In Search of the Heart of Memphis

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Autumn Says She’ll Be Here Soon

It's September and the late-summer heat and humidity is back. But this past Friday and Saturday mornings autumn sent us a teaser of a message, with cool mornings and a full lineup of college football, and told us she was boarding the plane soon and would be here before we knew it.

I will consider the fall of 2016 to be my first autumnal experience here in Memphis. We arrived last year in late October but didn’t move into our place in Midtown until mid-November, spent most of our time unpacking, settling in, in Oxford and Collierville for the holidays, and just like that I was finally exploring Midtown and Downtown in barren bits ’n pieces in December and January. So this year’s fall will be the first I can enjoy from the first scarf to the last autumn leaf. And I’ll tell ya, I can’t wait. 
Because we didn’t have a traditional fall in southern California. We had fire season. (Or as recent history suggests, an extension of fire season). On Labor Day weekend, when much of the country was finishing up their summer novels and looking forward to cooler temperatures, we in SoCal would be dreading the arrival of the dry, hot Santa Ana winds that blow in from the desert and turn sparks into multi million-dollar disasters. 
I know, many people like the year-round mild weather SoCal has to offer. Me, I found it boring and sometimes maddening, and even a little gross. Southern California sits in a basin, ocean on one side but otherwise surrounded by mountains, and the weather just sits. That’s why LA has its reputation for smog. The air has nowhere to go. Changes in the weather? Maybe in a few months it’ll drop below 60. We didn’t get the thunder storms - we might have had one a year at best - there were no sudden afternoon downpours followed by sunshine and rainbows. And with none of the trappings that come with it: no Cicada serenades, no dancing lightning bugs at dusk. 

And no sneak peeks of the crisp autumn air to come like what we had at the beginning of this past weekend. 

Autumn colors surround the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade over
Central Park West (courtesy The New York Times)

As a kid I longed for the nostalgia that arrives with a traditional autumn, and I would watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade thinking That’s what autumn is supposed to look like! Thankfully over the last twenty years I had huge helpings of it with visits to New York and New England. And I got tastes of it last year with drives down Central Avenue and Walnut Grove, driving through endless showers of crisp orange and red leaves against backdrops of bright blue skies, looking forward to warming up to boots, wool coats and turkey dinners. 

And football. The opening of the college football season is as much a sign of fall as the changing leaves. And college football in Memphis, like everywhere else in the South, means so much more here than it does in California. Here it means many things to many people. Saturday afternoons and football parties and chips and beer and raw emotions. And to some it’s blue and gray, to others it’s orange and white. To some it’s red and blue, to others it’s white on maroon. 

As for me, frankly, I’ve always been more of a baseball fan. To me fall means pennant-fever baseball, when the season is winding down and teams are battling for those playoff spots, when every game seems so critical. Some of you know by now that though I grew up in Cal, I have deep roots in New York. My great grandfather, my grandfather and my father all attended baseball games at the big ballpark on 161st Street, the Bronx, New York. That’s Yankee Stadium. Of course, that makes me a Yankee fan (insert jeers here if you like). A fourth-generation Yankee fan to boot. 

I’m not one of those fans who latched on in the late 90s when the Yanks were baseball juggernauts. My allegiance goes way back, to before I was ten, when a guy named Bobby Murcer was still patrolling center field in the old Yankee Stadium in the early 70s. It’s been in my blood ever since. From the Bronx Zoo Martin-Munson-Jackson years to the hopeful 80s when Don Mattingly - my favorite player ever - anchored first base. From the sad early 90s teams to the record-setting Torre and Jeter teams of the late 90s, and to Jeter’s goodbye in 2014. 

I’m not a fan of the big new and overpriced Yankee Stadium that opened in 2009 - I miss the old Stadium. I was never an A-Rod fan - my favorite Yankee third-sacker was Craig Nettles. 

However, shortly after arriving here in Memphis I quickly grew fond of our ballpark downtown, at  200 Union Avenue. Now I’ve been to many ballparks around the country, major and minor leagues, and for my money AutoZone Park is one of the very finest ballparks in all of baseball, period. In addition, as a baseball fan over the years my favorite all-time National League player happened to be Stan “The Man” Musial, one of the best hitters to ever slap a fastball into the gap in right-center, and a life-long St. Louis Cardinal. 

Memphis' own AutoZone Park, home of the Redbirds, Triple-A
affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals

So you know where I’m goin’ with this, right? Yep. I proudly root root root for the Redbirds, keep an eye on the Cardinals, and cheer on my transitioning Bronx Bombers. Cardinals-Redbirds-Yankees. Memphis-New York. It’s a happy marriage. Ask our new Redbird’s owner. He’s from New York and owns a minor interest in the Yankees. 

And this New York-Memphis connection? It’s an interesting phenomena. Many Memphians are apparently big fans of the Big Apple, and some are even New York transplants! It’s great to be able to talk about a city, the NY, that has no real rivalry with Memphis, but instead a kind of kinship that I still haven’t completely figured out. 

Kinships and rivalries. Takes me back to football. And you may wonder, where are my allegiances? Who’s he pullin’ for?

In my college days in southern California I attended classes and extension courses in no fewer than four schools. I spent six years, from Orange County to Hollywood, in classes for the arts and film and theater and writing and screenwriting. Pledge a fraternity? Nope. Go to football games? Nope. I was Acting or Writing or Directing. And Working! Working to pay my way through college and cheap rents. 

