When a House Is Not a Home
Step inside five Memphis landmarks that began life as private residences.
Mollie Fontaine Photographs by Larry Kuzniewski
Houses, whether they are simple cottages or sprawling mansions, essentially serve one purpose — to provide shelter to the families who occupy them. But sometimes residents want more space, or no longer like the style of their home. Perhaps the residential character of the neighborhood changes. Or maybe the owners feel their much-loved home should be used in new and better ways. Here we offer a look at properties in Memphis — an office, museum, restaurant, and two schools — that have thrived in spaces that have been dramatically repurposed.
Mollie Fontaine Lounge
The Mollie Fontaine Taylor House was built in 1886 in the Eclectic Revival style, when wealthy Memphians crafted exquisite homes on the outskirts of the city, namely on Adams Avenue, which became known as Millionaire’s Row. Most of those are now gone, but several still stand as stately reminders of the past, serving as museums and lovely venues for weddings and private parties. But from one, the sounds of life and music emanate every night as patrons filter in for cocktails and conversation.
“I knew that no one ever got a chance to go into these homes, unless you paid to go on a tour, and I thought, what a great idea, if you could see what Memphis really had to offer back in the 1800s, and see how prosperous the city was,” says restaurateur Karen Blockman Carrier.
Eldridge Wright grew up at the corner of Jefferson and Orleans. The son of Luke Edward Wright — Tennessee Attorney General and first Civil Governor of the Philippines, among other titles — played a key role in saving many of these grand homes from the wrecking ball when urban renewal swept through the area in the 1960s. Although he couldn’t save the grand home where he grew up, he rescued the small carriage house from his parents’ former grounds as well as the Taylor property at 679 Adams.
“It was a place for transients to live. The whole side going up the stairwell had original stained-glass windows, but it had all been stolen when Eldridge moved in here, and nobody was really paying attention to it,” says Carrier.
In the 1960s, Wright sold the house to Ira Sachs Sr., who turned it into a legendary party locale, with shag carpeting everywhere and mirrors covering ceilings and walls. He even made the fourth floor into his bedroom, complete with a balcony.
“Back in the day, they had all those big perches up on the top so the women could go see their husbands coming back from war,” says Carrier. “They could see straight to the river, and I didn’t really believe it until I got out on that perch.”
Sachs sold the house in 1985 to Bill Carrier, a lighting director for motion pictures, who had met Karen while living in New York. They married two years later in their majestic home, had two sons, and resided in the Taylor House for nine years. Meanwhile, Karen had decided to start a catering business like the one she had run in New York City.
“This house was built by Noland Fontaine for his daughter Mollie as a wedding present,” says Karen Carrier. “She married a doctor, and the doctor’s office was where our downstairs bathroom is now. The office became a little baby galley kitchen sometime when Eldridge or Ira lived here. We’d cook out of there and prep on the dining room table.”
The carriage house, where the horses were kept in olden days, became a recording studio, Beautiful Sounds. Carrier decided to transfer her catering operation there and had it zoned commercial with very little hassle. When her sons began “pretend catering” to strangers along the alley behind the house, Carrier thought it might be time to move. Yet she didn’t want to give up the historic home.
“We tried to sell the house for six months, and then I realized we’d never find a house like this again. We took it off the market, and I decided to turn it into a restaurant,” says Carrier.
She would name the new place Cielo. The process this time around proved more strenuous than catering out of the carriage house. Carrier spent a full year getting the various permissions from code enforcement, along with the landmark commission, and Memphis Heritage. Among other issues, they explicitly could not tear down any walls and had to equip a commercial kitchen with a vented hood.
“We started renovation in 1994 and opened in December of ’96 to the closing of The Rainmaker. Director Francis Ford Coppola was there and we had a big night,” says Carrier. “Everything you see here was really done for Cielo, except for the few rooms I changed around in 2007.”
