History can surprise us. And Memphis is one of those places whose history can reveal connections that are downright head-shaking. Every dive into Memphis history has the potential of taking that old axiom, which says we are all six degrees of separation from one another, and reducing it to one and a half.
Such is the case with 1726 Madison Avenue; an ordinary foursquare house that revealed to this writer a little-known slice of Memphis history, exhibiting a Memphis whose past and present seem forever and infinitely linked. Here in the house at 1726 we find unexpected and uncommon connections to entertainment and Rock ’n’ Roll; Mississippi riverboats and swim marathons; a Downtown saloon; the origins of Memphis baseball, bare-knuckle boxing and the early days of Memphis wrestling; and for bizarre measure, the practice of dentistry.
The two-story house with the burgundy roof, on the northeast corner of Evergreen and Madison, is known today as the Duffee-Newman Building. It is owned by Bruce and Barbara Newman. Out on its lawn, in front of the matching burgundy awning that greets visitors, sits the modest signage of the proprietors within, advertising “Taxes-Personal Business” and “Legal Work.”
But Bruce and Barbara are so much more than what that signage implies. A practicing tax attorney, Bruce happens to be an entertainment lawyer. His clientele: Memphis music artists. He is also a weekly host of his own radio show – Bruce’s Folk Song Fiesta – on Memphis’ legendary station WEVL, 89.9. And Barbara: she’s President and CEO of the Memphis Blues Foundation. Together they humbly serve as custodians of Memphis musical heritage from their home in Central Gardens, and from the quiet offices of 1726 Madison Avenue.
Asked about his knowledge of 1726’s history, Bruce smiled wryly and quipped that, in the late 1980s, it was the home to “ten to twelve angry vegans and animal rights activists.” Later, in giving more thought to his surroundings, he said “I think it had once been a dentist’s office.”
This modest house, following an arch similar to other Memphis homes along Union Avenue and this part of Madison Avenue, began as a residence and was eventually transformed to both commercial and residential use. 1726 Madison’s immediate neighbors included generations of medical practices, a quirky service station, a cherished and now-long-gone “classical music bar,” and the infamous Dr. Nick, who supported Elvis’ creative pharmaceutical habits. The house’s inhabitants over the years included a couple of prominent local dentists, a slew of renters and boarders, and a now-obscure, colorful Memphis character who helped pioneer of some of Memphis most iconic institutions, including Memphis wrestling.
Between Evergreen and Belvedere, 1910, and A Man Named Hottum
The tan sandstone brick house that sits at 1726 Madison was built in 1910. Its style is that of an American Prairie-Foursquare typical of the period. It was built in the Memphis neighborhood called Idlewild, in the Marks subdivision (Evergreen Street was called North Marks). Madison at that time was still referred to as a street (rather than an avenue), and an alley ran north from Madison where today’s parking lot entrance sits for Frida’s Mexican Restaurant.
It was built during the “Progressive Era,” when Memphis was enjoying unprecedented growth but carried a reputation as a lawless and bawdy city. Before Tennessee state-wide prohibition laws were enacted in 1916, over 500 saloons served a population that had recently topped 128,000, making it by the far the most quenched city of its size in the United States. Memphis’ industries in cotton, lumber and transportation may have been booming, but city leaders were pushing for reforms to combat the river town’s well-warranted reputation. And residential neighborhoods were moving eastward, away from the corruptions of Downtown.
The neighborhood around Madison and Belvedere in 1910 was years away from the self-proclaimed Best Little Neighborhood Bar In The Universe called Zinnie’s, and long before nail and hair salons, Audiomania Records and the Lamplighter Lounge. Instead this small corridor was the home to a pharmacy and house after house of private residences, including the house at the top of little Belvedere Park, where today’s Casablanca Restaurant serves up Moroccan cuisine.
The whir of autos on pavement was still years away. Trolley tracks along a graveled Madison Avenue still carried trolleys and passengers from this “streetcar suburb” west into Downtown and back. An ancestor of the old Madison “dummy line,” these trains were in service for another thirty-plus years.