I did however root for UCLA. It was the school I had set my sights on when I was still a cocky high school kid. I had the grades and the qualifications but in terms of distance and expense it just wasn’t in the cards. 

So he’s a Bruin fan? Well, more or less. I keep on eye on Bruin basketball and I check the Sunday sports pages for Bruin football scores. And that’s about it.

But that kind of casual fandom doesn’t sit too well here in the South. Ya gotta pick a team here, son! Who’s it gonna be? The Vols? The Tigers? Ole Miss? Don’t tell me Miss-sippy State?! 

Well now that’cha got me backed into a corner, I’ll say this: My brother-in-law’s alma mater is that university down in Oxford. I’ve side-stepped the mud through The Grove. I’ve watched games with my dear brother from another mother late into Saturday evenings and yes, found myself rooting for the Rebels of Ole Miss. 

But that was last year, and something happened this year on this side of the Tennessee state line. As many more of you know, I fell in love with this town. I fell in love with the neighborhoods, our fine people, our history, and our way of life here in Memphis and Midtown. And some of my favorite drives are out along Central Avenue and past Highland, or down along Southern Avenue, and past the former Memphis State. 

With my love for all things Memphis, how then could I not be a University of Memphis Tiger’s fan?! I simply must root for the blue and the gray. I have to open up the CA’s sports page (what’s left of it - if I wanted to read dumbed-down USA Today I would have) and check out how our new coach is doing, how the defense stacks up, how our new up-tempo offense will fair, or why we were inexplicably dropped from Big-12 consideration. And I have to curse and wonder when the SEC network or a local station doesn’t air the damn game on the opening Saturday night of the 2016-17 college football season! 

The Liberty Bowl, home of our Memphis Tigers
(courtesy of the ilovememphisblog)

So I’ve become a Tigers fan. And in adding Tigers’ football to my Memphis experience, I can truly say that this fall really will be my first. Last year I hadn’t even gotten my feet wet. This year I’m knee deep in it, and lovin’ all of it. 

Once an afterthought, college football now takes up significant blips on my radar screen. And pro football just adds to it. (As for my NFL allegiances, I just can’t root for a team out of Nashville - the Titans - and I’m not a big fan of Atlanta in general. That leaves what, the Saints? The Cowboys? Sure, I’m an NFC guy anyway, and I’ll keep my eye on them. But remember that New York thing? I still gotta pull for my NY-football Giants.)

Call me a convert. Once I refused to acknowledge football season until after the last out of the baseball World Series. Now I look forward to the very first kick-offs. Beyond playoff baseball I once looked upon the arrival of September and October with the blahs. Now, I can’t wait to see the slow transformation of our Midtown streets. I can’t wait to see the scarves and wool coats come out. Once I ignored the onset of Halloween, now I look forward to seeing how all the neighborhood kids dress up (although I still don’t think I can swallow the macabre house decorations).  

So if you’re one those Memphians who still think It’s better somewhere else, think again. Because for this city, just like the oncoming fall, change is coming soon. Just as it does every three or so months, and every year, things are changing for the better. You don’t live in the upper Midwest or the Northwest, where the joke is always “We have two seasons: winter and August.” You don’t live in basin-like cities where the weather stagnates like bad bathwater, and you don’t live in a city where changing seasons mean deep freezes that last until June.

One of my first Instagram posts, in November of 2015

You don’t have dream of idyllic fall days and autumn leaves, because we have them here. You don’t have look out over the country with envy that everyone else is getting a real fall. You can live it. You can experience the richness that a Tennessee autumn has to offer. 

Revel in it, like it’s your first time. I know I will.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Madison Avenue - 2282 and 2234

I’ve been saying for a while now that There’s just something about Memphis. It’s real. It’s got stories. It’s got soul. 
Cliches maybe, but true. A feeling of being captured by something greater than the sum of its parts. You feel its soul all around, in the obvious places and in the unexpected. In pubs and bars and restaurants all over the city, it’s not just the music itself that touches you, it’s how every musician’s cords and beats and rhythms seem to flow from Memphis history, that what you’re hearing is mixed from everything that came before it. 
And it’s not just that the food that is so damn good, it’s the love and tenderness and lineage poured into every mix, spatula flip and dip into the hot oil. 

And it’s not just the buildings. It’s the hands that built them. The care and craftsmanship that went into each brick. And it’s the lives that lived in them. Their stories. Their lives, their deaths. My grandmother worked there. My uncle built that building. My grand-dad worked on that railroad. I grew up in that house. 

The soul of the place, dripping from everywhere you look, grabs you and doesn’t let you go.

Turns out I’m not the only one who feels this way. Turns out there are many now who feel that way - I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many of them this year - and many who came before us who feel that way (I will only be meeting those Memphians in spirit.)

I discovered a few of those spirits in the two houses I explored for this post. Two houses along the north side of Madison, one house many of you may be familiar with - 2282 Madison - and another that many of you have passed by but never noticed: 2234 Madison. Two addresses east of Cooper, in the neighborhood of the former town of Lenox, in the old Coles East End Subdivision.

2282 Madison Avenue, Howard Hall

Starting down the north side of Madison from East Parkway, the first house one sees is not Howard Hall but the W.J. Crawford House (after original owner West J. Crawford, from Mississippi). It's the large, beautiful, red-brick and white-trimmed - get out your architectural guides - “Neoclassical” Greek (or Colonial) Revival style house on the corner. This stately house, set back on an elevation and behind an iron fence atop a low brick wall, actually faces East Parkway - it carries a 1 East Parkway North address - and I won’t be spending too much on it in this study, noteworthy as it is. But don’t forget about it just yet.

