Warts & All

If you want to change the world, you've got to start somewhere. John Griffin started in Greenlaw. And Memphis is lucky he did.

Uptown will always be Greenlaw to John Griffin, perhaps the man most responsible for its survival.

photographs by Amie Vanderford

John Griffin isn’t on Facebook. He doesn’t have a website, blog, Twitter account, or Pinterest page. He’s never promoted his work, and as far as the Internet’s concerned, this ultra-busy, modestly successful Memphis home rebuilder/rediscoverer/redesigner might as well not exist. Binging his name returns only one phone number, a land line with no answering machine or voicemail service to pick up when nobody’s home. 

Which is often. John Griffin isn’t playing hard to get; he’s really very serious about it. Everything he does seems to reinforce an idea that more interesting and authentic experiences are only available to people who work a little harder, explore beyond the usual borders, and spend more time thinking about the things they’ve looked at a thousand times, but have never really seen. He’s part artist, part archaeologist, and extremely grateful for older, more traditional forms of social networking.

“A glitzy web presence doesn’t make people comfortable,” Griffin says, blowing steam from a bite of seafood risotto in the warmly lit dining room of his hundred-year-old house in Memphis’ Uptown neighborhood. A jovial sixty-something with the kind of pixie-ish good looks that tell you he’s younger than that inside, maybe by three or four decades, Griffin may not be Internet-savvy, but he still knows the score.

Despite not having voicemail, Griffin does believe in texting, and during one part of this interview his thoughts are cut short by a mobile phone that buzzes and shakes with one message after another. One is from the first tenant to move into a rental unit Griffin recently completed in the Bayou St. John section of New Orleans. The electricity had just been switched on, the new resident texts, and she’s so excited about her new apartment she’s sending her landlord photos of the bathroom and the walk-in closet.

“What makes people comfortable is having a best friend say, ‘I want you to come over here and see what John did for me,’” Griffin says, picking up where he left off. “That’s the old-school way of doing things: When people see something they like and say, wow, I want to know who did that!”

These days Griffin mostly works on relatively upscale projects in nicer neighborhoods. “Oh, you know: a kitchen here, a master suite there,” he chuckles. “Maybe a client I’ve had for 30 years calls me in to bless a color.” But as a young designer not from around these parts, he cut his teeth with historically sensitive rehabs in Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods, on downtown’s north and south fringes. He still lives in what was one of his first Big Idea projects, back in the late 1970s, back when his scruffy neighborhood was known as Greenlaw, long before it morphed into something more respectable called Uptown.

Griffin’s made a habit of personally renovating nineteenth- and early twentieth-century homes in marginal transitional neighborhoods, where it was difficult if not impossible to get appraisals that reflected actual investment, even before the 2008 Crash. “I’m not just a sick puppy,” he says of his compulsion to balance successful commercial projects with magnificent obsessions. “I’m a very sick puppy.”

John Griffin and then-partner Russell Armstrong renovated this 1850's Greenlaw cottage not far from his home in 1997.

Back in 1970, John Griffin graduated from William and Mary with a degree in painting, but with the sneaking suspicion that, no matter how hard he tried, he wasn’t going to be the next Willem de Kooning. Advisers reminded him that he’d shown an affinity for architecture, and recommended Parsons New School of Design in New York. With no other real options on the table, portfolios were assembled, acceptance letters arrived, and Griffin headed off to Manhattan without the faintest idea of what he really wanted to do with his life.

“They told me I’d have to pick a department,” Griffin says, still horrified by the prospect. “I don’t do dresses,” he says, “so fashion design was out. Illustration had never been a strong suit, and product design was as intimidating as it was intriguing. Environmental design, on the other hand, sounded like something I could have fun with.

“That department had one of everything,” he says. There was a sculptor who’d studied with Isamu Noguchi and a color theorist who’d studied with Josef Albers. There was a landscape historian, a graphic designer, a furniture designer, an architect, and an urban planner.

“They had it all.”

Griffin was especially impressed with instructors who pulled clients into the classroom looking for more efficient ways to introduce students into the fabric of the community. “If Parsons had a philosophy, it was rebuilding the built environment,” Griffin says. “New York was already built, so we asked how can we change things and make them better.” 

This idea, a guiding force behind so much of Griffin’s later work in Memphis, was driven home during his last year at Parsons, when he took part in a project that changed New York’s subway stations. A Union Square business had set aside $40,000 for a team of Parsons students to redesign the façade for their building, which was adjacent to the Union Square subway station. The student designers went to work redesigning not only the façade, but also the station and attendant green spaces. They studied street life and how people actually used the busy subway stop at the intersection of 14th Avenue and Fourth Street. 

At the end of the school year, three design teams pitched their plans to the New York Parks Department, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), and various Union Square businesses. Although the original store-owners passed on the façade, the MTA was intrigued by the proposal, and Griffin was given a year-long contract to repaint and resign the Union Square station.

In the early 1970s New York subway stations were all blue and silver. “Boring,” Griffin says, drawing the word out like a foghorn. “There was a wild Latin market happening all up and down 14 th Street. This station needed to be red and gold. We told them the lighting was horrible, and there needed to be a clear map, not of the subway station, but of what was going on upstairs.

