Something for Everyone
Mindy and G. Frank Roberts have made their collection of businesses along Central Avenue the centerpiece of Midtown's antiques district.
Mindy and G. Frank Roberts
photoraphy by Jonathan Postal
While it’s very much part of the Cooper-Young neighborhood, the official Memphis Antique and Design District is actually concentrated along Central Avenue in Midtown, between Cooper on the west and East Parkway on the east. The pioneer shops in the area, stores like Consignments and Flashback!, date from the Eighties. But the modern era of the district can be traced back to 1996, when Mindy and G. Frank Roberts purchased the antique mall we now know as Palladio.
Today, The Palladio Group (TPG) includes ten different businesses along Central, shops that sell everything from antique furniture and jewelry to outdoor architectural treasures and four-tiered fountains. “We have small things to huge things,” says Frank Roberts, formerly a banker at Leader Federal. His wife, Mindy, who was a nurse anesthetist for 20 years, puts it all succinctly: “We are all things decorative!”
The couple has been dabbling in the decorative arts for about 32 years, and originally operated an antique business, Angel and Trump, out of their Germantown home. “She was the Angel, and I was the Trump,” Frank says with a grin. The Trump in the name was a reference, of course, to billionaire Donald Trump, because they planned to make it big in the antique business, a dream that has indeed come true.
While their operation is nowhere near as big as Donald Trump’s, the Robertses have created their own kingdom of companies, each oriented toward some aspect of art. Palladio Antiques and Fine Art, Market Central, and Crafted Classics focus upon antiques, art, and reclaimed materials. WaterWorks and Architectural Arts deal with garden and antique architectural treasures. Gallery 56 and The Art Factory (which rents studio space to local artisans) are dedicated to the traditional arts, while Cafe Palladio and TPG Event Venues provide culinary services for the entire operation.
Palladio, the flagship store the couple purchased in 1996, is packed full of antiquities to suit all tastes, and is composed of around 40 different rooms, each a designer-styled “vignette” filled with objets d’art in all sizes and shapes offered by different antique dealers. Mindy urges her dealers to come up with a distinctive style for their spaces. “We try to encourage contributors not to set up rooms with all the items they have,” she says. “Most people don’t mix French and Victorian, or Victorian and Contemporary, so cohesiveness is important.”
After operating Palladio for a few years, the Robertses realized they needed more space. “We maxed out that [original] space within four years,” Frank says. And in one year the number of companies tripled from two to six. The opportunities to purchase buildings for the burgeoning businesses sprang up all around them.
In 2000, they bought a 14,000-square-foot building at 2215 Central near Palladio. The structure was in bad shape and required complete renovation. While the work was under way, Roberts purchased another building near the original building, which they began refurbishing and combined to use as a second shop, Market Central, for selling the antiques that had made Palladio so popular. The expansion philosophy was simple. “More of the same brings more people,” Frank says.
The diverse collection of art-related stores owned by the Robertses provides visitors with more than most can take in during one visit. “We have a very unique niche,” Frank says. “A collection of businesses where you can spend a whole day and come back for a whole second day. And we can even feed you lunch.” Palladio Café also is located inside the original antiques store.
Customers from around the globe who stop in at the stores are evidence that Frank is right about the enterprise. For instance, an Irish chef who was visiting Memphis to gather information for a reality show featuring barbecue stopped in after doing some research at a nearby restaurant. “He bought several things to take back to Ireland,” Frank says.
Another time, a person from Hong Kong, who was visiting Memphis because he was opening a barbecue restaurant in that country, made a large purchase. “He bought lots of building material,” Frank says. Plenty of local companies have used items purchased from one of the stores, including Malco Theaters, whose operators discovered many of the artifacts that now decorate Studio on the Square. Much of the material inside the new Gus’s Fried Chicken location on Mt. Moriah Road came from Architectural Arts. The door to the restaurant is one-of-a-kind, a turquoise color, plastered with bumper stickers from a decade ago bearing the names of local politicians. “If you go in and see that door, it came from us.”
Customers come from Dallas, Atlanta, Little Rock, and Nashville to shop at TPG’s stores. Some of the items for sale at the stores were purchased in other countries, though much of the inventory is from sources around the region. The Robertses used to travel regularly to Europe in search of unique items to fill their stores. Since 9/11, however, they say that shipping costs have become too expensive to do much importing.
The past decade has witnessed a continuous stream of expansion and development. Not all their properties house businesses — yet. “We took a building that was about 100 years old,” Frank explains, speaking of an old building at 2224 Central, “and made it into a townhouse,” Frank says.
Roberts purchased the property at 777 South Cox, a building farther away from the others, intending to use it as a business office, but they eventually split it to house another company. “It seems like we are always shifting around walls,” Frank says. That enterprise, Art Factory Creative Studios, exists to provide rental studio space to local artists. “They have 24/7 access,” Mindy says. “Sometimes they spend the night.” Currently, about 20 artists lease studios there.