Crawford House, 1 East Parkway North
(google image)

However, the year of the Crawford House construction is worth discussing because it applies to 2282 Madison as well, as both were likely built between 1910 and 1913. Why likely? Well, the official city property assessment records indicate a year built of 1925, which historically-speaking does not add up. The architectural style, city records, various unofficial sources, etc., point to a construction year of something after 1910 and before 1915. 

But those city property records stamped with that 1925 date? Well, every house but one of the pre-1930s houses on this particular square block are recorded with a Year Built of 1925. I’ve asked around and checked various city archives and have yet to find out why 1925 in particular is listed, although it is possible that it may have something to do with the fact that 1925 is the year that the Shelby County Board of Adjustment was created and would have begun keeping records. The BOA as it’s called hears and approves requests for building “variances” under what is called the Unified Development Code.

Either way, recording errors such as those for 2282 Madison, though rare, exist in official property assessment records, especially in newly annexed townships in the early century. And correcting those errors? It’s an administrative nightmare, requiring the kind of documentation and building records that may no longer exist, or that are disintegrating in the bottoms of boxes in house attics or basements.

The Sanborn fire insurance maps. This one published in 1927. Here we see that the houses on both 1 E. Pkwy N and 2282 Madison are present. We can also see that the front garden room and the rear carriage house, included in the maps, must have been built with the original structure. (courtesy Memphis Room of the Memphis Public Library) 

But a quick study of common architectural styles in the early century tells us that the two houses on this block were very likely built between 1910 and 1915. The Greek/Colonial Revival style of the Crawford House at 1 East Parkway for example was a fairly common choice among builders in the south and northeast at the time. And, the 1990 Johnson and Russell Memphis, An Architectural Guide, lists George M. Shaw as the architect of the house, and lists it as being built between 1912-13. (We’ll take a look at 2282’s history and house style in a moment.)

(A note on architectural style: the Johnson & Russell Memphis guide lists the Crawford House as Colonial Revival. I however will be using as a reference the “definitive guide” of all American domestic architectural styles, Virginia McAlester's A Field Guide to American Houses, published in 1984 and updated in 2013. McAlester's guide tells me that the Crawford House is very much in the Greek Revival style. Architects, preservationists, and enthusiasts, I’ll be happy to hear your assessments.)

Finally, a thorough (and exhaustive) search of old Memphis city directories from 1909 to 1915 tells us that in 1911, there was no residence at 2282 Madison. But by the May 1913 publishing of the 1913 Memphis City Directory - which reflects 1912 businesses and residents, their addresses and early telephone numbers - there exists a resident at a house at 2282 Madison Avenue. That resident? A Mr. Caruthers Ewing, a lawyer who worked Downtown at the Memphis Trust Building, now referred to as the Commerce Trust Building. 

1913 City Directory. Note the listing for
Ewing, Caruthers in bold in the right column
(courtesy Shelby County Register)

Caruthers Ewing was in his early-forties when he built the house that stands at the corner of Madison and N. Edgewood. (Edgewood north of Union was in the 1910s called Lenox Avenue.) Mr. Ewing was an attorney who moved down to Memphis from the city of Dresden, in Weakley County in northern Tennessee, about 15 miles from Kentucky. 

The house itself, on about three-quarters of an acre, two and a half stories of eight bedrooms, four full bathrooms, can best be described as “Eclectic,” a term used to describe architectural styles that are literally a creative mix of influences.  

Howard Hall, in an undated photo
 (courtesy Memphis Heritage "The Keystone" publication)

Overall, the house fits the mold of the Colonial Revival style, so named for the “rebirth of interest in the early English and Dutch houses of the Atlantic seaboard,” as quoted in McAlester’s guide. It was the most popular architectural style in the early century all over the eastern states and in the South. 

If you’re not schooled in architectural styles of the American house, you can identify many Colonial Revival houses of the era by a triangular “side-gabled” roof on each end, asymmetrical design, a decorative entrance, and for some houses, a one or two-story side wing or garden room. However what’s interesting about Howard Hall is that it has architectural touches beyond straight-forward Colonial Revival - I almost sense in it a little flavor of the French Eclectic style that was just beginning to take root, and the stucco siding versus the red brick of many Colonials (which also happened to be more expensive at the time - the original architect could not be reached for comment). And finally a feature that is seen all over early-century Memphis, the familiar porte cochere (pronounced port-ku-sher), the covered entrance for horse and carriage access, or motor cars years later, that is accessible from Edgewood via a curving driveway. 

The porte cochere over the driveway

Once inside, the house’s main entrance hall and foyer greets visitors with the elegance of the era: tiled floors, a grand staircase. 

An elegant staircase, typical for the era 

The library is to the left.

The main living area is to the right. The living area is now
used for meetings, presentations, and parties

The house was Mr. Ewing’s and his wife’s home until into the 1930s, when he and his wife Bessie Winstead Ewing traveled to Europe and then moved to New York. (Census reports into the '40s show that they had a New York Park Avenue address.) And according to Howard Hall’s official history, when Mr. Ewing moved, it was rented in 1935 by a Mr. W.J. O’Brien, who just happened to be the President and General Manager of Memphis Power and Light Company. 

