Lady of the Lake
Martha McKay's love affair with Arkansas' iconic Horseshoe Plantation.
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“I never met anyone like her.”
If Bob and Grace Snowden come across as colorful characters, that’s the way everyone seems to remember them.
“My grandfather was a very well-loved man, and he loved his family,” says McKay. “When he walked into the room he was the center of everything. He was just a large personality, and everything revolved around him.”
He also made important contributions to the world around him. He was enshrined in the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame for his “outstanding achievements and contribution to the development of aviation in the state of Arkansas and the nation.” He earned a special citation from the Memphis Agricultural Club for his innovative farming techniques. Among them, “Mr. Snowden realized that a soil-rebuilding program was necessary if his rich acres were to maintain their original fertility [and] he promptly started the use of cover crops long before the government advocated soil building on a national basis.”
McKay also has special memories of her grandmother, which she included in a senior thesis she prepared on her family, “Four Generations of Southern Women,” while attending the University of Washington.
“Ever since I was a little child, I was mystified by her and her ways,” she writes. “She was a lady in the formal sense of the word: dignified, well-mannered, and graceful. She was always well-groomed with her hair done up and attired in dress and stockings. . . . I never met anyone like her. She lived a privileged life, to be sure, but she was grateful for her blessings and made it a point to raise us with a sense of appreciation for the beauty of life.”
McKay says, quite simply, that her family “was never wanting for anything, and we were always comfortable.” At the same time, her family — and especially her grandparents — made sure to help those less fortunate than themselves. Bob was actively involved in the church in Arkansas and donated money so that Holy Cross Episcopal in West Memphis could build a school. Closer to home, he donated money to build a school for children of the tenant farmers at Horseshoe, naming it Arthur Evans School after one of his own employees. For her part, Grace served as board president of the Crippled Children’s Hospital and the Memphis Art Academy, and board member of the Memphis Garden Club and the Salvation Army.
The family grew. Three daughters and a son were born, and the Snowdens outgrew the fishing cabin. “So what you see today is a complete expansion of that, into a more formal home,” says McKay.
In 1949, the Snowdens hired Everett R. Wood, one of Memphis’ most prominent architects, to transform their simple home into a Southern showplace. Tucked away in an upstairs closet, McKay found the original blueprints for the renovation, and it’s such a comprehensive and seamless revision that it’s hard to determine what areas remain of the original structure.
What Wood did was turn a one-story dwelling into a three-story, 6,000-square-foot home on a grand scale. The main (or second) floor was transformed into an inviting living room, dining room, bedrooms, and kitchen with butler’s pantry. The master bedroom offers a panoramic view of the lake. A third floor was added, identified on the drawings as a nursery, with two more bedrooms and a bath.
The original ground floor was little more than a covered space below the original house. Workers scooped out dirt to allow more headroom, and the bottom floor now holds a cozy den, bathrooms, and dressing rooms — a more casual living area than the rest of the house, with wonderful views of the lake.
The crowning touch was the creation of the front entry hall. That entire two-story space, with its sweeping staircase, black-and-white marble floor, and Greek Revival portico, simply didn’t exist on the old building. “My grandparents were world-class travelers, and they had seen an antebellum plantation home in Louisiana, and that’s supposedly what my grandmother patterned this home after,” says McKay.
Bringing everything full circle were ornate mirrors, a glimmering chandelier, and a Carrara marble fireplace that originally graced the Snowden family home in Memphis, Ashlar Hall.
The Louisiana look apparently impressed the producers of the 1994 movie The Client, starring Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones, because the Snowden House was featured in the movie — as a home in suburban New Orleans! “I still find people wandering around the property who say, ‘We just wanted to see the home in the movie,’” says McKay.
But change was coming. McKay’s mother, Sally, married a professional actor from New York named David McKay, and after living a few years at Horseshoe, they moved away to San Francisco and other places on the West Coast, taking the children with them.
“Mother would bring us back for the summer and leave us here,” says McKay. “It was just wonderful. I felt like I was royalty, with the big house and servants. Everything was fresh from the garden, fresh eggs and all, and we even had a peach orchard. We got to swim every day, and it was just ideal. Both my grandparents just loved having a houseful of kids, and they showed it.”
But soon that blissful isolation would end.