Various sources record the first owner and occupant of the house at 1726 Madison as a German immigrant named Christopher H. Hottum. Mr. Hottum had emigrated with his parents to the U.S. between 1879 and 1881, when he was ten to twelve years old. By the time the house was built in 1910, when he was just over forty, he was owner of one of those many saloons, being listed in city directories as owner/proprietor of a “soft drinks” establishment at 119 Madison Avenue, Downtown.
Mr. Hottum appeared to have quite a diverse resume. In subsequent years’ directories he was listed as Baker, then Owner, then President, and Manager, and so on. In 1912 his 119 Madison business address was listed as a pool hall, with “billiards and buffet.” In later years Mr. Hottum was listed as manager of the George Wiedemann Brewing Co., which was located Downtown on North Main. Later still he was shown as owner and president of the Hottum-Kennedy Dry Dock Co., at West Illinois Ave and Kansas St., which served the freight industry not far from the approaches to the new 1916 Harrahan Bridge. His business addresses changed every few years, with listings for various sandwich shops or restaurants on North Main, South Front, and South Lauderdale.
Did this man contribute to Memphis’ lawless and bawdy reputation? Was he a hustler, a gambler? Was he an entrepreneur? Or was he constantly on the verge of fraud or bankruptcy? More on all that later.
We know that Mr. Hottum married twice. In 1906, at age thirty-six, he married his second wife, Grace L. Richardson, and the couple lived in the 1726 house alone until about 1930, when the Great Depression was strangling the lives of families across the U.S. and here in Memphis. During the depression years it became necessary for individuals to seek inexpensive or free room and board to make ends meet; for many homeowners it meant housing their entire families or taking in boarders. The Hottum household was no exception, and in the early years of the depression the couple took in folks year to year. In 1931 they took in a nurse named Lula McKeowen. In 1932 they rented to a hardware salesman named Clyde Baker. And in 1933 they rented to a gentleman who would establish a legacy in the house: a dentist, one Robert S. Vinsant.
Rob. S. Vinsant, DDS
Despite the struggles of the depression, in the 1930s and into the early ‘40s the (then “East” Memphis) Idlewild neighborhood around the Madison Avenue intersections at Belvedere, Evergreen and Auburndale boasted a pharmacy, a beauty shop, a couple of sandwich shops, and a few automobile stations and repair shops amongst the many foursquare houses short walks away.
By the mid-30s Mr. Hottum’s interests and residence had moved elsewhere, and he had turned over the ownership of his 1726 house to Mr. Vinsant as an office for the dentist’s thriving practice. His business was successful enough to allow Dr. Vinsant and his wife Faith to separate work from home; they were also owners of another two-story foursquare house, a few hundred feet down the street at 28 South Evergreen. The Vinsant’s could even afford the services of a black servant, still an accepted luxury in the day, employing Lula Cook, who was from Alabama.
Faith Vinsant might have shopped at Bullock’s Pharmacy at 1688 Madison, where Zinnie’s is now. Where the Lamplighter Lounge now calls home, she might have visited Jane’s Beauty Nook at 1700 Madison. Robert and Faith might have grabbed a sandwich at B&H Sandwich Shop at number 1710. Where Frida’s Mexican Restaurant is now, they might have visited the Friedel family or Dr. Alex Friedel next door to 1726 in the little white folk-style house at 1718 Madison. Or post Prohibition years, if they were so inclined, they might have purchased liquor at 1760 Madison, at Silver Liquor Store, on the corner at Auburndale (where the white, glass six-story Madison Professional Building now stands).
The couple may have gotten their automobile repair work done at Thornton Emmons’ Pure Oil Station #6, at 1737 Madison on the southeast corner at Evergreen. Pure Oil Stations were quite distinct as service stations go, dressed up like quaint folksy cottages with the “pleasant trappings of the roadside house [that] conjured up feelings of friendliness (…) by the traveler when venturing forth on the open road.” (The American Gas Station, and Memphis Magazine’s Ask Vance column “Cottage Industry,” May 1, 2008)
That station closed in 1942, competing for business with Connable & Joist Filling Station next door, at 1741-61 Madison, at Auburndale. Today that folksy service-station cottage at 1737 is the lounge Canvas. And that Connable service station and garage at Auburndale – after the 1940s it was for years Hattley’s Garage – was transformed to today’s Fuel Cafe in the year 2000.