But when Memphis Power & Light was sold to E.H. Crump in 1939, Mr. O’Brien moved out of the house, and Caruthers Ewing’s son, Caruthers Jr., moved in.

In 1965, Dixon Jordan purchased the house, becoming only the second official owner, and upon his death passed the house along to his daughter Jennifer Jordan Eldridge. It remained in Eldridge’s hands until her and her husband sold it to Mr. Hal Bowen Howard, Jr., in 1997.

Howard Hall is today the home of Memphis Heritage, the generous gift of Mr. Hal Howard, Jr., born in 1925 here in Memphis. He was last individual owner of the house. 

But Hal never lived in it. He bought it for his second wife, Suzanne, making some renovations for her in hopes that she would eventually move into it. But sadly, his wife never moved in. 

Hal was obviously a very sentimental man, and he was generous in ways many of us wish we could be. As his New York Times obituary read, he was dedicated “to superior education for those that might not be able to afford it,” and “devoted to give opportunity to people who otherwise would not have it.” 

He also had great sentiment and affection for Memphis and its history. And since his wife Suzanne wasn’t going to live in his house at 2282 Madison, he decided to give the house a different life.

“Tell me about Memphis Heritage,” he said in 2005 over a phone call with June West, Memphis Heritage’s Executive Director. 

And as June tells it, she was floored. In 2005 she and the MH board had been in search for a new home for the organization, and Mr. Howard’s house seemed a perfect fit. But months went by with no word from Hal, and June gave up, thinking that this wealthy man had forgotten about their conversation. 

He hadn’t. Months later she received an envelope from Paris, and a hand-written letter from Hal himself, declaring his intent on donating the house to Memphis Heritage. 

Hal Howard Jr. passed away Feb 26, 2015. His obituary mentions his life in New York, his travels, his family lineage, his philanthropy, as well as his sentiments for Memphis. So sentimental was he that upon transferring ownership of the house to Memphis Heritage, he had the deed written so that if for whatever reason MH had to resell the house, that it would be sold as a residence, insuring that future Memphis families could enjoy it. 

Our story could end here, as Hal’s donation to Memphis Heritage has been fruitful for many, and his legacy is intact. But after a tour of the upstairs of the house, Ms. West showed me the only “working” sleeping quarters in the house: the upstairs bedroom that is furnished as it was when the house was still a residence - the rest of the house is used for offices, storage, conference rooms, and the occasional party. 

It is the W.J. Crawford Room. Now used for out of town guests of Memphis Heritage. And W.J. Crawford? He happened to be Hal Howard Jr’s grandfather from his mother’s side, Marianne Crawford Howard. And remember the Crawford House at 1 East Parkway North, right next door? W.J. was the original owner that house. 

The W.J. Crawford Room,
furnished with Hal's grandfather Crawford's furniture

And so the ghosts and legacies of this little corner of Memphis’ history come full circle. Well, maybe a circle outside of another circle, because as serendipitous as the story of the Crawford and Howard houses are, another remarkable little synchronicity occurred around this house, and this room, in the winter of 2015. 

Meet Wanda Wilson. I will inevitably share a lot more about her later in my journey, but there are many a Memphian who know that name. She was the owner of the P&H Cafe - also on Madison, between McNeil and Willett and across from Minglewood Hall - but she was no ordinary owner. Hearing people talk about her makes one wish you had known her. The Flyer called her the Midtown muse, and she reminds me of a New York icon by the name of Elaine Kaufman, who presided over her own legendary hot spot Elaine’s for over fifty years on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Wanda held court at a far end of her bar, she inspired people, she dispensed raw tart-tongued advice. The CA’s John Beifuss, in his obituary for her, said she was “the patron saint, den mother, confidante and muse for the generations of artists, politicians and journalists.” She passed away in late January, 2015, one month before Mr. Howard.

The portrait you saw above was “her Stevie Nicks look,” and it was painted by legendary Memphis artist Paul Penczner (1916 - 2010). It is one of two portraits of Ms. Wilson that are now in the Crawford bedroom. 

And in late January 2015, an actor by the name of Jerre Dye was in Memphis for his stage role as Dr. Frank-N-Furter for the Playhouse on the Square’s revival of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A friend of June’s, Jerre had been staying in the Crawford room while in Memphis. 

He was in the room the very night Wanda Wilson passed away. As June tells it, “he definitely got a chill when he heard the news,” her image looking right back at him, as though her spirit had made a passing visit before moving on. 

Another spirit. Another life in another house along Madison. One of many I will encounter along this journey.  

2234 Madison Avenue

Shelby County property records indicate the house at 2234 Madison Avenue was built in 1915 (however in the 1914 City Directory there is already a listing at 2234 Madison). It is a two-story (plus third-floor attic) house, in the American Four-Square Prairie-style common to the era. Prairie-type houses are one of just a few that were not revivals from any European styles; they truly are American originals. Most were built in the ten years before World War I. 

2234 Madison, c. 1915. Note the driveway to the right,
and the garage in the backyard
(courtesy of Claire and Susan)
2234 Today. Prairie houses such as these are called
Four-Square quite literally because of their symmetrical,
squared design featuring four primary front windows.
(courtesy of Claire and Susan)

An image from the 1927 Sanborn Map, showing 2234
as the fourth house from the corner.
(courtesy Memphis Public Library)

It’s notable in looking at the map that in 1927 we can see the outside stairs in the back of the house that lead to the upstairs rear residence. The garage in the backyard has since been torn down. 
Susie Ratner and her partner Claire Ryan have lived in the house at 2234 since July of 2002, when they bought it from the McGuire Construction and Investment Co. They are but two of many Memphians who have resided at 2234 over the last one hundred years.