Carrier had carefully executed a fine-dining French restaurant, but later realized that she “wasn’t a white tablecloth kinda gal.” She instantly looked to the popularity of the restaurant’s lounge space and its history as a notorious party house for the inspiration that would become the Mollie Fontaine Lounge of today.
“It has been the best thing I ever did. I’m just so glad so many people have gotten to experience this home and see this side of Memphis. I think Mollie’s is an anchor for what’s to come,” says Carrier. “It could be a great little area of Memphis. There’s no reason why these places shouldn’t be flourishing. Thank God my husband bought it. He would have been really proud. He loved it, and I loved living here.” — AJ
Memphis Theological Seminary
One particular moment convinced officials with the Cumberland Presbyterian Theological Seminary they had made the right decision when they decided to relocate from McKenzie, Tennessee, to Memphis.
“We had brought with us the old stained-glass windows from our old campus at Bethel College,” says Memphis Theological Seminary president, Dr. Daniel J. Earhart-Brown, “And when we placed them in the windows of the upstairs ballroom, they fit perfectly in the openings. We took that as a providential sign that this was where we were supposed to be.”
Adding stained glass was about the only embellishment the old home at Union and East Parkway needed. Constructed in 1912 for cotton magnate Joseph Newberger, the three-story mansion has long been regarded as one of the most outstanding private residences in our city, with exquisite plasterwork, stone, tiles, and ornamental wrought iron that have no match here.
According to the authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide, “Newberger was a cotton factor with offices all over the world and, in architecture, cosmopolitan tastes to match.” He based the design of his Beaux Arts home on a similar building he had seen at Versailles, and the result was — and still is — stunning, with an entrance hall large enough for a cathedral.
Newberger died on a business trip to New York in the 1920s, and the house passed into other hands. By the late 1950s, it was occupied by an elderly woman who lived in just three rooms of the sprawling mansion.
After considering offers from Nashville and Little Rock, the seminary purchased the property in 1962 for just $95,000. At the time, the school had just 45 students and only seven faculty members. Even then, the home — renamed Founders Hall — didn’t quite meet their needs.
“When the seminary first moved here, we worked out an arrangement with Lindenwood Christian Church across the street,” says Earhart-Brown. “We held classes at Lindenwood and mainly used this building as offices and space for the library. At various times over the almost 50 years that we’ve been here, we have outgrown the space and added new facilities. Lindenwood has been a wonderful partner during all this time, letting our students use their parking lot during the week, and we let them use our parking lot on Sundays.”
Earhart-Brown’s impressive office was once Newberger’s private library, and the original shelving, ornate light fixtures, marble fireplace, and sculpted plaster ceiling are relatively unchanged. The downstairs parlor and upstairs bedrooms have been transformed into faculty offices, and the seminary president shows interesting details of the houses. The bedroom closets, for example, had separate entrances that opened into the hallway for the Newbergers’ servants, so they could put clothes inside without disturbing anyone sleeping in the adjacent bedrooms.
The original kitchen, still lined with gleaming white marble tile, has been reduced in size, with half of it also turned into offices. Men’s and women’s bathrooms off the “Great Hall,” as the entrance hall is aptly named, are probably original as well.
In a way, the house has almost been turned around, since the main entrance now faces the parking lot to the rear, where the Newbergers’ once had a nice garden. But the front entrance, with its massive wrought-iron doors as heavy as those on a bank vault, is still used and opens onto a stone terrace overlooking East Parkway.
“One of the most creative adaptations is upstairs,” says Earhart-Brown, “where a large ballroom has been converted into our chapel. I’ve talked to several older Memphians who remember coming here for dances and parties in the past.”
The seminary quickly outgrew its space. Purchasing the former Judge Julian Wilson House next door (now called Cumberland Hall)helped with the overcrowding, as did other additions over the years to accommodate a student enrollment of more than 300, with a full-time faculty of 16. As a result, the original 5,000-square-foot home has been expanded to more than 25,000 square feet.
