Off the Endangered List: The Nineteenth Century Club

Profile #2 in StoryBoard’s look at progress in historic preservation over the last decade

HISTORIC PRESERVATION

By Charlie Lambert

Usually referred to as the Nineteenth Century Club, it’s one of the last remaining grand houses on Union Avenue, a reminder of the pre-World War II era when Union in Midtown was primarily a residential avenue of stately mansions, bearing a closer resemblance to Peabody or Central avenues today.

Union Ave. in a vintage postcard, early 1900s.
(from historic-memphis.com and Dave French Collection)
The Rowland J. Darnell House, c. 1909
(photo historic-memphis.com and the Memphis Public Library)

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Renasant Bank – the exclusive Preservation sponsor for StoryBoard Memphis

Rowland J. Darnell, a prominent lumber magnate in Memphis, built the house in 1908-09 as his private residence. The Colonial Revival architectural style of the house with Beaux Arts features has been on the National Register of historic Places since 1979. 

The home derived its current name from its 1926 purchase by a philanthropic, white women’s club that had been founded in 1890. At the time of the purchase of the property, the membership in the club was 1,400. The original purpose of the club was to “promote the female intellect by encouraging research in literary fields and to provide an intellectual center for the women of Memphis.” In more recent years the club had been devoted to more of a social mission.

Over time membership fell, as older members passed away and other opportunities for women arose to play a part in the city’s activities. With the decline in membership, the ability of the members to maintain the large structure was challenged. 

The Nineteenth Century Club, home of Red Fish, today.
(photo Wikimedia commons and Jim Roberts)

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The Nineteenth Century Club still exists, but the building was purchased by restauranteurs Shon and Dana Lin in 2016 with the idea of demolishing it to make way for a fast-food restaurant.  Under the leadership of June West, Memphis Heritage stepped in, and through various legal and civic activities halted the process of demolition even after it was underway. Meanwhile the Lins fell in love with the house, and eventually agreed to restore the building, hiring Looney Ricks Kiss (LRK) and Archer Custom Builders in a nearly $4 million restoration effort (including a 20 percent historic tax credit) in making necessary repairs and upgrades, and then turned it into a destination for upscale Asian dining and entertaining. It failed as an upscale restaurant, but it has done well as the more moderately-priced seafood and sushi restaurant Red Fish. 

The mansion is a dream-come-true for preservationists, restored inside and out to its 1909 grandeur. The city owes a debt of gratitude to the Lins for keeping this historic structure from the wrecking ball. <>

Feature photo from Joe Spake

This is second profile in our series on progress in historic preservation over the last decade. To read more in this series, please visit the main article here.

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