The original owners of the house were the Turcotts, Ludger Joseph (L.J.) and his wife Sallie Irene Brown Hay Turcott (don’t’cha love the proliferation of family names in those days?). We know this because of old deeds records, but also this little wonderful tidbit: 

Wedding announcement of the Turcott's daughter
Miss Addie Hampton Hay to
Mr. William Maydwell McNeely
(courtesy of Claire and Susan)

As noted in the 1915 clipping, (L.J.) Turcott and his wife Sallie hosted the wedding of their daughter in the house at 2234, giving away in marriage their daughter Addie Hampton Hay to the tall, blue-eyed and red-haired William Maydwell McNeely. 

One can easily imagine the palms and ferns and pink and white 
carnations all over the living and “library” rooms of the first floor

There were professional pictures taken at the ceremony and reception (those portraits are part of the family’s private collection).
Mr. Turcott hailed from Canada. He worked as a blacksmith and in 1915 his work address was 453 Monroe Avenue. Good luck finding #453 today, but in those days that address would have been on Monroe somewhere between Lauderdale and Marshall, across the street from and near where the High Cotton Brewery is today, and just a block over from the now-empty Wonder Bread Bakery building. Now Mr. McNeely, his new son-in-law, was a bookkeeper in 1915. But in 1917 his vocation is listed as a bread salesman, and his work address was none other than 400 Monroe, just a block or so away from Mr. Turcott’s work address.

City Directory listing 400 Monroe,
third column to the right
(courtesy of Shelby County Register)

The streets around Monroe and Lauderdale and Marshall were thriving and busy in those days, and those of you who know your Memphis addresses may recognize 400 Monroe as the address of the very same Wonder Bread Bakery. Wonder Bread the bread mill and factory wasn’t built until 1921, but from the early century until 1920 that address was the home of the Memphis Bread Company, and for a few years also the home of Aunt Mary’s Cake Co. 

I have no access to private family history, but it’s fun nonetheless to speculate that after William McNeely married L.J. Turcott’s daughter Addie, Mr. Turcott, in knowing many business owners in and around the blocks near his blacksmith shop on Monroe, may have had a hand in getting William a job as salesman. 

One can imagine the exchange, soon after their wedding, Mr. Turcott’s arm around William, asking “Son, ya gonna be a bookkeeper all your life? How’d ya like to try your hand at sales? I know a few people at the Memphis Bread Company, and they could use a young salesmen like you.” William wasn’t all that young in 1915 - he was already 27 - but it’s easy to imagine such a conversation. 

These were among the first events in the one-hundred-year-old house at 2234 Madison. And based on the use of the house for the 60-plus years that would follow, it’s evident that the McNeely newlyweds used the upstairs as their residence - through the 1980s the third floor attic had a full bath and a kitchen - and in 1916 the McNeely’s bore their first child in the house, daughter Addie Lucille. 

The back of the house, with separate access to the upstairs

The Turcotts and the McNeelys weren’t in the house for long. By 1918 the Turcotts were out, having moved to Angelus Street in the Evergreen neighborhood, as were the McNeelys, who by then lived at 357 North Lewis in North Memphis. William and Addie would have another child there, in October of 1918, a son. 

According to records, their son William M McNeely, Jr. was nicknamed “Little Bill.” And at barely three months old, on Christmas Eve at eleven in the morning, Little Bill succumbed to a bout with the influenza that was so common in the day. The death certificate indicates that there were visits by a physician each day for three days until Little Bill passed on one of the most sacred days of the year. One can only imagine the family’s pain amidst the joys of the Christmas season, a grief no parent could ever forget. 

William McNeely would later serve in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II, as a Lt. Commander in his mid-50s no less, and would pass away in 1957 at the age of 68. His wife Addie would live until the age of 78 with her passing in 1974. But the place in which they exchanged their marital vows will always be 2234 Madison Avenue. 

The house would have many residents in the years following the Turcotts. From 1918 to 1923, the house was owned or more likely leased to a Mrs Ida V. Cummings, an F.M. Longley, a J.J. Elvert for three years, and finally to a Eugene Skillern before being sold to a Mr. Guy Smith McClellan and his wife Nellie. 

Mr. McClellan was an an insurance agent, and he passed away in 1926. The widowed Nellie kept the house and from 1926 until past 1943 she rented out the back of the house to at least three residents, including a Samuel Jones in 1928, a John Connelly from 1930-34, and a Mrs. Sarah H Berry from 1936-38. 

After the 1940s Nellie McClellan sold the house. Fast forward to the 1980s (other owners from the 50s to the 70s are unknown as of this writing), when it was owned by a James W Lester Jr., and the upstairs and back was still in use as a rental. When Claire and Susan bought the house in 2002, however, having adopted children of their own, the couple had the house and upstairs renovated back to a single family use. Their only other major renovation was the library fireplace, which required a bit of a painstaking restoration. 

The beautiful lines common to early century design

When I visited Claire and Susan back in June, I had noticed a For Sale sign out, and eventually I asked why they were selling a home that they obviously loved so much. I won’t reveal details here, but like so many of us, eventually life and ailments take hold and walking up two flights of stairs day-in and day-out becomes a painful and dangerous chore. And I could tell by their demeanors that though quite saddened over having to move, they had come to accept that it was time to live in a single-story house.  