An especially interesting addition is the new library, a four-story structure that blends so well with the original building, and tucked in behind it, that it is hardly noticeable.
Even the old three-bay carriage house that once held the Newbergers’ buggies and, later, automobiles has seen new life as a multipurpose student center. An apartment upstairs has been converted into even more offices.
There’s still work to be done. At some point, the school hopes to restore the elaborate fountain outside the front door. But all in all, the house has served as a great home, and the authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide note, “The Memphis Theological Seminary deserves kudos for taking care of this house.” — MF
The Dixon Gallery and Gardens
It’s not that hard turning a decidedly upscale private residence into an art gallery, especially when the home is surrounded by 17 acres of Tennessee woodlands and gardens. What’s difficult is maintaining the residential feel of the property as it evolves into a truly world-class museum.
“The big challenges would be climate, light, and security,” says Kevin Sharp, director of the Dixon since 2007, “and we’ve overcome all of them.”
While understandably reluctant to discuss the security precautions — we’d rather not publish any tips to prospective art thieves here — Sharp explains that installing special ultraviolet light-resistant panels over the existing windows eliminated the danger that harsh Southern sunlight could cause to the works in their collection. In addition, a considerably more robust HVAC system tackled the problem with humidity, which can be equally damaging to fragile paintings, drawings, and textiles.
The real challenge, he says, was maintaining the overall feel of the residence, and that requires a rather delicate balance.
“The house effects a kind of Georgian Revival look, but we have to remember that it was actually built in 1941,” says Sharp. “So for old house aficionados, it’s not that old, really, and since it’s not strictly a ‘historic’ house, we’re not trying to preserve that aspect of it.”
That has given the Dixon staff freedom to make necessary expansions over the years, but the intent is to follow, as much as possible, the original “blueprint” of the design.
“People walk in the main entrance, which is the Catmur Foyer, and assume they are in the Dixon home,” Sharp says, “and that is because the architects who did our expansions in 1977 and 1985 erred — if they really erred at all — on the side of domesticity. So even aspects that were never a residence feel like a residence.”
Hugo Dixon had made a fortune in the cotton business when he and his wife, Margaret, hired Houston architect John Staub to build the red brick home at the corner of Park and Cherry.
“While it has a grand old feel, it is actually a fairly modest home,” says Sharp. “Remember it was only the two of them, Hugo and Margaret, living here. Despite all the stateliness of the columns, it’s not as large as you might think, and I’m not really sure there was even a bathroom downstairs. I think the upstairs bathroom was the only original one.”
Much of the original residence is relatively intact. Sharp’s office was once Margaret Dixon’s bedroom, and such rooms as the downstairs dining room are still used as a dining room — for patrons and benefactors. The Dixons’ dining room table still stands in the middle of the room, and recessed shelves display their everyday china.
“That’s kind of a special room to us,” says Sharp, “because it’s not too hard to imagine all the living that took place around that table. And there are plenty of people alive today who walk into that room and remember well the experience of dining with the Dixons there.”
As early as the 1950s, Hugo Dixon began setting up a trust that would transfer ownership of the property to a private foundation. He and his wife passed away the same year — 1974 — and Sharp says he thinks Hugo would be delighted with what has become of the property.
The first expansion took place immediately after the Dixon opened to the public in 1976. “That’s when we built the administrative office that connect to the residence on the west, and some galleries that come off the residence on the other side,” says Sharp. “Then there was the second expansion in 1985, when we built the Catmur Foyer, the large gallery, and the Winegardner Auditorium.” That wing also includes the gift shop, public bathrooms, and storage space.
Outside, the gardens have seen impressive changes ever since Hugo began creating them with the help of his sister, Hope Crutchfield, who basically designed the beautiful arrangements by correspondence, sending the Dixons sketches, plans, and suggestions from her home in Vermont. The general layout has remained unchanged, though thousands of plantings have been added over the years.
