Memphis, TN

Indulge in the History and Luxury of "Millionaire's Row" -- Victorian Village in Downtown Memphis

Jennifer Jones - The Downtown Kid

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Memphis' Victorian Village was once a large collection of beautiful mansions built in the mid-1800s by wealthy Memphians with diverse backgrounds in both their personal-professional lives as well as their architectural tastes. While not all of the original homes remain, the ones that still stand are on the must-see list.

The Mallory-Neely House
The Mallory-Neely HousePhoto by Thomas R Machnitzki (2009)

The Italianate-style Mallory-Neely House at 652 Adams Avenue is now a museum open to the public. "It is all the more special in that it retains all of the original historic interiors, furniture, and artifacts almost exclusively." The original two-story home was built in 1852, but when the Neelys purchased the property in 1883 and moved in with their five kids, they did some serious remodeling, adding an entire third floor and updating all of the period interiors. By the time the expansions were complete, the house had 25 rooms in it.

Mrs. Frances "Miss Daisy" Neely Mallory, one of the five Neely children and the last to live in the home until her death in 1969, is responsible for the preservation of this beautiful structure and its collection of treasures. Per her wishes, the house was deeded to the Daughters, Sons, and Children of the American Revolution who opened it as a museum in the 1970s. They gifted it to the city in 1985 where it has operated under the Pink Palace Family of Museums since.

The Harsson-Goyer-Lee House
The James Lee House B&B (foreground) and the Woodruff-Fontaine House (left)Photo courtesy of The James Lee House Bed and Breakfast

If you'd like a taste of the luxury of the time, the Harsson-Goyer-Lee House at 690 Adams Avenue is now a bed-and-breakfast called The James Lee House. William Harsson built the original, two-story structure that would become the 8,100sqft home in 1848 and lived there with his wife and seven children. His daughter, Laura, married a man named Charles Goyer, a grocer who moved in with them after the wedding and then became a wealthy banker. Goyer bought the home in 1852 and immediately started working on expansions. Sadly, Laura and her father, as well as Charles and Laura's son, would succumb to Yellow Fever in 1867. Goyer then married Laura's sister Charlotte. With ten kids and a new wife, Goyer turned a farmhouse into a mansion with the help of the famous architects (Culliatt Jones and Mathias Baldwin) he'd watched build the Woodruff-Fontaine place. Descendants of the Harsson-Goyer families lived there for another 42 years until they decided to sell.

James Lee, a riverboat captain educated at Princeton, bought the home in 1890. He (and his family) are credited with unifying the aesthetic after decades of different owners coming through and changing things up. Per the request of James's eldest daughter, Rosa, the house became the James Lee Memorial Art Academy in 1925. The city took ownership of the home in 1929, but after moving the academy in 1959, the home sat vacant for nearly 60 years until 2012, when private investors saved it and turned it into the glorious tribute it is today.

The Woodruff-Fontaine House
The Woodruff-Fontaine HousePhoto courtesy of the Woodruff-Fontaine Museum

The Woodruff-Fontaine House -- "Built in 1871, along “Millionaires Row,” this French Victorian mansion was home to two prominent Memphis families. Amos Woodruff, a successful carriage maker, built the house for his family. Noland Fontaine, an established businessman, purchased the house from the Woodruffs in 1883, where they lived until 1929. The house was sold to Rosa Lee to expand her art school which moved to Overton Park in 1959, and established themselves as the Memphis College of Art. The house was vacant until 1961, when the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities restored the mansion and it opened its doors as a historic house museum."

The Fontaines used to throw lavish parties in this home, at one time hosting President Grover Cleveland himself. One of the most fascinating stories to come from its history, though, is that of The Rose Room, which was the room Mary Louise "Mollie" Woodruff stayed in. Woodruff lost a child in this room shortly after it was born, and then about three months later, her husband took ill and passed away in it, as well. Woodruff eventually recovered and remarried, moving out to a home on Poplar Avenue with James Henning, where she lost another child. As the story goes, when Woodruff finally passed, her ghost came back to the Woodruff-Fontaine house to look for her lost loved ones. There have been Mollie Woodruff sightings, and some visitors have claimed to hear a male voice accompanied by the smell of stale cigar smoke, too. Check out this video from Haunted Places Memphis for more on that!

The Mollie Fontaine Taylor House
The Mollie Fontaine Taylor HousePhoto courtesy of Historic Memphis

The Mollie Fontaine Taylor House (679 Adams Ave) was built in 1886 in the Eclectic Revival style and its history is fantastic. It's across the street from the Woodruff-Fontaine home and was built by Noland Fontaine as a wedding present to his daughter, Mollie, the second "Mollie" in our adventure. She and her doctor-husband lived here, threw lavish parties, and had brilliant style. The property has changed hands many times. Famous Memphian Eldridge Wright is credited with saving the home from demolition during the urban renewal of the 1960s, and he later sold the home to Ira Sachs Sr., who threw down shag carpet and turned it into a party place. In 1985, Sachs sold it to Bill Carrier, a big-time movie lighting director. Bill and his wife, Karen, married there and made it their residence for almost a decade.

Chef Karen Carrier is a local legend. She ran a catering business out of the carriage house, where the seeds of her restaurant empire were sown. When the Carriers decided to move on from the house, they put it on the market, but it didn't sell. Carrier had a moment where she realized they had something special and decided to take it off the market and turn it into a fine-dining French restaurant called Cielo. Renovations were difficult because she had to follow the guidelines for preserving a historic building as well. After working on it for over a year, the remodel was finished in 1996, just as her husband wrapped on The Rainmaker and the Carriers opened their doors to a grand party hosting Director Francis Ford Coppola himself.

Carrier eventually decided that she didn't want to have a fine-dining French place and instead looked to the local culture to help her reinvent the space. Today, it's home to Mollie Fontaine's Lounge (open Wednesday-Sunday from 5pm-3am), and you can pop in for dinner and cocktails in one of the coolest spaces Memphis has to offer.

And while you're here - The Magevney House
The Magevney HousePhoto by Google Earth Images

Just down the street from all the opulence is a clapboard cottage called the Magevney House that still stands as one of the oldest residences in Memphis (198 Adams Avenue). It was the home to Eugene Magevney, an Irish immigrant who settled in Memphis in 1833 and became a teacher and a civic leader. This is an important landmark for Catholics, as it's documented as hosting the first Catholic mass, the first priest-officiated Catholic wedding, and the first Catholic baptism in the city.

There are too many wonderful reasons to go visit these homes to list in just a small brief, so I hope you'll visit their sites for more history and photos, as well as current operating hours and safety guidelines, and then make a trip over to wander through another time and place.

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I enjoy being connected to and engaged with the world around me, specifically my local downtown community in Memphis, TN. My personal interest lies in celebrating diversity as well as exploring mental health topics. But I also hope I can help you find the best ribs in town while we're at it.

Memphis, TN

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