I left that day feeling like I had gathered just enough of a story from these the sweetest of ladies and their lovely home. But a few weeks later I realized I had forgotten a key question, and reached back out to both of them.

“Do either of you feel any connection to the original or prior owners of the house?” I asked. 

“We do, in fact,” said Claire. Over Labor Day weekend the summer they moved in, they had had a house warming party and got to bed late, after midnight. They were in bed in the back of the house in the upstairs master bedroom, their daughters in the front bedrooms. Around 2am they were both awakened. 

They were hearing the sound of a football, Claire said, “going from the second floor landing up to the third floor. We opened the door to see which child might be walking around at that hour, and found our younger daughter asleep in the southwest bedroom, and our older daughter coming out of her room on the east side of the house.”

They became frightened. “We could all hear someone walking upstairs” on the third floor. They quickly gathered their girls, grabbed the house phone and their dogs (who were in crates), and hid away in their car to call the police. 

The police found nothing. No signs of forced entry, no one outside, and no one walking around and playing with a football upstairs. 

The second floor hall. The bedrooms to the left face the
front of the house and Madison

“The next morning, we called our friend, Jane, who had lived in the house in the 1980s.  We said, ‘Jane? We think there may be a ghost in the house.’”  

"Oh, yes, there definitely is,” their friend told them. Claire went on, “She said that when she lived here, they heard the ghost frequently and had heard a story of the original owner having died in the house and she figured that's who it was.”

With my research I knew a few things. And I knew that original owners Mr. and Mrs. Turcott moved from the house around 1918. The McNeely’s baby boy died in 1918 up at 357 Lewis in North Memphis. And though there were gaps in the deeds records from the 50s through the 70s, I could not uncover any evidence of anyone dying in the house. 

Until I dug deeper into the City Directory of 1927, when the McClellans lived in the house, and noticed a “wid Guy S” after Nellie’s name - “wid” for widow.

I dug deeper. Mr. Guy Smith McClellan died on August 24, 1926, of cancer to the adrenal glands. He was just 47 years old. And place of death? The County of Shelby, Memphis, Tennessee, 2234 Madison Avenue. 

The poor man had died in the house. We don’t know exactly which room. But if you recall, his widow Nellie kept the house and rented out the rear of house to at least three residents until a few years past 1943. And it was the upstairs rear of house where Claire and Susan had heard those footsteps. 

“Over the years,” Claire would tell me, “we heard the sounds of someone occasionally, but more often, we smelled the distinct smell of cigarette smoke in the house when none of us smokes. It was usually out on the landing between the first and second floors.  No neighbors smoke, nobody standing outside those windows, just…smoke.”

Eventually their smoking visitor stopped making itself known. Or, who knows, maybe it quit smoking. Either way, they stopped hearing him, or her. “I think,” they said, it “finally trusts us.”

Like Wanda Wilson of P&H, another Madison ghost. Susie had known Wanda as well, I learned. She had known her quite well. And again I was feeling another instance of this connectedness, amongst the people of Madison, the places of Madison, the people and places of Memphis, and their stories. There’s a running joke I’ve been encountering as I meet Memphians, that everyone knows everyone else through someone. “It’s not six degrees of separation in Memphis,” I’ve said out loud, “it’s more like two.”

Yet another way in which Memphis has that something. Its heart. Its redemptive soul. 

Before I finished my chat with Claire and Susie, they revealed that years earlier they had passed up an opportunity to live elsewhere. “Why did you stay?” I asked. Susie looked at Claire, then looked back at me.

“Because Memphis needs me,” she said.

And so do, I think, its ghosts.


Please contact me if you have any additions, or corrections. 

Special thanks to June, Claire and Susan for their time. Thanks as always to the Shelby County Archives, the Memphis Public Library, and the Shelby County Register of Deeds site for references in this post.


After this post was published, Memphian Klay Lester reached to me via FaceBook. He shared these memories and this photo:

1986 photo courtesy of Klay Lester, brother of former
owner James Lester, who owned the house from 1979 to ‘86

“My brother (James) used to own 2234 Madison from 79-86! He lived there for a few years then rented it out after he moved to Dallas in ’81. I have (this) photo of the house from 1986. My friends & I threw a big Risky Business style party there while it was empty during renters. This photograph was taken the day before the party when we went over there to clean up. My parents still don't know. Guess I can tell them now. ROR!”

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Madison Avenue - The Town of Lenox

(Remember, with this blog, if you have any old pictures or stories you'd be willing to share of the street or block mentioned, please let me know!)

* * * * * * * *

Writers of blogs follow specific creeds, one of which includes momentum. And I’ve had to remind myself that with the Madison Avenue part of this blog, I will at times be slowed by the gathering of information. That’s a big problem for me, for I like to work at a certain speed but I am information-obsessed. The historical novelist in me has a hard time putting pen to paper, or fingers to keys, until I’ve gathered ALL the information I can because there’s always that one elusive, unknown fact sitting out there somewhere that could completely alter my perspective and change the entire course of my narrative. But! I have to strike a healthy balance between fact and speed with this blog and as I take you on this stroll down Madison, because it’s impossible to uncover every single historical fact within the confines of a self-imposed bi-weekly deadline.

Imagine walking with me down the street. I’m pointing out this neighborhood, what used to be here, when this house was built, and I stop. “Excuse me for an hour or a day, I have to check on some facts to fill in more details. Stay right here.” Why would anyone want to participate in the stroll with so many fits and starts? Therefore, in the interest of that thing called momentum, I will present the information that I have so far. I can always fill in more details later as I uncover more later. 