A special addition is the Hughes Pavilion, which was constructed a few years ago atop the Dixon’s swimming pool to the south of the home. The old pool is actually still there, beneath the pavilion, serving as a reservoir for water used in the gardens.
“The Dixons held elegant parties around the pool, and any number of men my age or older have stories of jumping the back fence and swimming in that pool,” says Sharp. “Now we use that space for board meetings, receptions, and special events. We’ve had some really gorgeous weddings out there.”
When Hugo and Margaret Dixon decided to open their art collection and gardens to the public, they probably never dreamed that their home would one day be considered a world-class museum, hosting major exhibitions of works by Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin, and — opening June 26th — Jean-Louis Forain (see page 36).
“It’s certainly been interesting working in a former residence,” says Sharp. “It’s office space, storage space, and display space. We have used it in every possible way you can imagine. — MF
Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects
We shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us.” That’s a quote from Winston Churchill, of all people, and Lee Askew likes it so much he has it framed on the wall of his offices at 1500 Union. It helps to explain, Askew says, why an architecture firm known for such mega-projects as the University of Memphis law school, Buckman Hall at Christian Brothers University, and St. George’s Episcopal Church, among many others, decided to use an early 1900s residence as their headquarters instead of designing their own building.
“Once anyone sees what we’ve done with this space, we did design it,” he says. “We have adaptively reused it — the frame and shell of an old home that we have used in a very positive way, and it’s certainly more interesting than moving into existing office space. That’s just not me.”
The stately two-story house has certainly had its share of different owners. City directories indicate it was constructed in 1911. The first occupant was apparently Levi Joy, president of a merchandise brokerage firm on Main Street. A few years later, it became home to Dr. Max Goltman, a physician and surgeon, who lived here with his family for a dozen years.
In the 1930s it served as a residence for an estimator with Enochs Lumber and Manufacturing Company, and that was the last time a family occupied the building. Once lined with grand homes, Union Avenue had evolved into one of our city’s major commercial arteries, and the properties along the street reflected that change. For one year — 1939 — the building housed Cole-Wilson Funeral Directors. After standing vacant for several years, it then became the free clinic for the Southern College of Optometry. The 1950s were essentially years of dormancy, though the manager of the popular Pig ‘n’ Whistle drive-in lived here in 1953.
In 1964, not just one but two funeral companies moved in — Spencer-Sturla and J.T. Hinson & Son. They maintained a steady business here for several years, until the interior decorating firm of Slenker & Kirkpatrick purchased the building in 1970, and remained here for more than a decade. They joined a group of designers and decorators that were calling this block of Union Avenue home. Later owners sold antiques, oriental rugs, and even pianos out of the old house. Askew, who had started his firm back in 1976 in a smaller building to the rear — a former home that faced Monroe — moved into 1500 Union in 1996.
Converting the former home really didn’t present any special challenges, says Askew. “A home is usually broken up into smaller spaces, which we like.” Askew’s own office is the former dining room, and across the wide hall, the old parlor now serves as a conference room. “We’ve managed to work our way through most of the puzzles presented to us, and architects tend to like puzzles.”
Massive stairs inside the entrance were removed, and a pair of carved wooden columns on the front porch was relocated to a meeting room inside. Other rooms, upstairs and down, were turned into offices and storage, and a major expansion on the back of the house now provides space for the art galleries and parties that the firm has become known for.
“Architects often have interesting and unusual offices because that’s the kind of creatures we are,” says Askew. “So they serve as good meeting places. People will go there just to see how weird the spaces are, so for the past 25 years or so, this has been a center for community events. A lot of people know us, mainly because of all the events we have here.”
Some of the best features of the house, he admits, were by happenstance. “We wouldn’t have planned it like that,” he says, “but we realized this is better that what we would have done.”
One example is the pleasant courtyard that connects the buildings on Union and Monroe. Filled with sculptures and trees, it’s a great space for meetings and “infinite uses from parties to receptions.”
