Tropical Splendor

The Fred Montesi house and garden is one of six on Central Gardens tour.



Andrew and Amy Taylor had been house-hunting in Midtown, where Drew (as he's called) was raised and where the couple had lived for several years. When he drove past the stucco dwelling at 1592 Central, set back on a deep and beautifully landscaped lawn, he knew he'd found the perfect fit. "We'd been looking for a bigger yard and a smaller house," says Drew. "I told Amy, 'You've gotta see this one.'"

That was last summer, and the Taylors have put their mark on the striking Spanish Colonial Revival, which they bought from Greg and Carla Touliatos. This month they'll open their residence to visitors during the 34th annual Central Gardens Home & Garden Tour, scheduled for September 12th from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. The tour, which last year attracted some 2,000 people, will feature six homes that emphasize the diversity of style and size in one of Memphis' oldest and most prestigious neighborhoods.

The house was custom-built in 1937 for Fred Montesi Sr., who immigrated to America from Italy as a boy and moved to Memphis in 1912. Over the next 50 years he built a successful grocery business, with vegetables provided by a farming colony of Italian families that Montesi established in Arkansas. He was also known for giving churches a percentage of any of his store cash register receipts that were put in collection plates on Sundays.

Later residents of the house were renowned color photographer William Eggleston and his family. Some of Eggleston's most famous works — which have been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art — are images taken inside the house, including the original Art Deco green-tile shower with its distinctive lavender trim. That work is in the perrmanent collection of Memphis Brooks Museum'of Art.

After the Egglestons moved, the property fell on hard times until Greg and Carla Touliatos came to its rescue in 1990. Greg, a landscaper and sculptor, recalls vagrants living in the yard, and a veritable forest of "weed" trees that sprang up as seedlings, hiding the house from the street. "Forest doesn't work well with this style of house," he says, "so we cut down the forest and planted shorter trees."

A stroll through the winding paths of the front lawn leads to various appealing focal points, including a crape myrtle, heavy with bloom, that arches over a fountain hand-carved in Mexico. Adding another cooling touch is a lily pond, where herons have been known to stop, drawn by the water and the fish that live within.

In choosing shrubs and perennials for the garden, Greg aimed for a balance between evergreens that provide year-round interest and more dramatic plantings that come and go with the seasons. "So we have hollies that most people would recognize, and combine them with perennials, such as the bananas that go with the home's tropical theme." Hardy survivors of Mid-South winters, these banana trees are more fibrous than the usual Chiquita bananas. "They're more like plantains." says Greg.

In a far corner of the front lawn is a tree grouping that includes pond cypress, bald cypress, and Greg's favorite evergreen: the Japanese cedar. Not far from the conifers is a tulip poplar that's considered the largest in Shelby County. "Bats used to live in it," he recalls. "We'd see them come flapping out at dusk."

Complementing the natural beauty are several of Greg's metal sculptures with such names as Flying Fish, Whale Tale, and Wonky John.

Inside, Greg and Carla removed several walls and eliminated the choppy look of numerous small rooms. "It's not a huge house, so we felt that taking out walls would make it more spacious," says Greg. They also added a sunroom that affords more light and space.

In four rooms are stunning light fixtures that Carla's father bought in Mexico for a family room he was adding. "The room wound up having only eight-foot ceilings," says Carla, "so we got the chandeliers."

Sitting at the dining room table, which was handed down from Drew's grandmother, the current and past owners laugh about Greg's and Carla's peacocks that once strutted around the neighborhood and even mated on a nearby porch. They recall hearing of grape arbors and fruit trees that once grew in the backyard. and about Civil War artifacts — among them a Union soldier's belt buckle — found on the property.

Walking through the house, Amy Taylor says she and Drew have made few changes in the past year. "We love the happy colors," she says and adds that the kitchen, with its original tile floors and vivid backsplash tiles laid by Carla, is her favorite room. She also likes the step-down to the living room with its slanted, beamed ceiling. The Taylors' own tastes are most reflected in paintings by such local artists as Dolph Smith. Flanking a doorway are pastels of the Taylors' two children — Emily, 7, and Jack, 5 — by William J. Logan..

Greg, who is rehabbing another house in Central Gardens, pays the new owners the highest compliment when he says to Amy, "It absolutely feels like home, but y'all have improved it and done a beautiful job."

Tickets for the home tour are on sale for $12 at several locations, including 1910 Frame Works, and will be available at tour houses on the day of the tour for $15. For more information go to www.centralgardens.org.


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