A Perfect Fit
How one couple brought their Lebanese heritage, heirlooms, and love of entertaining to a stunning Midtown house.
George and Nayla Nassar had already admired the exterior of this Spanish Mediterranean residence set on a deep front lawn dotted with dogwood trees. Situated well away from a busy street, it beckoned the couple to see what lay inside — a majestic front hallway with a stained-glass skylight, a vast living room graced by Old World elegance. Those glimpses alone were enough for Nayla. She knew they'd found a home not only for their family, but for furniture passed down by her Lebanese ancestors.
"As soon as I walked in, I just knew this was it," says Nayla, who named the house Arabesque for the word's romantic Middle-Eastern origin. "Arabesque" has several definitions: a posture in ballet; an elaborate or intricate design; and a style that employs flower, foliage, or fruit. To some degree all meanings apply: Balletic statues grace the front of the house, flower petals are carved in the entry hall's columns, and rich details mark its ancestral furnishings.
Built in the mid-1920s and described in Memphis: An Architectural Guide as a "Spanish fantasy, set on a terrace," the home was built for Michael J. McCormack, a cotton broker, and his wife Jeannette, a caseworker for the state. According to old city directories, one or both of the McCormacks lived here from 1926 until roughly 1948. The next family to call the place home for decades belonged to Abe Scharff, of Kraus Model Cleaners; he or a Scharff relative resided here from 1953 till 1976. After that, the home passed through several hands until the Nassars discovered it in 1987. Since then they've raised two children at Arabesque, filled it with their beloved furniture, and put their mark on its many rooms.
A native of Lebanon, Nayla graduated from the University of Belgium in Beirut, then traveled to America "mainly for fun and because we had a lot of friends here," she explains. In 1975, she met and fell in love with George, whose mother also came from Lebanon. He was attending Ole Miss, went on to earn his law degree there, and chose to work at a firm in Memphis because his family lived in nearby Greenwood, Mississippi. Today George is managing partner of Glankler Brown law firm, while Nayla handles public relations for her family's import-export business based in Lebanon.
Throughout the house, with its nearly 7,000 square feet, the furnishings reflect the Nassars' heritage. In the living room is a collection of nineteenth-century pieces made in Syria and given to the couple by Nayla's parents. The chairs, easel, mirror, and Damascene chest are inlaid with mother-of-pearl, a technique the Syrians perfected as far back as the early 1600s. According to Nayla, who has studied the art form, the furniture's wood surface is encrusted in shimmering ornamentation, which comes from mollusks and colored stones, to create floral and geometric designs that are secured into place with fine wire. The furniture's effect in the Nassars' spacious living room is almost imperial, as the chairs resemble thrones in their color, intricacy, and shape.
Carrying the effect further is a portrait that hangs over the Damascene chest. It bears Nayla's likeness, regal yet flirtatious, as she gazes from the room's terra cotta walls. "My mother had this done," says Nayla. "She gave the artist my photograph and told him about my personality." Somewhere in transit from Lebanon to Memphis, the gift sustained serious water damage, sending Nayla into tears. Fortunately the Nassars' neighbor at the time was Ellis Chappell, a well-known Memphis artist now living in New Orleans, who was able to restore the painting.
An artist also restored other cherished pieces, many of them gifts or heirlooms. Between the French doors with their Palladian arches are panels that once hung in a Syrian palace and feature carved verses from the Koran. When the panels arrived, much of the raised wood-on-plaster was crumbling. Artist and former art teacher Lynda Thomas was able to painstakingly restore the wood. Now the panels, which were probably windows or doors in an earlier setting, hold mirrors that reflect the lavish surroundings.
In the center of the room is a table of inlaid wood, a gift from a great-aunt. It's made for card games and backgammon, which the Nassars like to play. A lamp from the Ottoman era stands near a table that holds a tiny cloth hat owned by Nayla's great-great-grandmother. Inside a glass-topped case are treasured objets d'art, including seventeenth-century dance cards bearing the names of dance partners.
The Nassars' eclectic taste shows in the mixing of Louis XVI furniture with Syrian pieces. Two eighteenth-century chairs still boast the original Aubusson fabric, and a French watercolor illustrates a suitor descending a cherry tree with fruit for his sweetheart. These pieces came from the home of Nayla's aunt. "Lebanon was under French mandate," she explains, "and my uncle was high up in the government." Indeed Nayla's maternal great-grandfather was one of the 12 directors of Lebanon, and her paternal great-great-grandfather in the eighteenth century was advisor to the nation's prince.
Adorning the room's high ceiling is a Turkish chandelier with etched-glass hurricane lamps, a gift from her parents. "There was no electricity in the ceiling," she says, "so George drilled through the plaster and put in wiring. He's a lawyer," she adds, "but my husband can do anything."
Nayla is pretty handy herself. The dining room, with a blend of old and new furniture and a gold-leaf chandelier, was originally paneled in red gum wood. Much of it remains on the walls, but some panels were buckled by water damage over the years. "You can't find red gum anymore," says Nayla, "so we bought birch and I refinished those pieces." At the inner points of the room's bay window are two oak columns, a gift from George's mother. "She has a fabulous villa in Mississippi," says Nayla, "and collects unusual pieces of architecture. These were in her garage, and I told her, 'I have just the place for them.' She was instrumental in helping decorate the whole house."