Thirty-Plus Years of Dentistry, and a Notorious Doctor Called Nick
Dr. Vinsant and his dental practice thrived for over thirty years, through the Depression, WWII, Truman-Eisenhower, and the Times They Are a-Changin’ years from the early 30s thru the mid-60s. The ground floor of 1726 remained dental offices for years; however from 1935 into the early 50s Vinsant continued to rent out the upstairs.
His renters were often older folks, folks hard on their luck, and at least two widows. One renter in the late 1930s stands out: an unmarried woman who moved from job to job and house to house: Ruby E. Lewis.
Ms. Lewis was listed in various city directories in different professions – in later years she was listed as a telephone operator and as a manager of a doctor’s office in today’s Medical District – but mostly as a teacher of “elocution” and “expression.” In those days teaching was still largely considered a single woman’s job, and it was preferred that these “schoolmarms” remain unmarried to stay employed. Perhaps as a result, Ms. Lewis moved around often, living in numerous houses near Downtown, on Manassas and 2nd Street, and in and around Midtown on N. Waldran, N. Avalon and Tutwiler, among others. But in 1937 and ’38 she taught elocution – the art of public speaking – from her rented room in the house at 1726 Madison.
For much of the white population, the 1950s and early 60s in Memphis were at last a time of growth and prosperity for middle-class Memphians. The city was developing toward the east, away from a Downtown that was showing the first signs of urban neglect during the era of “white flight.” Poplar and Central avenues had been extended past East Parkway, and suburbs like High Point Terrace and White Station-Yates sprouted up east of Highland Avenue along the Poplar Corridor. From the northeast corner of Overton Park and east, Summer Avenue was king, beaming with drive-in restaurants, Grisanti’s, an A&P and a Woolworth’s, and the Bristol Theater. For many this would become the nostalgia era in Memphis, invoking East Memphis memories.
Between Downtown and a “new” East Memphis beyond East Parkway, Memphis now had its “Midtown.” From Belvedere toward the east on Madison, on the north side of the street mom and pop shops dominated: Carolyn’s Beauty Salon and Opal’s Beauty Shop; Calvert Typewriter Co.; Madison Television Service. But as the block continued toward Evergreen, medical practices had been setting up offices along this little stretch of Madison, and Dr. Vinsant’s practice was an anchor for years in a mini-dental and medical district. Dr. Vinsant continued renting out the upstairs, while bringing in a few more dentists into his private Madison Avenue practice.
Part of that mini medical district history includes the folklore surrounding Elvis Presley and the local doctor who treated him, and prescribed and supplied Elvis with various doses of amphetamines, sleeping pills, tranquilizers, and so on.
For years rumors persisted that Dr. George Constantine Nichopoulos, aka Dr. Nick, supplied drugs to Elvis from somewhere on this short corridor of Madison. Did he supply them from the little house at 1718? Was it done secretly from the dentist offices at 1726? Did Elvis send Dr. Nick’s son Dean, his sometimes wardrobe assistant, into Midtown to pick up his drugs?
As described in the previously-mentioned “Cottage Industry” Ask Vance column (2008 Memphis Magazine), “people in the neighborhood believed that Dr. Nick handed out pharmaceuticals to his famous client through a drive-through window in the back of the (Prescription House) shop” that was once that folksy service-station cottage at 1737. In 1963 the Prescription House pharmacy moved into the former little shop of Pure Oil, and legend had it that Dr. Nick used a little window on the back side of the shop for The King’s personal Midtown drive-through.
