Still Standing

Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.

Dear Vance: While looking through some 1925 copies of The Architectural Record, I found a fascinating old advertisement for a mansion
in Memphis owned by a Judge Julian Wilson.  Has this nice house survived?
—R.B., Memphis.

Dear R.B.: Sometimes I think my humdrum life lacks the thrill of my younger days, especially when I spend the entire weekend poring over yellowed copies of True Detective Mysteries (often featuring crimes committed by my family) or idly perusing my first editions of Edgar Allan Poe.

Then you show up, telling me that you actually read back issues of something called The Architectural Record — apparently paying special attention to exciting ads from the American Hardwood Manufacturers Association — and I feel much better about myself.

Still, I have to admit that your query actually interested me, so I carefully conceived a two-phase approach to solving this puzzle. First, I looked up Julian Wilson’s address in old telephone books archived in the Lauderdale Library. After a few days’ rest from that ordeal, I began phase two: I actually drove to that address — 170 East Parkway South — to see if the house was still standing.

And it is, as you can see from the fine photograph here.  But it’s no longer a residence. Nowadays, renamed Cumberland Hall, it’s part of the campus of Memphis Theological Seminary. And except for a few minor details, it looks as if it hasn’t aged in the 70-plus years since it was featured in The Architectural Record.

John Vaughn, the seminary’s director of facilities, was kind enough to give me a tour of the former home, which has been converted into classrooms and offices. In their ad, the hardwood association folks chided anyone who might try to improve their product, saying, “Red gum should be finished as to bring out its own charm of color. It is absurd to destroy this in an attempt to imitate other wood less worthy.” Well, as Vaughn proudly pointed out, the red gum moldings, banisters, bookcases, and doors throughout the former home still glow with a golden-brown patina — untouched by new paint or varnish. I guess the hardwood association was right, after all.

Naturally I was curious about the home’s original owner, but I wasn’t able to find out very much. Not by my nitpicky standards, anyway. Julian Wilson was born in 1872 in Brookhaven, Mississippi. His name first shows up here in old city directories, where he is identified as a lawyer, living at 1137 Eastmoreland and maintaining offices in the Tennessee Trust Building.

In 1920, he moved up in the world, it seems, because he became a partner in the law firm of Wilson and Armstrong, one of our city’s largest. About this time he moved into the grand home on East Parkway, with his wife, Mary. He was in good company there. Neighbors along that stretch of East Parkway at the time were wealthy owners or presidents of local cotton and lumber companies.

Though the ad shown here clearly calls him a judge, throughout his career the telephone books identify him as an attorney. Wilson died in 1944 at the age of 71, and even his death certificate calls him an attorney, not a judge. He was laid to rest back home in Brookhaven. When his wife passed away a few years later, the home went through just a few owners before 1986, when it was acquired — and in fact, physically linked to — Memphis Theological Seminary. It’s a fine-looking building; I’m glad they were able to save it and put it to such good use.


Dear Vance: What do you remember about a snazzy chain of pizza restaurants call Cibo Houses?
—T.J., Memphis.

Dear T.J.: I remember nothing, but that shouldn’t surprise you. My family rarely ventured outside the Mansion to dine, and on those rare occasions when we did — birthdays, anniversaries, and Lauderdale Day — we didn’t journey to cheap little takeout places, no matter how “snazzy” they appeared. It just wasn’t done, you see.

But then I turned up this wonderful old postcard for a Cibo House, and realized that perhaps my family had passed up a real dining adventure, because just look at the place. It’s like a pop art wonderland — a bright red-and-white building, with glass walls, rows of arches, and diners perched on stools beneath a colorful awning inside. The back of the postcard casually mentions the “distinctively different exterior, and the smart, efficient, colorful interior.” Who cares if the pizza was good or bad, when you got to munch on it in such a festive environment?

Ah, but wait. This card is obviously just an illustration; it’s not an actual photograph of a Cibo House, so I began to wonder if they really existed, and if they actually looked like this.

Well, I can say “yes” to the first part. In 1962, a fellow named J. Douglas Woods formed the National Cibo House Corporation, and opened three of the little pizza parlors in Memphis: at 1142 Jackson, 3755 Southern, and 4495 Summer. A year later, it seems he opened a couple more, at 3180 Thomas and 706 Waring.

The phone books told me that the Cibo House company had gone out of business years ago. But I spent the day driving to all these locations, hoping that the rather fantastic architecture depicted on the postcard had survived. I’m sorry to say that my travels were in vain. Most of the original Cibo locations are now vacant lots; the one on Jackson was demolished to make way for the I-240 entrance ramp. As far as I can tell, 4495 Summer wasn’t even a freestanding building, but was tuckedinto a row of humble brick structures, so it’s safe to say that particular Cibo never looked like the one depicted on the postcard.

Woods’ pizza venture didn’t last 10 years, and despite the “national” part of the company’s name, I just don’t know if other Cibo Houses were erected in other cities. Perhaps the firm’s demise had something to do with the name. “Cibo” is Italian for “food,” and it’s not easy to persuade the family to hop in the car and drive across town for a big slice of “food pizza.” Not a family like the Lauderdales, anyway. 

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