Also downstairs is the cozy music room. Near a window stands a square grand Dunham piano that holds a smaller keyboard. "It's more for looks than for music," says Nayla, who adds that the couple's grown daughter, Natasha, plays the piano, son George III plays drums, and she herself plays guitar. Throughout the room, with its original Victorian fireplace and marble mantel, are family photographs and Nayla's doll collection, which her mother started as a young bride. Some dolls are likenesses of famous Arabic musicians; others are Mexican and Spanish characters acquired on the Nassars' travels. Above a sofa are original etchings from Prague and on the floor is a Persian rug. A chandelier features fringe hand-beaded by Lebanese prisoners.
Smiling from a table is a photograph of George and Nayla when they were chosen Duke and Duchess of Memphi, Carnival Memphis "royalty." Still active in social and philanthropic organizations, the Nassars entertain often. Guests seem to drift to the music room and on to the kitchen — which is Nayla's pride and joy. "It had originally been a kitchen, breakfast room, and mud room," she explains, "and the ceilings were really low, seven feet." After carefully designing how they wanted the new room to look, the Nassars had the ceilings raised, beams installed, and a bar built in the center of the kitchen. They took a piece of stained glass that hung on a chain in the dining room and had it placed in a window with lighting behind it. Handmade cabinets trimmed in beadwork enclose the microwave and refrigerator. On one wall is a fireplace — "I always wanted one in the kitchen," says Nayla — and on other walls are glass-fronted cabinets, one of which is painted a rich dark blue. The floors are of Mexican tile, some of which are hand-painted with fruits and flowers. Nayla designed the patterns in which the tiles were laid on floor and countertops. "I really love my kitchen," she says, "the warmth of it. It was my vision and it brings me joy."
When the Nassars bought the now-85-year-old house, it needed considerable repairs. Most urgent was stopping the leakage caused by a flat roof. Their solution was building a sunroom over the kitchen, where the water damage was worse. This room, too, is the Nassars' creation and a home for many playful pieces either acquired on travels or received from friends. One gift is a wicker, life-sized burro, which a neighbor friend carried on board a plane and presented to Nayla. "He said I had the perfect place for it," she laughs. It stands next to a bar that George built in his college days. "When George was in law school, we rented a house on 10 acres," says Nayla. "Sometimes he'd cut and split wood and he took this oak bark and soaked it in water to make it pliable and built it into a bar." Around the sunroom — with its Mexican tile floors, wall-to-wall windows, and railroad ceiling beams that Nayla stained herself — are more Arabic pieces, including throws and wall hangings handwoven by Bedouins, along with more Spanish dolls for Nayla's collection. In every season, she takes pleasure in the room's panoramic views and hearing raindrops on the roof.
Also upstairs are recently refinished bedrooms. "We tore out all the carpet and wallpaper," she says. "The floors are original oak like those downstairs, and they didn't even need refinishing." The master bedroom has a separate sitting room with blue walls and maroon furniture. The Louis XVI-style bedroom, painted "orange blossom" for its Mediterranean flavor, holds a brocade headboard, comforter, and curtains that were designed by Nayla and made by a seamstress who had been in George's family for years. In another room, Nayla points to a medium-sized bed — "the one we had when we first married. Look how small," she laughs. "I can't believe we slept in it." On the bed is a spread crocheted in the popcorn-stitch pattern. "My mother-in-law did one side and I did the other," says Nayla. "Now you couldn't put a gun to my head and make me do it."
When the Nassars entertain, they use the upstairs landing, or mezzanine, to set up a bar, a buffet, and a band. Some people have compared the mezzanine to that of The Peabody hotel, because of the stained glass in the ceiling and the square opening over the staircase that overlooks the grand hallway below. "Acoustically, it's nice to have the music up here," says Nayla. "There's also food and drink downstairs so our guests can flow easily through the house."
In good weather, the guests gravitate outdoors where on the front terrace they mingle with Greek goddesses the Nassars have purchased over the years, and hear water from a marble fountain. In the backyard, a flowing creek reminds the Nassars of Syria, and a discreetly placed, specially designed swimming pool blends into its natural setting. Throughout the landscaped yard are Japanese maples, camellias, dogwoods, ferns, and other perennials. Previous owners had a fiberglass pool; in its place the Nassars built a pool house, courtyard, and carport that matches the Mediterranean architecture. Also in the backyard is a guesthouse with a living room, bedroom, and bath. Once literally crumbling, the guesthouse was rebraced and resealed. Today its beach theme includes a fishing net that hung on the walls of the couple's first apartment. "I think it's perfect here," Nayla says of the room furnished in pastels and seashells. "I decorated it with my mother and friends in mind," she explains, "but I'm the one who hangs out here a lot." On a throw pillow is a saying the youthful wife, mother, hostess, and businesswoman likes to live by: Age is a number and mine is unlisted. "I never tell people my age," she says. "It's something I inherited from my grandmother. She went to her grave with that secret. I still don't know how old she was."
Back in the entry hall with the originally dark-stained columns now painted antique white to lighten up the space, Nayla laughs and calls the house a money pit. But it's clear she loves it — enough to have her old friend Ellis Chappell create a pen-and-ink drawing of its exterior. His rendering of Arabesque is on the Nassars' napkins, stationery, and invitations. "We raised our children here," she says, "and it's probably too big for us now. But it's home."
"It's not a decorator's house," she's quick to acknowledge, adding that paint colors downstairs are the same as those 20 years ago. "Decorator homes are lovely, but this is where we live and entertain. When Natasha married, we had 400 people in the house and on the terrace. I don't like repetition so I have people over for different events or occasions, not the same party each year. Whether we're hosting George's law firm, or Junior League Sustainers, or just entertaining for the sake of it with our good friends, we're happy. We love the people in Memphis. They're wonderful."