Other spaces were creatively re-used. A room used for embalming when the house was a funeral parlor now serves as the firm’s conference room. “We joke about that,” says Askew, “whenever a project goes dead on us.”
All in all, the old home on Union has proved to be a great location. “We really made it work for us,” says Askew, “And it’s been more than we expected — better than we imagined when we bought it.” — MF
Miss Lee’s School
In 1906, Turley Green, then a clerk at Oliver-Finnie Grocery Company, moved into a simple center-hall plan cottage at 1760 Peabody Avenue that would eventually became an institution in the realm of Memphis education.
The house changed hands the very next year to C.A. Haynes, a carpenter, and then again in 1913 to George T. Vance, a cotton buyer who enjoyed the run of the house until 1922, when machinist Cooper Baldridge and Miss Eva Lee took up residence there. A teacher at Miss Hutchison’s School for Girls since 1916, Miss Lee harbored dreams of running her own school, emphasizing an education in manners, art, and music.
She has become a rather mysterious figure within the framework of Memphis history. The very next year, she found new lodgings in the Morningside Park subdivision, and a new owner — salesman Jesse Wyatt — moved into the little cottage on Cooper.
Then in 1924, Miss Lee, as she is always known, moved back into her old address — this time alone. She hired noted Memphis architect George Mahan to make alterations to the house, and simultaneously founded Miss Lee’s School of Childhood, opening her home to Memphis schoolchildren. It has remained an educational landmark for almost 90 years.
She educated boys and girls (then up to grade six, although enrollment would expand to the eighth grade in the 1970s) on “purposefulness,” health, ballet, and Spanish, among other subjects, even printing up her own song books, titled The Children’s Hour, while keeping a living space in what is now the school’s front office. When she passed away, her family gave the property to Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in 1986, under the implicit instruction that it would remain Miss Lee’s Campus as part of their school.
“When we talk about the preschool it is still known as Miss Lee’s. It’s funny because the kids sometimes think that my name is Miss Lee,” says Jennifer Vest, in her third year as Head of Preschool at Grace-St. Luke’s (GSL).
Former Memphis Mayor Wyeth Chandler spoke at the dedication ceremony on February 15, 1987, as he had attended Miss Lee’s himself and at the time had grandchildren attending GSL. Miss Lee’s remained in its original state as a quaint neighborhood school until 1998, when the first expansion doubled the number of classrooms from three to six, allowing for a multipurpose room and much-needed office space.
“The teachers that are still here who worked here before the 1998 alteration said that the hardwood floors ran throughout the building, the playground was all wooded, and there was decking built around the trees. It was more of a natural space,” says Vest
Over the years, despite all the renovations, a concerted attempt was made to keep the homelike nature of the property.
“I know the architects spent a lot of time making sure that the new part of the building blended well with the rest of it,” says Vest, “so that included how they designed the windows and doors and the outside features.”
Before then, teachers and students alike faced the issues that come with a typical midtown house, such as flooding in the basement and hauling materials up to the attic, which was used entirely for storage. Now, with plenty of space built into the extensive second phase of construction to the original structure, the basement remains empty and unused. Or is it?
“I don’t think I’d want to go down there anyway,” says Vest. “Every once in a while the door will come ajar and someone will say, ‘Miss Lee is coming, we’ve made her mad somehow!’ That’s sort of our joke, that she’s still with us.”
And surely her spirit does remain in the warm, safe atmosphere of her former home, where children ages 3 and 4 come to preschool to learn and be cared for year-round.
“Since it was a home, it helps to create a homelike atmosphere in the school, especially for the youngest children,” says Vest. “It’s a wonderful transition for them, to come from being with mom and then coming to their first preschool. It’s like coming to another house,” says Vest.
“Having been a former residence places us in the middle of a neighborhood,” she continues. “That really defines what GSL is, because even though we’re an independent school, we’re very much a neighborhood school. Many of our children walk to school or ride bikes. They’re just around the corner.” — AJ M