“And they bought it!” After the Union Square improvements, the MTA changed its system design policy and started differentiating subway stations by color.

This late nineteenth-century duplex in Greenlaw was restored by Griffin in 2001.

Griffin spent three more years in New York, restoring lofts in Tribeca and working on houses in the Hamptons. But he never liked the city’s breakneck pace. “It’s really hard,” he says. “Everybody moves so quickly; you’re so busy in the city, and then you’re so busy trying to get out of the city.” Relationships were impossible, he remembers. “It’s just not for me. It’s just not for me.

 “I started interviewing for another city,” Griffin says. “I grew up in Virginia, but I’d been living off-planet; now it was time for the heartland.” He reconnected with Roz Willis, a former classmate from Parsons. Willis was from Memphis, but she was now married and studying landscape design at Berkeley and living in Oakland.

“We’d become fast friends at Parsons because we were both from the South and the only people there who knew what blackeyed peas were,” Griffin says. So he moved to California. Plans were made to launch a landscaping business, and while Willis worked on her master’s thesis, Griffin took part-time work as a gardener to learn as much as he could about the local flora. And then the water ran out. “The drought that year was terrible,” Griffin says. “No water to drink, no water to bathe in, and there was certainly no water for landscaping.”

Griffin called Willis, who had flown to Memphis to visit family, and told her not to come back. “There’s no work here,” he said. There was, however, work in Memphis and so, in the balmy winter of 1977, he headed South.

Griffin has long been active in New Orleans as well as Memphis, especially in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. His transformation fo this early-twentieth century duplex in the Bayou St. John neighborhood of New Orleans was completed in 2011.

Willis’ father was A.W. Willis, the civil-rights attorney and businessman who opened Memphis’ first fully racially integrated law firm, and who, in 1964, became the first African-American to serve in the Tennessee legislature since Reconstruction. The senior Willis was moving offices to a new location, and hired his daughter and Griffin to manage the job. It was the young designer’s first time in the Deep South and, living in the Willis’ attic on North Parkway, he was immersed in the culture and politics of Memphis’ emerging black middle class.

“I loved it,” Griffin says. “I asked Roz, why would we ever go back to Oakland when we could be living and working here?” A.W. Willis, an advocate of African-American home ownership, purchased blocks of 1950s-era double shotguns all over north and south Memphis; Boxes Trees, Inc., the business Griffin and the younger Willis founded, became his company’s building arm. “We did the renovations. A.W. found the financing and the qualified buyers. And we sold the houses as fast as we could finish them,” Griffin says. 

Long before bike lanes came to Memphis, John Griffin was a cycling enthusiast; for many years it was his sole means of transportation. He biked all over Downtown and Midtown looking for houses to buy, destroy, and piece back together. Hard as it is to believe today, a house in Central Gardens in the late 1970s could still be bought for less than $35,000. The price was right, but not what Griffin had in mind. These Midtown homes were all in relatively good shape, and it didn’t make sense to pay that much for a plaything. “I like to think of these things as Tinker Toys,” he says. “I want to tear them all apart and put them back together.” 

At the time Griffin was renting half a duplex in Greenlaw for $50 a month. That price paid for a roof, two sinks, a toilet, tub, and not much else. The neighborhood was down at the heels and predominantly African-American, but it was also welcoming, so when he found the right house for the right price, Griffin became a permanent resident. 

One day shortly thereafter, Griffin stopped for lunch at Hoots, a Second Street sundry and deli with a sign outside reading “Eat here if it kills you, we need the money.” He hadn’t realized, however, that he’d forgotten his wallet until he was ready to pay the check. The man behind the counter sized him up and asked, “Are you the new white boy in the neighborhood?” Griffin remembers. “That’s me,” he said, at which point he was told he could come back and pay whenever he could.

“I was impressed.” 

Carol Neidenberg, a close friend now living in San Diego who has known Griffin since he first moved to Greenlaw, was less so. “It was all so desolate,” she recalls. “It was extremely impoverished and a little scary.” John himself chooses other words: poor, black, mostly retired folk. “Everybody had chickens, and a garden. Everybody knew everybody else, and there wasn’t a squirrel, raccoon, or possum in the neighborhood.”

Before it morphed into Uptown, Greenlaw was one of Memphis’ earliest suburbs, located at the original end of the late-1800s streetcar line. Prosperous downtown merchants were building cottages and townhouses there at about the same time that Memphis cotton barons were building grand homes in what is now Victorian Village. In 1978, Griffin paid $7,000 for his “new” house on Looney; over the past 30 years he’s restored many late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century residential structures in the neighborhood, but he still calls this one home.

Judith Johnson, a realtor and a past president of Memphis Heritage, says she’s constantly inspired by Griffin’s love and respect for Memphis’ built urban environment. “His vision and dedication almost single-handedly saved the old Greenlaw neighborhood, an area which has now experienced its rebirth as Uptown.”

