was demolished during street construction; the weakened remaining structure collapsed a few weeks later. Only the carriage house stands today.

At both 671 and 688 Jefferson, he ordered the painted bricks sandblasted to return the houses to their original, natural look. "The work at 671 was a bit too vigorous," Wright says, "because some of the old mortar gave away and sand came into the house."

Looking back at these renovation projects, he recalls, "My family and my friends thought I was absolutely insane to tackle them. The job was enormous, but I had always been pretty good about visualizing how things would be when they were finished."

Work at 657 Adams, his home since 1957, is still in progress. Although many structures in the area were converted into apartments and stripped of their original doors and woodwork, Wright's house never suffered that fate; its interior remained intact. The exterior, on the other hand, featured gingerbread details that were rotting and falling away from the house. Wright chose to remove the gingerbread and simplify the façade. He installed cypress shutters salvaged from another demolition and built walled-in courtyards on either side of the house. Slowly but surely, restoration continued on the first floor for almost 20 years, until Wright suffered a stroke in 1988. Restoration of the upstairs rooms has never been completed, but he promises it will be.

A JUBILANT MISS DAISY

At the time that Wright bought into Victorian Village, he was only one of a few permanent residents of the neighborhood. The Goyer-Lee House at the corner of Orleans and Adams, and its neighbor, the Woodruff-Fontaine House, served as the home to the Memphis Academy of Arts, which was already eyeing new facilities in Overton Park. Students had spilled over into many of the structures on Adams, such as the Pillow-McIntyre House. Most of the buildings that weren't housing students had been shuttered by their owners as they awaited the bulldozers from urban renewal.

One of his neighbors — Daisy Mallory, better known as "Miss Daisy" — was especially delighted to see new blood settle in.

"[Miss Daisy] was a very interesting old lady," Wright recalls. "She had the most marvelous sense of humor, and she was just jubilant over the fact that I had bought the house across the street and fixed it up."

With the exception of a few years spent at a New York finishing school, Miss Daisy had lived almost 90 years — until her death in 1969 — on Adams Avenue in the house across the street from Wright. Her father, a wholesale grocer and cotton factor, bought the house in 1883. Columbus Neely added the third floor, raising the tower to get a better view of the river, put in the front door's stained glass window purchased at the Chicago World's Fair, and installed what is rumored to be Memphis' first window screens.

At her father's death in 1901, Miss Daisy, who had married another cotton factor, Barton Lee Mallory, inherited the house and all its furnishings. Now known as the Mallory-Neely House, it didn't change much over the next 60 years. Even the gas chandeliers and sconces in the drawing and music rooms remain unconverted to electricity, and special occasions during Miss Daisy's lifetime still required candlelight.

Despite being occupied, even Miss Daisy's majestic residence was threatened by urban renewal. "Seeing these things being demolished under my own nose on Jefferson and Adams and Washington — I thought this is just criminal," Wright says. "I saw the preservation that had taken place in Charleston and New Orleans, and thought, 'Memphis can do it, too.' I just couldn't understand why more people weren't concerned."

TAKING ON CITY HALL

Wright found a ready group of concerned citizens in a relatively new organization, the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities (APTA), founded in Nashville in 1951. The Memphis chapter formed a little while later, and according to Wright, they hadn't done much of anything, until he invited them to tea one afternoon.


"We sat in this room," he recalls, referring to the sitting room where his great-grandfather's portrait hangs over the fireplace, "and basically I shamed them. Of course, here I was, this young nincompoop and they were these old, dignified ladies, but I reminded them of what the Colonial Dames had done in Charleston and New Orleans, and what the antiquities association was doing in Nashville and Franklin. Before they left that day, they agreed to restore the Woodruff-Fontaine House, and [Mary Lucas] Butler promised to work out the details."

Also at that first meeting, Victorian Village Inc., was formed, a group made up of Wright as chairman, along with Butler, Eleanor Hughes, architect Lucian Minor Dent, Maude Cawthon, and Rebecca Haizlip.

The neighborhood, however, was far from saved, and the battle would be all uphill.

In the spring of 1961, extensive termite damage was discovered in the Goyer-Lee and Woodruff-Fontaine houses. The groups asked the city council to review two estimates from exterminators to rid the houses of the pests, but the council shelved the request. The Commercial Appeal reported that Mayor Henry Loeb said with a big grin, "I just can't see spending that money in there."

"It came to the point where someone needed to go down to the city council and give them a good talking-to," Wright says. "I'd rather be drawn and quartered than make a speech before an audience, but it became my fate to go up in front of the whole city council and give a long speech about these old houses."

Most of the members looked at the young man with a vacant stare, some even warning him not to sink another dime in the neighborhood because it was all coming down. It wasn't until he started talking dollars and cents that councilmen took notice. Again drawing the comparison between Memphis and other Southern cities where historic preservation had been successful, Wright pointed out to Mayor Loeb the revenue potential and the impact of heritage tourism.

"He seemed to like that idea," Wright remembers. "He said he would do what he could to save these homes if we could show there was $50,000 worth of interest by the citizens of Memphis."

Loeb's ultimatum to the group: raise $50,000 by July 1, 1961 — barely 60 days from their meeting date — or Victorian Village would be bulldozed.