Historical records give us a much less colorful story, albeit true, and tell us that “Dr. Nick’s offices were actually across the street, in the medical building at 1734 Madison. And most biographers (agree) that Dr. Nick personally delivered medications to Elvis; the King of Rock-and-Roll couldn’t be expected to drive to Midtown, sneak around back of a pharmacy, and pick up his own pills.” (Memphis Magazine, May 1, 2008)
Dr. Robert S. Vinsant continued his dental practice in the house at 1726 Madison until 1967, when he passed away in March at the age of seventy-six. He left behind his wife Faith and the retractors, drills and pliers of his trade, having never retired from the dental profession.
Twenty More Years of Dentistry, and a Reelin’ and Rockin’ Memphis Changes
Like the rest of Memphis, the dozen years that followed Dr. Vinsant’s death saw many changes to this short Madison corridor. As the late 1960s moved into the early 70s, Memphis was still reeling in grief in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder at the Lorraine Motel Downtown. The city was also seething in anger. Issues that the nation as a whole was facing – an escalating crime rate, the controversial desegregation by “forced” school busing, a growing recession, unemployment, the Vietnam War, the Nixon White House, middle-class angst, more white flight – were hitting Memphis, and hard.
And it was rockin’. With the help of newly-passed liquor laws that finally allowed alcohol to be served at restaurant tables, a group of young entrepreneurs opened up the first TGI Friday’s a few blocks east, in a newly-minted Overton Square on Madison and Cooper, bringing a little bit of New York’s Times Square into Memphis and drawing Memphians back into Midtown from the suburbs.
Madison-Evergreen, including 1726, eventually felt those changes too.
But before the swinging 70s started, in the early 1950s and long before his death, Dr. Vinsant brought in another dentist into his private practice in the house. Dr. Roy Mitchell, who stayed on through the 60s and eventually claimed ownership of the house, took over Dr. Vinsant’s dental practice when the latter passed away.
Dr. Mitchell carried on the same traditions started by Mr. Hottum in the 1930s and continued by Dr. Vinsant through the 1960s, and leased out the upstairs to the occasional, older, renter. Hugh Baggett was one such renter who, according to city records, may have been well into his late 80s when Dr. Mitchell rented part of the upstairs to him. How the older Baggett got up and down those stairs can only be left up to speculation.
As the “Me Decade” of the 70s was coming to a close, the mini-medical district’s hold on the corridor dwindled. While TGI Friday’s, Silky Sullivan’s, Lafayette’s Music Room and the rest of Overton Square were rocking, 1718 Madison, the little white house next door to 1726, changed ownership for only the second time since the turn of the century. The house became something of a Mid-South novelty and brought an east-coast music vibe to this little part of Midtown.
They called it Fantasia.
Built right around the turn of the century, since 1905 the white pre-1900 folk-style house at 1718 had been the Friedel family home (and Dr. Alex A. Friedel’s office), and in later years the offices of a Dr. Samuel Pastor. However in 1979 a group led by a couple of Navy veterans and two Missouri transplants had the idea of a “classical music bar” in the middle of Midtown, “an alternative to the rowdier, more raucous diversions in Overton Square and along the Madison strip.” (Memphis Magazine’s Ask Vance column “Remembering Fantasia,” February 8, 2016)
This “offbeat gathering place” might have been more at home in New York’s Greenwich Village than in Midtown Memphis. It proved popular and developed a strong following, but its success was short-lived. In 1985 Fantasia closed its doors forever and the old house was demolished. In its place the owners of the original Zinnie’s built the bar and restaurant space “for an expansion of Zinnie’s, which quickly became known as Zinnie’s East. It’s now the site of Frida’s Mexican restaurant.” (Memphis Magazine’s column “Remembering Fantasia”) The loss of the little 1900 house at 1718 was painful for many Midtown residents and patrons; some even called for boycotting Zinnie’s and Zinnie’s East.
However after the dust and the distress settled, what remained was now the oldest structure on either corner of Madison and Evergreen: 1726 Madison.
Newman and DeCoster Move In
In 1989 Dr. Roy Mitchell sold 1726 and the offices of his dental practice, and retired from dentistry. From ’89 to ’92 the ownership of the house switched hands a couple of times. It was periodically leased out; there were other times when it sat empty; and for a period of time it was leased out to an animal rights group.
