The home, which stood at the southwest corner of Central and Roland in Central Gardens, was one of the largest and most unique ever constructed in Memphis. This article looks at the history of the Norfleet (aka Norfleet-Fuller and Fuller) mansion, which was razed in 1990.
Feature image from the Landmarks Commission files.
The home was built by Jesse Chambless Norfleet, who hailed from one of the city’s more successful cotton families; he, his wife Willie and daughter Ada (born 1893) moved into the home in 1911 when Central Ave. was still a street of very large estates. In 1918, Willie died and in 1920 Ada married and moved to Chicago. She and her husband had one son, William T. Fuller, but the marriage did not last long. By 1924, Ada and son William moved back to Memphis into the mansion with her father, Jesse. Jesse Norfleet passed away in 1927. William would eventually join the Navy as a pilot in 1945 during World War II and stayed on with the navy for 20 more years. He moved back to Memphis when he retired. All the while, his mother entertained at the home and became one of the city’s most prolific philanthropists.
When Ada Norfleet Fuller died in 1979, her son William struggled to maintain the property and rented it out for weddings and other events to help pay for its upkeep. This lead to complaints from neighbors who were concerned about the property being used in non-residential manners, conflicting with the home’s zoning. When his request to the city to allow the conversion of the property into a bed and breakfast was rejected, Mr. Fuller decided to raze his grandfather’s old mansion. The newspaper clipping able and below, from the Commercial Appeal, dates from 1982 when the home was used for various types of quasi-commercial purposes.
As neighbor after neighbor stopped to watch the methodical, painful destruction, the loss of the historic mansion would become the catalyst for the neighborhood, providing all the reasons they needed in applying for additional zoning and demolition protections under the Memphis Landmarks Commission. Anne Beaty stopped to watch the demolition as she was taking her morning walk on Central. “It’s the saddest thing. I can’t even look.”
Lawyer Robert Sharpe just watched in disgust. “This is a loss not just to the neighborhood but to the City of Memphis.”
“The place was huge,” said Desi Franklin, a local resident. “The dining room walls were lined with very ornate carved wood under a very high ‘chair rail,’ and with built-in wooden glass-fronted cabinetry.” For decades it entertained guests and dignitaries from all over Memphis, and in 1982, it was the Decorator’s Show House. In the late 1980s, it had become a popular venue for parties, weddings, and even as a bed-and-breakfast.
Finally, the owner claimed, the house was not deteriorating; in fact, it was in excellent condition.
Why on earth, then, was it coming down? Read on here>>~StoryBoard Memphis, March, 2018
The demolition of the Norfleet home became a rallying cry of those Central Gardens residents who long pursued the historic preservation protections of becoming a landmarks district. The neighborhood filed an application to become a historic overlay (landmarks) district in 1992; after a long delay (due to circumstances outlined in article referenced above), the Central Gardens Overlay was approved in 1993. This fulfilled one of the primary goals of the Central Gardens Association, which was founded in 1967. The neighborhood had been on the National Register since 1981. Image below, from the December 13, 1990, edition of the Commercial Appeal, courtesy of Storyboard Memphis.
In 2002, the property was redeveloped as ten home sites: five built along Central on large lots originally platted in 1899 as part of the Central Heights Subdivision and five on smaller lots to the rear in the Roland Place Planned Development. Here are the five homes along Central. Hard feelings about the demolition of the Norfleet home have somewhat been mended; one of these homes was featured on the Central Gardens home tour in 2019.
Josh Whitehead is a sixth-generation Memphian. Josh serves as the Planning Director/Administrator to the Land Use Control Board, Board of Adjustment and Landmarks Commission for the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development. Josh has been published in law review journals on issues related to housing and blight, but is most active on Creme de Memph, the blog that features his take on Memphis’ design, history and architecture.