A Towering Achievement

The reopened Mallory-Neely House brings new life to Victorian Village.



The rose-colored stucco mansion, renovated in the 1890s in the Italianate villa architectural style, is filled with period antique furnishings and decorative objects once owned by the Neely and Mallory families.

photography by Andrea Zucker

There’s real cause for celebration in the heart of the city and pats on the back for all concerned: The Mallory-Neely House at last has been re-opened to the public.

This grand antebellum home at 652 Adams sits in the downtown neighborhood that was once the economic, social, and political center of Memphis. Today this “millionaire’s row” mansion, framed by towering Civil War-era magnolia trees, is a gem among gems in the Victorian Village Historic Preservation District.

The house was built by Isaac Kirtland in 1852 but is most often associated with the Neely and Mallory families who came later. In the 1890s James C. Neely and his wife, Frances, renovated the home extensively in the Italianate villa style, adding a third floor and a tower room, which brought the tally to 25 rooms, including nine bedrooms and two baths for a total of 15,903 square feet of living space. The first floor was the public part of the house and was very grand indeed. The second and third floors were the private quarters and, while large and comfortable by anyone’s standards, they were not intended to impress. Ceilings on the first floor are 14 feet, on the second floor, 12 feet, and 10-1/2 feet on the third. Back in the day, from the tower, owners had a clear view all the way to the Mississippi River.

The Neely daughters married into the Mallory and Grant families respectively. Frances Neely (Miss Daisy) married Barton Lee Mallory and lived in the house until she died in 1969 at the age of 98. For many years, her family shared the house with her sister, Jessica (called “Pearl”), who married Daniel Grant.

 

W.C. Handy performed in the house and sheet music of “The Memphis Blues” signed by him sits atop the piano in pride of place.

 

Originally given by the Mallory family to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the house has been owned by the city since 1987 and is now operated by the Pink Palace Family of Museums. When I spoke with Steve Pike, director of museums, he told me that the Mallory-Neely House had just been awarded a 2013 Certificate of Merit by the Tennessee Historical Commission, which acknowledged the recent work that had been done, including the new roof and the ADA compliance projects, and recognized the reopening of the house to the public. In addition to the various city divisions, others who played a role in the reopening were Clark Dixon Architects and Jessie Bryant Roofing. As Pike says, “Old friends are worth keeping,” and he’s determined to preserve the Mallory-Neely House, and to make the neighborhood a pleasant place for a stroll.

Jennifer Tucker, manager of historic properties for the Pink Palace Family of Museums, and Lauren Pate, part-time instructor, were on hand to greet us when we arrived for our photo shoot at the Mallory-Neely House. The tour began in the carriage house/visitors’ center, which has been newly renovated. We were shown a collection of ceramic shards unearthed on the grounds and were told that such treasures are found “all the time.” In fact, earlier this year a tourist poking around the rose garden discovered a tiny, headless figurine which surely had been buried for years. Tucker says hers is a dream job with its focus on historic preservation and heritage interpretation.

The first floor’s double parlor is the showstopper of the house with two fireplaces featuring elaborately carved overmantels, a four-panel Chinese silk and teak screen depicting the four seasons, and a marble replica of Antonio Canova’s Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (the original sits in the Louvre). It is the most elaborately decorated room in the house.

 

 

Magnificent double doors with stained-glass panels open into the large entry hall which was intended to impress with its gold leaf fleur-de-lis patterned walls, expensive oriental carpet, and family portrait of “Miss Daisy.”

 

The interior of the Mallory-Neely House is highly decorative with elaborate furnishings reflecting the opulent tastes and lifestyles of wealthy Memphis families of the Victorian period. Most of the furniture is original to the house — not always the case in many restored “stately homes.” Plaster ceilings; stained glass purchased at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair; oriental carpets; ornate, imported furniture; and antique bric-a-brac collections are testament to the conspicuous consumption of the upper classes of this turn-of-the-century era.

Scott Blake, executive director of the Victorian Village Community Development Corporation, and his colleague, administrator Nora Tucker, took time to pay us a visit as we toured the home. They explained their mission: to preserve, enhance, and grow this historically significant area to create a vibrant, diverse urban neighborhood that treasures its architectural heritage. So far, so good!

As the Memphis News noted recently, “our civic garden is blooming after much hard work on a lot of fronts.” It quite literally took a village to get the Mallory-Neely House reopened to the public last November after a seven-year hiatus. Mayor AC Wharton was a big booster every step of the way, and all involved agree plenty of creative energy surrounds the house. However, the key to continued success, as always, is broad community support.

B. Lee Mallory III, a fixture on the local business scene and a descendant of the family that once owned the home, is a very active board member of Victorian Village; he’s grateful to the city for its efforts to preserve and open the house, noting that “the city is our best partner.” He views the Mallory-Neely House as an integral part of downtown’s revitalization and as a major visitor attraction.

 

Looking from the small parlor/sitting room through a grand arch into the dining room with a vase of peacock feathers (an art nouveau flourish) in the foreground.

 

“You don’t save a house, you save a neighborhood,” he says forcefully, and hopes to see the area “come alive with activity and foot traffic.” He speaks of plans for the continuing redevelopment of the area and points to the increasing number of restaurants in close proximity: Mollie Fontaine Lounge for elegant cocktails, Evelyn & Olive with its fusion of Jamaican and Southern cuisines, Trolley Stop Market with locally grown vegetables, and a new French creperie coming soon.

Mallory recalled his own visits to the house and his once-a-month dinners with his grandmother, Miss Daisy, and has high praise for Eldridge Wright, a community activist who lived in the area and famously got the preservation ball rolling way back in the 1950s. Wright himself was a frequent visitor to the house, often enjoying a cocktail or two with Miss Daisy. To read more about Wright and how his crusade protected the area from the urban renewal wrecking ball, see two earlier stories in this magazine: “The Wright Idea” by James Cox (June 2008) and “This Sold House” by Tim Sampson (June 2010).

It is a fact that historic homes are top tourist attractions in just about every city, whether here or abroad. To illustrate that appeal, as if on cue, a handsome young couple from the Netherlands came to the door as we were leaving. They had picked up a brochure at Graceland that described the Mallory- Neely House and were enthusiastic about taking a tour. Hopefully this is the shape of things to come, as Jennifer Tucker is looking forward to a healthy number of visitors in the prime summer tourist season.

For now the home is open for 40-minute guided tours on Friday and Saturday between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Parking on Saturday is easy; on Friday, the visitors’ center can help with change for the meters out front. For more information on tour times, prices, etc. visit memphismuseums.org or call 901.523.1484. 

The dining room with its brown leather-covered chairs, richly colored carpet, and large table set for 12 is somewhat more masculine in feel than the other rooms in the house. It is said that the Victorians believed a calm, restful atmosphere in dark places helped digestion

 

Anne Cunningham O’Neill is the arts & lifestyle editor of Memphis magazine.

 

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