So you Memphis historical purists out there and those with the Memphis-history DNA, bear with me. You may be inclined to say “Yes he got the facts on the property correct, but he missed this other part of the story.” That’s going happen. Remember I have less than a year here to your lifetimes of knowledge. That is also why I will asking for your help here and there. Because part of my job will be to collect as many of your stories as I can and eventually incorporate them into what I hope this Madison thing will become. I may be starting the sketches in black and white, but you all will sometimes be supplying the crayons and will be coloring in the details - details that in some cases, no one knows but you.

And remember, I'm staying as close to Madison as possible. That’s also why I’m sticking to specific blocks. 

Ok, I’ve previewed the movie long enough, it’s time for the main feature. Time to put on those walking shoes and stroll down the avenue, in the present and back in time, to what Madison is and what it once was. 

Welcome to the Town of Lenox

Stand on the corner of East Parkway and Madison Avenue, and take a look around. 

E. Parkway and Madison, June 2016

Now turn back your clocks to any time between 1890 and 1909. And guess what? You’re not in Memphis. You’re standing on the eastern edge of Lenox, Tennessee, a little town of less than a square mile, somewhere around 230 acres (that’s an area smaller than all of Overton Park). 

If the Lenox name sounds familiar, you might be thinking of the old Lenox neighborhood south of Union, the Lenox Bayou that is part of the Overton Park soil, or the old Lenox School - now the Lenox Condominiums - on S. Edgewood at the corner of little Tunis Avenue. They all have origins in the town of Lenox. 

The borders of Lenox, after annexation:
Poplar to the north, Central south,
Trezevant (E Pkwy) east, Cooper to the west
courtesy Memphis Public Library

Flashback to a specific year, 1890, and if you’re still standing at what will later become East Parkway, you’re actually standing at a road called Trezevant (for the neighboring area of Trezevant), and to your west is the still unincorporated greater Lenox Subdivision of old forest, hardwoods, oak trees, brush, and a few new houses around dirt roads. The land had recently been opened up and parceled for development by the Equitable Land and Construction Company. The subdivision’s western border is at Cooper - it was still Cooper Avenue then - its northern edge is up at Poplar at the yet-to-be-completed Overton Park, and its southern edge runs down along Central Avenue.

This is Overton Park, but Trezevant Ave in Lenox may have 
looked like this in the 1890's.
Dogwood Drive, Overton Park, 1907
courtesy Historic Memphis

A photo around 1910, a section of now East Parkway
south of Poplar Avenue. Caption on back of photo reads,
"Parkway South of Poplar Avenue." c. 1910
courtesy of Digital Memphis, Memphis and Shelby County Room,
Memphis Public Library

Think about this as you stand at that Trezevant corner in 1890: Madison hasn’t been extended this far yet - it ends at Cooper. The land around you has only just been parceled and has yet to be fully developed. Almost four long miles away, Memphis - rebounding from the yellow fever epidemics, the population exodus of the 1870's and a repealed city charter - is busy addressing issues of sanitation, street-paving, and crime, and is still lobbying the Tennessee State Legislature to restore its charter to become a city again. Memphis the taxing-district stops at Dunlap Street, at what is now the Medical District. 

So in effect you are way out in the country. If you climbed to the top of one of those oak trees and took a look around, within your view to the west the land would be staked out to people with names like Gordon, Davidson, Wilson, Collier, and Ammonett, later to be parceled or sold to the Simmons, Hastings, Richardsons, Treadwells, and Millers. Many of the homes built so far (c. 1890) are south of Union and house a little less than 200 residents. The essentials of water mains and luxuries like sewers are in the works. To get your goods and services, you walk down the road to the few family businesses up and down Cooper.

Williamson Map 1897. The curve in the center is the corner of Cooper and Madison, at
what is now Overton Square; the red line through Cooper represents the “new” Memphis city limit. Courtesy Shelby County Archives

Directly to your west is the Idlewild neighborhood, which will become an incorporated city in a few years, and after that the already-incorporated town of Madison Heights. 

Remember, there are no paved roads yet - although some will be filled with gravel in the next fifteen years - and automobiles of course are quite a ways off. So the growth of your neighborhood has been made possible in part by the building of the streetcar line of the East End Railway Company. It was known as the East End “dummy line,” and its horse-drawn street cars (after 1891 they’d be steam and electric cable-powered trolleys) provided transportation into areas east, making its way along Madison Avenue, all the way from Memphis proper. 

Courtesy Memphis Railroad and Trolley Museum and
Memphis Public Library

Since your subdivision has not extended Madison yet, after their trips east those same street cars make a right turn at Cooper and head south all the way down to Young Avenue, where they turn left and again head east, ending at Trezevant, dropping passengers off near the grandstand of the horse racetrack of Montgomery Park at the New Memphis Jockey Club (where the Fair Grounds are now).

1916 postcard of Montgomery Park
George Whitworth Collection, Historic Memphis

To the south nearest Central, the J.W. Dickson Lumber Company has a saw mill east of Cooper down near the rails of the Nashville-Chattanooga & St. Louis Railroad, and there's The Dixie Match Factory right next door to the west, on Gaylord Ave. 