“More warm bodies are always good,” Griffin says of Uptown’s recent forward progress. It’s a bit of a backhanded compliment. The generally suburban design that has taken hold in the area frustrates him. The houses are too far apart, he says, and commercial development hasn’t been woven directly into the fabric of the neighborhood. 

“But I still have this great house with a view of the Pyramid and the M-bridge, where I can grow figs and grapes,” he says, forgetting to mention the rest of his abundant garden or the rosemary hedges greeting visitors to the front stoop. 

Griffin's emphasis was upon tasteful modernization rather than major restoration with this recent Chickasaw Gardens project. Kitchen remodels have been a Griffin specialty over the last quarter-century.

"Beg, borrow, and steal” has always been the financial strategy behind John Griffin’s Greenlaw rehabs. When the banking and lending crisis settled in, his personal projects there slowed down and eventually came grinding to a stop.

“In Memphis money doesn’t always cross the color line so easily,” he says. “Even black folk don’t renovate black neighborhoods. It’s an odd cultural thing that I didn’t grow up with and don’t understand.

“But I’ve always had a taste for the underbelly. It’s always a lot more interesting, it’s a lot more needy, and if you really want to tear something apart, why in the world would you pay good money for it?”

It’s not all about the money, of course. Garland Sullivan, a general contractor who frequently partners with Griffin on design/building projects, sums things up neatly. “You never know what you’re going to find when you tear out a wall,” he says. 

“Oh. My. God.” This is what John Griffin remembers saying when he knocked a chunk of crumbling plaster off the wall of a dilapidated shack on Looney west of Sixth Street. As the old interior wall fell away from the building, a different exterior wall came into view. 

“Here was this cabin,” he says. “It was so beautiful. So perfect. There was cypress hand-drawn lathing, and cypress hand-drawn battens on boards. You could see the timber framing. This was a kind of feudal building style that came over with the colonists from Europe! They built crofters houses like this in the 1400s, and here it was again, unchanged in this room.” Instead of tearing down a broken shack, this mid-nineteenth-century cabin, one of Memphis’ oldest habitable structures, was meticulously restored. 

Griffin’s eye for historic detail came in especially handy while helping to develop a waterfront property in Nantucket, off the coast of Massachusetts, for his longtime friends and clients, George and Nicole Treadwell. An old fisherman’s cottage stood on the land; the couple lived there happily, but were ready to do something more. 

“This is when everybody was building mega-mansions,” Griffin recalls, and even though they [the Treadwells] didn’t want to do that, local architects were steering them in that direction.” Nicole Treadwell called and invited Griffin up to New England to help her figure out how to talk to the architects. 

“For four or five days, we walked the land and talked about what it might be like if we built a little village,” Griffin explains. “There would be a studio and a guest cottage. The buildings could all reflect traditional, environmentally-driven styles with cat-slide roofs, designed to take in heat from the sun and turn away the harsh nor’easter winds.” 

Early builders in the area didn’t have a lot of wood to work with, so forms tended to be simple, with little additions called warts. “A little wart here, a little wart there,” Griffin says. The original sketches were submitted to the architects to be redrawn, and the design sailed through Nantucket’s rigorous approval process — warts and all — with nothing but accolades. 

Garland Sullivan marvels at Griffin’s ability to sit down with a client for the very first time, and hand-draw their vision over a cup of coffee. He calls his friend an artist and a gentleman, but compares him to a physician who keeps pace with advancing medical technology, re-assessing everything he knows every few years or so. “He’s a student of how people live,” Sullivan says. “And he’s always traveling somewhere: Italy, Spain, Mexico, wherever.” 

For 15 years Griffin has kept a second residence in New Orleans, where he says there’s more positive energy — and a lot more positive value — in houses at the moment. A 1928 bungalow off Esplanade he bought for $60,000 immediately appraised at $180,000 and was valued at $350,000 after his rehab. Griffin’s taken a roommate to keep the top half occupied when he’s out of town, and rents out the bottom. “It’s a $1,300 note that brings in $1,800 monthly,” he says. “Not bad.”

“New Orleans is an amazing residential architecture encyclopedia,” Griffin explains. “I go there to solve problems and find solutions. If I need to figure out how to build a cover over my front-facing attic window, I can drive around New Orleans for 30 minutes and see six examples. In Memphis, with great effort, I can probably find two.

“But nearly all of my work is in Memphis,” he sighs, not altogether unhappily. “When people I’ve worked for in New Orleans ask why I don’t do more work there, I ask why don’t they send me some more referrals?” We’re glad they don’t. 


Editor’s note: Chris Davis is a staff writer with the Memphis Flyer; he moved to Uptown in the mid-1990s back when it was still called Greenlaw, and absolutely nothing was “up." John Griffin salvaged the Gothic cottage he bought through Memphis Heritage in 2000; Griffin had renovated the apartment Davis rented for years before that. From the spacious balcony of his rented Victorian townhouse, Davis watched Griffin slowly and methodically excavate that rustic nineteeth-century cabin from the remains of a hopelessly broken shack across the street. He’s a believer.

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