To give these artists as well as other local artisans a place to sell their art, TPG runs a fine-art showroom, Gallery 56. Located at 2256 Central Ave., within walking distance of Palladio, Gallery 56 holds six art openings each month. The gallery exhibits not only the work of emerging local artists, but also established and guest artists from across the country and around the world.
G. Frank Roberts and his son, Frank C. Roberts, who joined the company after graduating from Christian Brothers University, are always on the lookout for historic buildings that unfortunately fall to the wrecking ball. When a home in the Jackson and Chelsea area was torn down recently to make way for a Dollar General store, they were able to retrieve items like a plaque from the exterior showing the date of construction, 1926.
Frank C. Roberts oversees procurement of architectural antiques and, with a crew of five, runs maintenance for all of the businesses. His main role is managing the installation of fountains for clients, which range in price from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Throughout the years, it seems that one opportunity after another has presented itself to the Robertses, enabling them to keep expanding. When the owners of Stevens Brothers Heating and Air approached them with a proposal to purchase their property, which was behind the WaterWorks building, they thought the price was too high, so they passed on the deal. When the price dropped by half, the Robertses snapped up that property, and use it to operate Architectural Arts, a company that sells items like antique doors, and also the wood they have recovered from sites around town.
Memphis WaterWorks, located at 741 South Cox, is a veritable treasure trove for anything and everything you could want for the outside of your home. While a big part of WaterWorks business is garden landscaping, it has items available in all sizes and shapes, big enough to beautify an estate or lawn and small enough to enhance a patio or even an apartment terrace. WaterWorks has become so successful that some of the stock is kept in an annex building located at the corner of Central and Cox.
The area outside WaterWorks is filled with fountains, décor for patios, and even a pond, items the Robertses incorporate in putting together garden landscapes. It’s an area that is so lovely that the couple were approached by a young lady who wanted to hold her wedding reception there. Since that time, the space has been rented about 20 times a year for weddings, anniversary parties, and other events by clients who want a one-of-a-kind venue, giving rise to the company’s TPG Event Venues division. Space also is available for rent in The Café Palladio and Gallery 56. Groups including the Memphis and Shelby County Humane Society, the Scottish Society, and the Methodist Church have held gatherings at TPG spaces.
The Robertses’ other businesses also hold events, too. Twice a year, Market Central has a sidewalk sale. “We just don’t believe in throwing things away,” Mindy says. Items with slight imperfections are offered at discounted prices. “They may have little issues where we couldn’t sell them at full retail, but we can sell them at a greatly reduced price, so someone can buy something that couldn’t normally afford.” Each year, during the second week in November, a Christmas Open House is held at Palladio, to kick off the holiday season.
And on September 13th, Market Central is hosting a cooking demonstration — what Mindy Roberts calls a “pop-up event” — featuring Sister Schubert, of Sister Schubert Rolls, and Betty Sims, another well-known cook. The purchase of both women’s cookbooks is required in lieu of an admission fee. “You actually get something for your money in addition to participating in the event,” Mindy says.
Thanks to Architectural Arts, the Robertses have been able to save Memphis memorabilia by rescuing bits and pieces of houses and buildings that are being demolished. When Anderton’s restaurant on Madison was being razed in 2009, for example, their son rushed back to report that the construction equipment was pushing precious pieces toward a dumpster. “A backhoe was demolishing all this beautiful tile,” Mindy says. Immediately, the son headed to the site and his team hurriedly honed in on décor that surrounded diners as they enjoyed a seafood meal.
While many of the recovered items are sold for use in construction, that was not the case with the bounty found at the Anderton’s site. “I would say every bit of it that has been sold, has been bought by someone who has a memory of Anderton’s or knows someone who does have a memory,” Frank says. These items have been used by purchasers for decorative purposes. “We build a stand for them. People put them on their mantels or in their yard,” Mindy says. “Some of them are quite large.”
At Custom Classics, located at 2215 Central, the Robertses make use of wood that has been “reclaimed” from various places, such as old bleachers from Christian Brothers High School, in building custom-made furniture. Initially, 10 boards were purchased from the high school and made into tables that Frank says were so beautiful that the company soon purchased hundreds of the remaining boards. “It’s in our inventory now,” he says. “These make awesome countertops. It [the wood] has a lot of patina in it and we try to preserve that.” Even the way Custom Classics took off seemed to be serendipitous. One of their employees started building furniture and the pieces became so popular that it quickly became a significant part of the business.
When a Victorian-style home behind St. Mary’s Catholic Church downtown was demolished, the company was able to salvage some brick from the home, which was built around 1860. “There wasn’t a thing in the world wrong with that house. Part of Victorian Memphis is gone,” Frank says. “One of the most interesting things was a cast-iron round piece that was in the attic that had a Star of David in it.”
The Robertses were excited about that find, though Frank reaffirms how much it saddens him to see so many historic properties destroyed. “We don’t want buildings to be torn down,” says Frank, “but if they have to be torn down, we want to reclaim parts of Memphis history built into them.” Thankfully, much of what’s left finds its way to the shops of The Palladio Group.
Suzanne Thompson is a media relations and communications specialist with the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.