7 Things You Didn’t Know About Victorian Village
Ed. Note: You’ve probably been to Victorian Village to see the the historic homes there, or maybe for drinks at the Mollie Fontaine Lounge. Contributor Aisling has more fun facts and lesser known places to look for while you explore one of Memphis’ oldest neighborhoods.
Victorian Village was Memphis’ first suburb, featuring spectacular mansions built along Adams Avenue by the city’s business elite on what was the outskirts of town during the Gilded Age.
Today, Victorian Village is home to six sites on the National Register of Historic Places: Mallory-Neely House Museum, Woodruff-Fontaine House Museum, The Massey House (home to Memphis City Beautiful), Mollie Fontaine Lounge, and The James Lee House.
Now is a great time to get to know this charming historic neighborhood. Here are seven sights to get you started.
The Gingerbread Playhouse
Built in 1870, the Woodruff Fontaine House is a gorgeous French Victorian Mansion that’s open to the public for tours. In the garden behind the mansion, you’ll find the whimsical Handwerker Gingerbread Playhouse, which looks like it was transported from a children’s storybook.
John V. Handwerker, a pharmacist, had this adorable Victorian playhouse built for his children circa 1890. Today, the Gingerbread Playhouse is rented out for small weddings and other social gatherings.
Mallory-Neely House Stained Glass Windows
The historic Mallory-Neely House, a 25-room Italianate mansion, retains its original historic interiors, furniture and artifacts, including two original stained glass panels that were purchased at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
A third stained-glass panel may also have been purchased at the same World’s Fair, but it came from a since-demolished house next door on land that today houses the juvenile court building. That house belonged to Hugh Neely, uncle of longtime Mallory-Neely House occupant Frances Neely Mallory, affectionately known as “Miss Daisy.” The panel sat in a judge’s chamber for years, after she saved it from the wrecking ball. In the 1980s it was brought to Mallory-Neely House for preservation.
The rescued panel is housed on the third floor, which isn’t included on the tour, but it can be seen from the second floor. The room where it’s housed, by the way, once served as an office for another judge, Camille Kelley, who aided Georgia Tann of the Tennessee Children’s Home in her notorious, long-running baby-selling scandal in which poor children were stolen and sold to wealthy families.
Memphis Martyrs Tribute
The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 was a devastating chapter in Memphis history. The epidemic resulted in so many deaths that Memphis lost its city charter due to depopulation. St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral was home church to a group of nuns, whose superior, Sister Constance, led the mission to nurse yellow fever victims. She, along with three other Episcopal nuns and two priests, came to be known as “Constance and Her Companions,” and the Episcopal Church has a feast day dedicated to their memory.
St. Mary’s Cathedral houses a Memphis Martyrs Hall, featuring a permanent exhibition that tells the story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic in Memphis and the martyrdom of Constance and her companions, who died after contracting the disease. The sisters’ names are also inscribed in the cathedral.
The Teddy Bear Connection
Shelby County Attorney General Luke Wright lived in Victorian Village. The circa 1840 carriage house at 688 Jefferson still stands and is today a private residence. On the wall outside, you’ll find a historic marker that tells the story of Luke Wright.
One of his guests was Theodore Roosevelt, and the Wright family is said to have plated their sterling silver gold for his presidential visit. Roosevelt spent the night at the Wright House before a famous 1902 bear hunting trip near Onward, Mississippi, where he famously refused to shoot a black bear that had been tied to a tree. He’s rumored to have said, “Spare the bear! I will not shoot a tethered animal!”
American newspapers reported the incident, which became the subject of a newspaper cartoon, and New York candy store owners Morris and Rose Michton created a stuffed toy bear called “Teddy’s Bear.” They sent one to Roosevelt, asking for his permission to name the bear after him, which he approved.
The currently vacant mansion at the corner of Jefferson and Manassas, a spectacular mix of Italianate, Queen Anne and Romanesque styles, was built in 1891 by German-born Jewish merchant Elias Lowenstein, who came to join his brothers in the dry-goods business. The Lowenstein brothers ran what became one of the city’s leading department stores. In 1921, his daughter, Cecilia, donated the house to the Nineteenth Century Club, which used it as a boarding house for young women who traveled to Memphis from rural areas to work in factories as part of the war effort.
The property was later turned into a treatment center for mental health outpatients in 1979. Today, it’s privately owned and it’s future is unknown.
The Steamship Bell
The James Lee House is a spectacular mansion in the heart of Victorian Village that’s been transformed into a luxury bed and breakfast. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Victorian-Italianate-style house once belonged to Charles Goyer, founder of Union Planters Bank.
It was purchased in 1890 by James Lee, a Princeton-educated riverboat captain who was heir to his father’s steamboat company, who lived in the mansion with his wife and 10 children.
The house later served as the James Lee Memorial Art Academy, the predecessor to the Memphis College of Art. Outside, on the side of the house, is the bell from the eponymous steamship The James Lee, which was donated to the James Lee House by Lee’s descendents during the 2013 groundbreaking for the renovation of the historic house into a bed-and-breakfast.
The famous Thunderbird Lounge, opened in 1965, was located in the basement of the Shelbourne Tower at Manassas and Adams Avenue, the site of what’s today the Helix at the District Apartments. Elvis Presley hosted parties at the lounge, including his 1968 New Year’s Eve party, and a number of famous musicians, including Ronnie Milsap, Charlie Rich, and Sam & Dave, performed at this swinging sixties club. Victorian Village Inc. is seeking stories from folks who have memories of the club.
What’s next for Victorian Village?
– Two new houses built to blend into the historic neighborhood, which will be Airbnbs.
– New 40-person outdoor patio at Mollie Fontaine Lounge.
– New restaurant called Wright Cafe, which will have coffee and two New Orleans style courtyards.
About the Author
Aisling Maki is a freelance writer, editor, and public and media relations specialist with awards from The Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists and Public Relations Society of America, as well as several awards for fiction writing. Her work has appeared in publications in more than 20 countries. You can usually find her cheering on the Grizzlies, doing outdoorsy things, or traveling with her daughter, Brídín. They live in Cooper-Young with a dog, a guinea pig and a pair of pet mice.