Through the changes the house was neglected and fell into disrepair. A house that had seen just three owners in eighty years – through fifteen U.S. Presidencies from Taft to Bush Sr., from the first crackles of radio to U2’s Rattle and Hum Memphis visit – suddenly had a questionable future in a late-80s era when tear-downs were common. The best days of the house on the corner of Madison and Evergreen seemed behind it.
That changed when the Newman and Duffee entered the picture.
Listening to the CPA and local lawyer Bruce Newman in person or on his WEVL radio program, one may notice in the subtleties of his accent that he is unmistakably not from Memphis, Tennessee.
Bruce is from New York, a Brooklyn boy. His move to Memphis, which left some of his friends shaking their heads, will sound familiar to many local transplants. He followed his wife Barbara, a Memphian, back to her hometown in the mid 1980s. It wasn’t long before Bruce would find his own way in Memphis. He ingratiated himself with Memphis’ flavor, and considering his love for American music history, local Rock ’n’ Roll in particular.
His indoctrination in Memphis also came under the tutelage of new friend and colleague Parks “Pat” Duffee Jr., another local accountant, who taught Bruce a little bit about life in the South. Pat introduced him to the Midtown vibe. He took him to old Zinnies, and its wall of caricatures of local characters. And Anderton’s – “I gotta take you to Anderton’s” – the iconic, now long-gone Madison Ave restaurant and bar that once occupied the lot and garden just west of Huey’s Midtown.
Originally the Newman’s settled in Cordova. Bruce ran his practice on the first floor of the white glass-clad Madison Professional Building at 1750. But after a few years under the Memphis mentorship of Mr. Duffee, Bruce knew he wanted to be in Midtown. In 1994 Bruce Newman and his associate Peter J. DeCoster, partners since 1985, moved from the glass and metal of 1750 into the old sandstone house at 1726, which was by 1992 under the partial ownership of the same Pat Duffee.
When they first set foot in the house, “the place was a mess!” Bruce Newman said. There was drug paraphernalia throughout the upstairs and downstairs. Whether it was the animal rights activists or some of the other residents that came and went, it was as though “these ten or twelve angry vegans” had been determined to just about wreck the house.
When Newman and his associates brought in a local contractor for renovations, they first “had to take a sledgehammer to this place,” he said. The group did a thorough renovation to the interior, the first since the house was built in 1910, and added the canopy that now adorns the front of the house, facing Madison. In honor of Bruce’s father, Herbert, who passed away in 1992 and had contributed to the financing of the house, the group also re-dedicated the house, in 1993.
On July 4, 2003, Bruce’s friend and colleague Parks E Duffee, Jr., the son of a policeman from Georgia, died three days short of his 65th birthday.
It is Bruce’s hope that, whatever the future of the house holds, somehow the legacies of both his father Herbert B. Newman and his Memphis mentor Pat Duffee are honored and remembered.
About That Man Named Hottum
Whatever legacy Mr. Newman has ruminated over may be more secure with the connection identified in this story.
Upon further inspection, research revealed the identity and history of the man whose name was listed on numerous city directories throughout the early century as baker, proprietor, owner, president, and promoter, and who from 1910 until the early 1930s resided at none other than 1726 Madison Avenue.
Hottum’s full story could fill a book by itself. In Paul R. Coppock’s Mid-South, the third of the seminal Memphis and Mid-South volumes, Christopher H. “Doc” Hottum is described as standing out in a class by himself amongst “a wealth of colorful personalities in Memphis… He was a promoter of unparalleled daring and variety and a delight to newspapermen on dull days.”