During that summer, the group scrambled to raise the money, hosting fashion shows, art fairs, and home tours. Just days before the deadline, they were still $10,000 short of the goal. Wright lamented to his mother. She encouraged him to talk to a close family friend and cosmopolitan world traveler, Ada Norfleet Fuller.

"I went to her and told her everything was going to be bulldozed," says Wright. "She sat down and wrote a check for the full amount right away. And Henry Loeb lived up to his word."

Some people might say the rest is history, but in the case of Victorian Village, history had already been written before Eldridge Wright stepped into the picture. His mission was to preserve it.

OLD HOUSES, NEW CHALLENGES

 

Not all of the homes of Adams Avenue were saved. While some are standing for now, today other challenges prevent the walls from sharing their stories into the future.

Miss Daisy's stately mansion, the Mallory-Neely House, with its hand-painted ceilings and original Victorian furnishings, is owned by the city of Memphis and is under the management of the Pink Palace Family of Museums. However, the house has been closed since 2004 due to a lack of funding by the city. Officials say the home will re-open to visitors on a regular schedule at some point in 2008. As of May, its treasures remained locked off.

Once owned by a riverboat mogul, the Goyer-Lee House also belongs to the city of Memphis. The building has suffered from years of neglect and vacancy. Ornate plasterwork from the moldings and ceiling medallions has fallen. The foundation is crumbling. Repairs and the meticulous restoration are estimated to cost more than $2 million in order to return the house to its former glory.

If restoration of the Goyer-Lee House is the neighborhood's biggest challenge, then the Woodruff-Fontaine House is the neighborhood's biggest success story. The French Victorian mansion was built in 1870 by Amos Woodruff. He was a carriage maker, mayoral candidate, and all-around businessman, and he demanded a house that reflected his stature in the community. He sold the house a few years later to Noland Fontaine, who in turn sold the house to Rosa Lee so that it could become part of her free art school. Lee gave the house to the city of Memphis in 1936.


When the APTA first leased the home from the city of Memphis after Wright and the ladies met Loeb's challenge, it too needed lots of care. Over the years, the house has been painstakingly renovated with period furniture and accessories. The APTA now operates the house as a museum and special event venue, and stands as a reminder of how well preservation can work.

Other homes in the neighborhood are privately owned, and each has its own story to tell. Laurel Hill on Jefferson Avenue was built in 1867 for a returning Confederate hero. The sassy actress and bonne vivante Tallulah Bankhead spent many childhood summers there. The house across the street, which hides today behind a giant brick wall, was the carriage house to Wright's great-grandfather's residence, and is owned today by attorney Richard Fields.

All in all, more than 12 historic structures are in the Victorian Village District, which in 1972 was designated a historic district with the National Register of Historic Places, the first neighborhood in Memphis to receive the designation.

Wright's physical crusade to save his neighborhood came to a halt when the stroke he suffered in 1988 limited movement on his left side. In the early 1900s, Victorian Village Association, an organization of residents, museums, and businesses formed to promote and preserve the district, stopped staging in the early 1990s the annual Victorian Village Festival, an event that brought in thousands of visitors and dollars to the neighborhood each year. The group finally ran out of steam a few years later. For a while, it seemed that interest in Victorian Village might again dwindle away.

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

Today, Wright moves about slowly with the assistance of a cane, and he continues to work at the interior design studio located in his home. He also looks with bright eyes at the improvements around him.

In 2006, a new group of concerned citizens came together to form the Victorian Village Inc. Community Development Corporation (VVI), an organization that wants to create a vibrant and diverse urban neighborhood among the treasured architecture. VVI has collaborated with Looney Ricks Kiss Architects and the Center City Commission to develop a long-term plan for Victorian Village and the surrounding area. The vision calls for new single-family residences at the community's core, such as the new construction at 667 Jefferson and Victorian-style townhouses under construction to the west. The homes have been designed by Scott Blake, owner of the Memphis-based museum planning and exhibit firm Design 500 Inc., and chairman of Victorian Village Inc., to maintain the historic integrity of the neighborhood.

"Everyone involved with Victorian Village envisions a vibrant community where families of all kinds can dine and shop within a few blocks, safely walk their dog, enjoy the park, shop in antique stores and boutiques," Blake says, "all in an environment that embraces these beautiful and important historic structures." The 10-block neighborhood is bordered by Poplar Avenue, Danny Thomas Boulevard, the alley behind Jefferson, and Manassas Street.

The first step in creating that community is bringing visitors back to Victorian Village. On a warm Sunday afternoon in October 2007, VVI resurrected the neighborhood home tour, not only opening the museum homes, but allowing more than 1,200 people a glimpse inside some of the structures that had never before opened to the public. Organizers considered the event a huge success and are making plans to bring even more people to the neighborhood in subsequent events.

At the home tour, VVI presented Wright with its first lifetime preservation award in recognition of his 50-plus years of fighting to save the historic gems. The bronze statuette earned a prominent place on the mantel, just below the giant oil portrait of his great-grandfather.

"Scott Blake has helped to bring this neighborhood back to life," says Wright, "and I think he deserves an award for the wonderful work he is doing in the present day."

"People ask me why it's important to preserve these old buildings. It's the same reason you save your great-grandfather's gold watch," he concludes. "These homes are our connection to the people before us. They are a part of our history and to tear them down is to destroy our history." M

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