By Mark Fleischer
In mid-1970s Memphis, after two decades of white flight when the physical center of Memphis felt closer to Poplar and Perkins than Main and Beale, a wave was underway to bring investment, energy and life back into the core city.
Passionate about restoring a downtown still reeling from urban renewal and the shock of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s murder a few years earlier, groups of entrepreneurs were busy organizing: to restore The Orpheum; to establish an international music festival; to celebrate the city’s legacy in BBQ. It was a wave the city is still riding today, an era that gave us a vibrant Orpheum Theatre and the Memphis in May festivals’ Beale Street Music Festival and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
Smack in between downtown and East Memphis, the passionate wave of restoration was also sweeping Memphis’ Midtown.
Led by groups of Midtown neighborhoods – they called themselves the Midtown Council – residents met each month to “share ideas and deal with common problems.” And in Central Gardens, the ten-year-old Central Gardens Neighborhood Association started organizing annual tours of their neighborhood and its historic homes and gardens as a way to honor the legacy of the neighborhood, to attract reinvestment into the neighborhood, and to showcase residents’ proud efforts to restore these architectural beauties.
Looking back, the era has an aura of romance, when husbands and wives and neighbors grabbed hammers and saws and paint brushes, rolled up their sleeves and went to work on their homes, themselves, no contractors in sight.
Home Tour, 2019
Today there may not be as many rolled-up sleeves, but the spirit of renewal and restoration continues in Central Gardens, and the romance of the old homes 40+ years later has not worn off. This year’s Home & Garden Tour – “Centrally Located, Exquisitely Designed” – features some of the neighborhood’s original homes, built in the earliest years of the neighborhood over 100 years ago, mixed in with homes built in the last twenty to twenty-five years.
Built to the standards of the neighborhood’s historic guidelines, the newer homes’ styles and builds make them almost indistinguishable from their older neighbors.
Enjoy this little sneak-peek walk through tour day, courtesy of the Central Gardens Home Tour committee (led this year by Jana Larson, co-owner of Joe’s Liquor) and the Home Tour brochure (seen below), to give a taste of what you can expect on Sunday, September 8.
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The beautiful Colonial Revival style home at 1581 Central is one the newer homes on the tour – it was built in 2002 under newly-revised neighborhood design guidelines – but the property it sits on has quite a history. It was once the location of “one of the most original and imposing of the houses on Central,” the Norfleet-Fuller house, built in 1910.
William T. Fuller, the owner of the 1910 house at 1585 Central, ran afoul of the neighborhood and the city when trying to operate and maintain the house as an event venue and bed and breakfast. Forbidden to run it as a commercial venture – with 3 acres, the grounds and the house were quite expensive to maintain – Fuller followed through on a promise to his late mother and inexplicably tore it down. Read the full story of 1585 Central here.
After the demolition, the property sat vacant for eleven years before being purchased by James “Bubba” Shepherd’s construction firm, which in 2002 built the gorgeous house we see today.
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The next home along Central was also constructed in more recent years. This Spanish Colonial Revival home was built in 1996 on land that was originally part of a larger plat. What is of particular interest in the history of this home is its association with Kemmons Wilson, the creator of the Holiday Inn chain of motor hotels, and Mr. Wilson’s family.
This home, like that of 1581 Central, was designed and built following the neighborhood’s design guidelines.
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Known locally as simply ‘IC,’ residing over the southern end of historic Belvedere Boulevard, the imposing Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception serves this year as the tour’s hospitality center. At this location, tour patrons will be able to enjoy a late lunch from local food trucks in the Memphis Food Truck Alliance, purchase beverages and peruse the art fair in between home stops.
The cathedral, designed with influences of Imperial Roman, Renaissance and Baroque styles, was built in 1927-28 and has been an important Central Gardens fixture ever since.
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The name Solomon Rozelle is one many Central Gardens’ residents are familiar with. Mr. Rozelle was one of the original land owners of the area, and the stunning 1926 English Tudor revival home here at 1751 Central was constructed on land that was originally part of the Rozelle property.
True to its style, this home features “half-timbering and oriel” as well as storybook elements partially hidden from view. The current owners have carefully renovated the home.
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The Craftsman Bungalow style, a mainstay of affordable homes from the 1920s and ’30s Arts and Crafts movement, is represented well in Central Gardens. This home was under the ownership of the Welch family for its entire history from 1922 until it was sold by the Welch Family Trust in 2014.
This home resides along Anderson Street, which runs north-south and is one of the neighborhood’s quieter and more narrow, tree-lined streets. This home has seen its share of interior renovations and a rear addition that includes a screened-in porch.
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Another style of the Arts and Crafts movement that is a mainstay of the neighborhood is the American Foursquare, and the house at 679 S. McLean Blvd is a rather stunning example. This is another home that has seen multiple renovations. Most recently, the current owners are proud to show a redone kitchen and living room.
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The last home on the tour is also the youngest home, having been constructed just four years ago in 2015. It is another one of those houses that feels as though it’s always been in the neighborhood. Built in a Spanish Colonial and the eclectic Central Gardens style, it is almost a distant cousin of the Mission style Norfleet-Fuller mansion that once graced Central Ave (referenced earlier in this article) and that was hastily demolished in 1990.
The property itself, at this corner of Cowden and McLean, has its own unique history of an eventual demolition and another Fuller, not related, who built a home in 1979 that would become known as the “Underground House.”
… covered with mounds of dirt and monkey grass… and surrounded with a wood-plank fence, … the house wasn’t technically underground; everything was built above ground but just covered up, and the only thing visible was the front door.~Judith Johnson in the Home Tour brochure
The house in its state could not be sustained, and from 1996 to 2007, after a few sales and renovation plans that did not meet Landmarks’ approval, the house came down after sale at auction. Today’s Travis House has gracefully taken its place.
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Tour day Sunday is a special day in the Central Gardens neighborhood, and a special day in Midtown, Memphis. For many it is the highlight of the year, and depending on the weather either an informal preview to the fall season or the last gasps of summer. It is visited by patrons from all over the Mid-South and beyond, and is on author Samantha Crespo’s list of 100 Things To Do in Memphis Before You Die.
And this was just a sneak-peek look; for the full story on all of these houses and to step foot into the homes themselves, join the dozens of volunteers on tour day September 8 and see for yourself.
Advance tickets for $15 are available at the Central Gardens tour site here. Tickets are $20 on tour day itself. Check out this storied neighborhood September 8 – you’ll be glad you did. <>
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StoryBoard Memphis publisher Mark Fleischer is also a Central Gardens board member and current board president. This is also the fourth consecutive year he has participated in the tour. His views may be slightly biased.