An architectural treasure is tucked away off Walnut Grove.
photography by Andrea Zucker
The home of Rush and Julia O’Keefe rises up in almost dreamlike fashion on a peaceful side street in East Memphis. Surrounded by far newer suburban houses, the couple’s stately white brick Georgian home was built in 1924 for Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Peders Norfleet, by the Memphis architecture firm of Jones and Furbringer. Its handsome black shutters, wrought-iron balcony railings, and horsehead hitching posts add to the old-style allure — not to mention the home’s incredible curb appeal.
Profiled in the classic coffee-table book, History of Homes and Gardens of Tennessee (1936), this particular house was originally the centerpiece of the Norfleet family’s country estate, “Walnut Grove.” Once encompassing several hundred acres, and famed for its beautiful gardens, especially its boxwoods and azaleas, the property was subdivided over time, ultimately lending its name to the east-west artery we know today as Walnut Grove Road. The O’Keefes bought the home 11years ago, and though the extent of the grounds is much reduced, it is a blessing that this amazing treasure still stands.
Pilar Viladas, design editor of The New York Times style magazine, recently observed that “one person’s idea of perfection is another’s idea of too much — or not enough.” To my mind this home is pure perfection, with its great architectural bones and proportions, its millwork and moldings, its arches and fenestration. And if some of the home’s features, including its magnificent entrance hall and monumental winding staircase, look a bit familiar to regular readers, that’s because “Beverly Hall,” the Wheeler home in Central Gardens featured in the May 2012 issue of Memphis, was designed by the very same architects.
These beautiful, irreplaceable architectural details are what make the home so special. The transoms, six fireplaces, pocket doors, original hardwood floors, the perspective of the arches lining up from end to end of the house, and the elevator with its brass scissor doors so reminiscent of the period all add up to a timeless solidity difficult to duplicate in the modern world. At the same time, this spacious, high-ceilinged home feels light and airy as the sun streams in from all sides.
Once inside the palatial entry hall with its stunning pair of trumeau mirrors, the visitor is captivated by the view through French doors into the grand reception room and beyond into the garden. The hand-blocked, antique Zuber scenic wallpaper is worthy of Versailles, and overall the room is European in feel with its mix of Italian and French antiques.
At one end of the house is the former ballroom, which is now the formal dining room featuring elegant pale blue-green walls and draperies and antique tapestries and chairs. I can well imagine all the grand parties and wedding receptions that have taken place here through the years. Next to it is a small, cozy room to which in the old days the gentlemen would retire for their post-prandial cigars and brandy. It is richly wood-paneled, with a trellis-patterned wallpaper ceiling and a colorful vintage rug.
At the opposite end of the home is a sweet confection of a powder room, with a skirted antique sink, a cane and marble-topped table, crystal light fixtures, a French settee upholstered in pastel stripes, and dainty patterned wallpaper. Similarly this “lightness of being” extends to the small foyer leading into the kitchen area, which features a lovely painted table and mirror.
Julia hand-picked many of the antique pieces in the house, but she tells me that more recently she’s tried to balance the traditional furnishings and fittings with a more contemporary esthetic — a grey paint palette with pops of color in modern paintings, iron light fixtures, and new upholstered furniture. She thinks grey is a great neutral which is evidenced in the little sitting room off the kitchen, with its Barcelona chair and Paul Edelstein painting. Julia expressed her gratitude to Amy Howard for providing the pair of stylish new stools for this space as well as some of the flowers for our photo shoot. The handsome breakfast room with its grey linen upholstered chairs and accents of orange overlooks the back of the property.
The totally transformed family room/den was designed by Nashville’s Beckwith Interiors and now has a “refreshed elegance” — in other words “tradition with a twist.” The look is sophisticated, and yes, a lot of grey can be found here as well, punctuated with chartreuse drapes.
Upstairs, the master bedroom is done in grey, lilac, and white. It has a Hollywood feel, with its white leather headboard, lilac bedding, mirrored bedside tables and lamps and luxurious drapes. The room’s five windows offer gorgeous views of the gardens.
The O’Keefes’ son, Reece, has a bedroom decorated in rustic hunting-lodge style, with a rough-hewn bed, and canoe paddles and taxidermy on the walls. In contrast, daughter Olivia’s room is 100 percent girly, featuring pillow-laden iron twin beds and bright pink and green colors.
Once back downstairs, the photographer and I were ushered into the magnificent garden. The O’Keefes put in a modern pool about seven years ago, and the elegant cabana, designed by Donovan Smith, resembles nothing so much as a small Greek temple and is a focal point of the landscape. Several vintage garden ornaments — statuary and an ancient stone baptismal font — stand in testimony to the garden’s famed heritage.
Despite its grandeur, Julia emphasizes that she sees her home as a family house to be enjoyed with children and dogs dashing around. Trust me, her little Westie named “Boo” was having a field day running about the place. And since a home of this size is always a work in progress, Julia bubbles over with all the things “she would like to do sometime down the road” — with a kitchen redo topping the list for now.
The O’Keefes are a very busy couple raising twin teenagers and maintaining a host of civic commitments. We are grateful to Julia for graciously spending time with us and for allowing us the privilege of showcasing her family’s beautiful home.
As an aside, she tells me they have built a house in Oxford, Mississippi, which is especially dear to their hearts since Rush is from Mississippi and attended Ole Miss. Julia modestly suggested “we might like to photograph it for the magazine sometime.” Sight unseen, and with no arm twisting necessary, I say let’s bring it on!