After emigrating from Germany and a stop in Detroit, Doc Hottum gained instant Memphis fame when he dove off the new railroad “Memphis Bridge” – now the Frisco Bridge – as proof that making such a jump would not result in certain death, and that “a skillful diver could hit the water without injury.” That was in 1892, when the man was twenty-three. With his newfound fame he did what so many other sports stars did, and “cashed in as a saloonist,” opening up a bar on Poplar Avenue between Main and Second. (Mid-South)
The Eighteenth Amendment banning the production and sale of liquor wasn’t passed until 1920; however Tennessee enacted liquor prohibition early, in 1916. When these laws reached Memphis, saloon owners “converted” their saloons to restaurants and/or “soft drink” shops (saloon references in city directories shrank to close to nothing from 1910 to 1920). Doc Hottum was no different, and in 1917 he moved his restaurant and soft drink business to the ground floor of what is now sometimes referred to as the Federal Bake Shop Building, at 119 Madison.
Doc Hottum was not only a colorful personality; he was also a showman, with big a sense of humor and a little bombast. For the 1930 U.S. Census he listed himself as a sports promoter in the sandwich shop industry, and as a war veteran (all true). The stories of his exploits are legendary. With a steady income from his Downtown restaurant, Doc promoted anything: bare-knuckle exhibition fights in Richburg, Miss.; dance marathons at Germania Hall; speed boat races; and for twenty-five years Mississippi River swim marathons (most were for women) accompanied by small boats and steamers.
He owned four steamboats. Once he managed a boxer. He served as a soldier in the Spanish-American War. “He was a major figure in the arrangements and ownership of the original Memphis team in (minor league baseball’s) Southern League.” By most accounts he was always a gentleman and never drank, but he was known to challenge men to impromptu fistfights. And he was one of the early promoters of local championship wrestling, promoting the career of wrestler Jimmy Londos, the original “Golden Greek.” (Mid-South)
The only thing that could stop Doc it seemed was a long-on-odds fight with an automobile, in a collision that struck him down in front of the Peabody Hotel in 1945. He was an invalid for the remainder of his years, in a house in South Memphis, and he passed away in 1959 at the age of 90.
But until the early 1930s he and his family lived at 1726 Madison. Paul R. Coppock’s Mid-South recounts a boarder that Doc once put up, who claimed to be a “professor of psychic wonders.” Doc wondered if the man was a fake, and took the man’s purse from his bedroom to see if this professor could use his psychic powers to find it. He couldn’t. And Doc kicked him out of the house.
Research says only that the fake psychic stayed in the bedroom of “the Hottum home” – we’d like to believe that the bedroom was upstairs at 1726.
It’s a given, when exploring house histories in Memphis, to ask about the presence of ghosts. When asked if he had ever encountered any in his Madison building, Bruce Newman paused. He said, “We heard that the back upstairs room, which appears to be an addition, was built to, or was used as, a room to quarantine a person with tuberculosis. That person supposedly died up there and ghosts have appeared from time to time in that part of the house.”
One Degree of Entertainment Separation
Perhaps a visit from another psychic could help us determine the identity of that ghost – in so many years of renters and boarders come and gone, the author’s research to date could not locate who passed away in the house – or we may leave that mystery unsolved.
Either way, we are certain that after a history curated by a string of prominent dentists, that the bookended legacy of the house lies in the long history that is Memphis entertainment.
Before moving to Memphis, Bruce Newman earned his Law degree and studied entertainment law under his mentor, Martin E. Silfen. Mr. Silfen a highly respected entertainment lawyer, once represented Aerosmith and Blondie, “and other monsters of music.” (newmandecoster.com) Since establishing his Memphis practice, Mr. Newman and his wife Barbara have produced fund-raising events and concerts that have attracted music legends in Rock, Folk, Blues and Jazz. Bruce’s clients are a who’s-who in Memphis music: singers, songwriters and musicians who are today’s entertainers and showmen.
Bruce is also a musician and songwriter in his own right. Doc Hottum had his diverse history of professions and exploits – an impressive resume as proprietor/saloonist/showman/sports promoter – but like many Memphians today, Mr. Newman’s dance card as CPA/attorney/entertainer/music promotor can rival anyone’s. And in wondering about the past lives of the Duffee-Newman Building, little did Bruce know that, if one connects the psychic dots, the groundwork for his Memphis entertainment career may have begun not in Brooklyn, but had been waiting for him right here at 1726 Madison Avenue, and with a man they called Doc.