The Goat Gland Doctor

Ask Vance

(page 2 of 2)


The “Spanish House,” showing a detail of the garden featuring a lifesize concrete burro and a sombrero-wearing rider.


Dear Vance: When I was younger, I remember driving past a Spanish-style house on Summer, out by the Highway Patrol office, that had a giant cactus by the entrance and even a burro or donkey in the front yard — all made from concrete. Who built this place, and what happened to it? — D.R., memphis.

Dear D.R.: Oh, I remember this home quite well, because one summer I passed it precisely 47 times on my way to the driver’s license testing station on Summer — well, technically it’s Highway 70 past the city limits.

After failing the exam 47 times, I finally gave up and hired a chauffeur. The whole system is rigged, I tell you.

The “Spanish House,” as everyone called it, wasn’t built by anyone from Spain, or even Mexico. It was constructed in 1955 by William Michael Donnelly, a Memphis sheet metal worker. I’m not sure where he was born, exactly, but I turned up newspaper articles that mentioned his fascination with the Old West. A Commercial Appeal story says, “As a young man, Donnelly hopped train cars out West. He started taking his wife, Inez, along on his wanderings.” When his children were born — a daughter and son — he finally decided to settle down. “Despite his love of the West,” continues the CA article, “Donnelly chose to bring a piece of the desert with him rather than plant roots so far from home.”

The house itself was a rambling one-story building, slathered in white stucco like the old Spanish missions. Out front, as you mentioned, D.R., he built a garden with a lifesize burro and sombrero-wearing rider as the centerpiece. What first caught motorists’ eyes, though, were the huge pair of cacti that guarded the driveway. They weren’t real. Donnelly crafted them from chunks of telephone poles and concrete, painted a very lifelike green.

I was lucky enough to visit the home in the late 1990s. The grounds were quite attractive, with rows and rows of buttercups, and the yard holding chickens and ducks and even a pet donkey. Although it was essentially a 1950s ranch-style house, inside definitely had some special touches. Matadors and dancing figures adorned an arched fireplace in the living room, and massive beams framed a colorful mural of a Spanish mission in a bedroom. A chandelier had been crafted from a wagon wheel, and old lanterns and the statue of a conquistador decorated a fireplace in the roomy den. Bright tiles added splashes of color to the kitchen walls.

Inez Donnelly passed away in 1995, and William passed away two years later, at the age of 86. The 2.5-acre property, which had begun to look a bit run-down, I’m sorry to say, went up for sale, but nobody wanted the land for a home. So the old house was demolished — they didn’t even save the cacti — and the whole area is now a commercial area. I’m still dismayed that I didn’t get that concrete burro for the Lauderdale gardens. I offered them as much as 12 bucks for it, too.


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