Mansions of Memphis
West Memphis, AR - Events of Friday, July 6, 2012
On Friday, we drove into Memphis to check out some of the mansions of Memphis in the historic Victorian Village district. There are several remaining mansions on "Millionaires' Row" along Park Avenue, but the Woodruff-Fontaine House is currently the only one that is open to the public. We'll have a little more on a couple of the other mansions later.
Amos Woodruff and his brother arrived in Memphis from New Jersey in 1845 to expand their carriage-making business. Although his brother returned home, Amos remained and became a very successful entrepreneur. In addition to his carriage-making business, Woodruff was involved in two banks, a railroad, an insurance company, a hotel, a cotton compress firm (cotton compressors reduced the volume of cotton so more could be packed into a bale for shipment) and a lumber company.
In 1870, Woodruff began construction of a French Victorian mansion on what was then the outskirts of Memphis. The neighborhood was known as Victorian Village because Victorian was the predominant architectural style.
Amos Woodruff, his wife and his children occupied the home from 1871 until 1893 when hard times in Memphis forced the sale of the house to Noland Fontaine, who was an agent at the Memphis Cotton Exchange. After the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Fontaine, their heirs sold the house, and it was used as an art academy for many years.
The house sat vacant for a couple of years until 1961 when it was leased by the City of Memphis to the Memphis Chapter of the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities which took on the management and restoration of the house. It was opened to the public in 1964.
Most of the furnishings and even some of the chandeliers and fireplaces are not original to the house, but they are of the proper period. For example, the fireplace and chandelier in the dining room are from other Memphis homes that were going to be torn down in the 1960s as a result of urban renewal. Fortunately, photography is permitted as long as you don't use a flash, so we are able to show several shots taken inside the Woodruff-Fontaine House.
There are two beautiful stained glass windows in the house - one over the front door and another on the landing of the steps leading to the second floor.
On the second floor are the master bedroom and guest rooms.
From the second floor, we went to the third floor where most of the children's bedrooms were located.
The ceiling at the top of the stairs was quite ornate. It could be seen from the first floor up through the center of the stairway. The ceiling is made from hammered tin, not plaster.
There was also a sewing room on the third floor that usually isn't open to visitors, but we lucked out and got to see it. In it are stored numerous pieces of period clothing (like the wedding dresses in the parlor) that are displayed throughout the home at various times of the year.
There was men's clothing on display in the third floor hallway that included a tuxedo with tails and a beaver hat.
Once we finished the tour of the house, we went outside to see the playhouse that was built in 1890 and expanded in 1907 and again in 1927.
We also checked out a couple of the neighboring houses. To the right is the James Lee House. The house, which is owned by the city, has been empty since 1959. It is for sale, and the sign outside says, "Contract Pending." The new owners are planning to turn it into the James Lee Bed & Breakfast. Can you say, "money pit?"
Two doors to the left of the Woodruff Fontaine House is the Mallory-Neely House. It was built around 1852 and was extensively renovated in the 1880s and 1890s. The house was occupied by a member of the Mallory family until 1969. The house was turned into a museum in 1973, and it retains many original furnishings and decorative elements.
Unfortunately, The Mallory-Neely House is currently closed to the public because it doesn't comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since it's not practical to add elevators or ramps to a historic structure such as this, the plan for making the museum compliant with the ADA is to offer disabled visitors a video tour of the house. Budget shortages prevent the city from making the necessary modifications to the carriage house for the videos and for ADA-compliant rest rooms, so for the time being, no one gets to tour the house.
It was interesting to learn a little about the history of Memphis through the homes of some of its prominent residents. Of course, Memphis was a transportation center because of its location on the Mississippi. Like Natchez, it is located on a bluff that prevented major flooding in the city itself. Also like Natchez, much of the wealth of Memphis came from cotton.
Our friends, Dick and Barbara, are heading to Memphis to join us for several days, so there is sure to be more sightseeing and more barbecue. We'll tell you what we did and where we ate in our next post.