A screen-shot of a page of the Sanborn maps, a mother-lode-like
resource for historians and researchers. Sanborn published these maps

for fire insurance purposes. And these maps, produced every few years 
after the 1860s, had to be extremely detailed. The capture above shows the 
Dixie Match factory and the J.W. Dickson lumber yard at the end of
Gaylord, right off the railroad tracks that cross the trestle over
Cooper, just north of Central. The "D" designation on the structures
to the left, along Cox, denote dwellings. The house you live in
today might be one of them!
Courtesy Memphis Public Library

And your little subdivision also has its own railroad passenger depot, the Lenox station, down on Cooper and just north of Central. And from there you can take the L&N (Louisiana & Nashville) train all the way to Nashville. 

Old Press-Scimitar clipping, March 22, 1961
courtesy Memphis Public Library

A soon to be historic park (Overton) to the north, rails and factories to the south, businesses and a streetcar line along Cooper, and a club and horse racing to the southeast adds up to some wealth within your 230-acre subdivision. So much so that in 1896 you have enough wealth to begin planning a school, and enough resources and organization to incorporate into a city. 

Some accounts say that your town was named for a local soap company called Lenox, which built a sign y’all needed. But “standard” accounts say that it may have been named quite simply for your surrounding forests, a contraction derived from “Eleven Oaks.” You’ve appointed a gentleman named A.W. Marchildon as your first mayor. He (maybe, according to city records) lives down near Cooper and Union. 

Commercial Appeal clipping, 1950
Courtesy of Memphis Public Library

Into the years between 1904 to 1909, with the exceptions of fire and police departments, your little town is largely self-sufficient. The building of those water mains and sewers is complete - you residents are required to make the necessary connections to them, and soon - along with electric lights and telephones, and many of you and your neighbors are wealthy enough to have pulled together bond moneys for the building of a school. Paved roads, more business, more carriage traffic and more people arriving by streetcar, followed. 

Meanwhile, starting in 1899 Memphis had begun expanding its borders, annexing Idlewild and Madison Heights, pushing its city limits east and all the way to Cooper. Potential Lenox annexation by the city of Memphis had been discussed as well (sound familiar?). R.J. Rawlings, your second mayor, would be part of the efforts to help fight off or delay annexation. 

(Annexation, still on our minds today. The prevailing thoughts - or fears - on it in the early 20th Century was that it was necessary to stop the spread of disease, to ensure that sewer systems could be built in those outlying areas that did not have the resources to build such infrastructure. Lenox did not have those concerns, having the means to build their own sewer systems.)

Your last mayor, William Neville Page, worked with those linotype printing machines for your Commercial Appeal newspaper and he (may have) lived somewhere down along Cooper near where Courtland Place ends, a couple blocks south of Union. Under his leadership your town successfully completed those water main and sewer connections, installed fire hydrants, and completed the building of your two-story Lenox School - the first fire-proof schoolhouse in Memphis - down on S. Edgewood. 

Cover of Page/Lenox Collection, W.N. Page pictured,
Lenox School bottom right,
courtesy of Digital Memphis, Memphis Public Library

But all of that would not be enough to fight off the inevitable annexation by the City of Memphis as it moved eastward. Against the wishes of many of you Lenox residents, in 1909 the Tennessee State Legislature approved annexation. Memphis would agree to eventually pay off the $50,000 in bonds that were needed to build your school, and the annexation expanded Memphis’ footprint to Trezevant Street at your town’s eastern edge. 

Now that Memphis’ city limits extended into Lenox, the 1910s and the “dummy line” now-electric streetcar (we can call them trolleys now) and new gas-powered machines called horseless carriages brought more people and more wealth into this idyllic woodsy area at the edge of the city. Between 1910 and 1925, in a trend that occurred in industrial cities all over the country, hundreds of new houses and businesses would crop up in the “streetcar suburb” neighborhoods around a Madison Avenue that now extends all the way to what would be soon become East Parkway. 

During this period Memphis’ cotton and lumber businesses were booming. Bankers, lawyers, physicians, tradesman, carpenters and anyone with two hands and a few mouths to feed came from all over the country into Memphis. Even Canadians made the trek down into the Mid-South. And many would move right into the undeveloped land that was now owned by Cole's Manufacturing Co. - one of the largest lumber manufacturers in the region. Dubbed Cole’s East End Subdivision, families would begin purchasing single or sometimes multiple plots of land on which to build their multi-family houses and mansions. 

Cole’s East End Subdivision parcel map, c. 1902.
Lenox Ave is now Edgewood, Springdale is now Cox, Madison is now an avenue.
Courtesy of Shelby County Archives

Subdivision plot numbers 85 and 86, on the north side of Madison at the Lenox (now Edgewood) corner, would be purchased by an attorney, a Mr. Caruthers Ewing. In extending the postal numbering system that started downtown, at Front Street at zero, plots 85 and 86 would become 2282 Madison. 

The 32 to 36 subdivisions on the south side of Madison, between Cox and Edgewood, would be purchased. They’d become the houses we now see from 2219 through 2271 Madison. 

And the east-side plot of subdivision 40, on the north side of Madison, would be purchased by a blacksmith from Canada, a Mr. L.J. Turcott, and he would build a house on 2234 Madison Avenue. 

Next time, we explore the 2200 blocks, featuring 2282 and 2234 Madison Avenue.

(And I promise not to make y’all wait four weeks for the next entry)

Special thanks on this post to Wayne Dowdy, Memphis Public Library, for use of the Memphis Room, Frank Stewart at the Shelby County Archives, and Joe Lowry for helping with some finer details and footnotes.