Following years of due diligence, the James Lee House in Downtown Memphis could soon be the centerpiece of the Victorian Village master plan.
Councilwoman Wanda Halbert’s Economic Development, Tourism and Technology Committee of the Memphis City Council will vote Tuesday, Aug. 7, on the transfer of the James Lee house in Victorian Village from the city of Memphis to The James Lee House LLC, a corporation led by local developer Jose Velazquez.
Velazquez plans to turn the mansion at 690 Adams Ave. into a “top-notch, luxury” bed-and-breakfast inn with five suites. The vote Tuesday in committee is the general approval of the transfer of the James Lee House to Velazquez’s entity for $1, contingent that he develops it while preserving the historical character of the 165-year-old house at Adams and Orleans Street.
“The Lee House has been vacant for almost 60 years and is one of those properties that in our eyes has been crying out for attention and TLC for a very long time,” Velazquez said. “My wife and I have had a passion to run a bed and breakfast and when the opportunity came to look at the Lee House as a possibility, we jumped at the opportunity to be able to blend our passion and our commitment to hopefully what will be the trigger for complete revitalization of that entire area.”
Velazquez, former executive director of Latino Memphis, said the James Lee House name will remain, with suites named after each of the four families that have owned the property – the Lee Suite, the Goyer Suite, the Harsson suite, and now, the Velasquez suite.
The fifth suite will be named the Isabel Suite. Prices of the suites will range from about $170 to slightly more than $300.
The entire project, including the rehab and the business portion of it, will total about $2.1 million in private investment.
“This has been a very long process,” Velazquez said. “We have been at this for 14 months now and are very, very excited that we’ve been able to meet most of the milestones, including approval from both the Tennessee preservation office, as well as the national preservation officials for the restoration of the building. Now coming to City Council, we hope to very soon be able to start the hard work of restoring the building.”
The Lee House was built in the 1840s and is listed in the Library of Congress. It was the original home of Memphis College of Art until the organization moved to its current location in Overton Park in 1959.
The house was deeded to the city in 1929 and has been authorized for the Downtown Memphis Commission to serve as the transactional agent on behalf of the city.
“It’s an important neighborhood in Memphis and Downtown because it’s got a collection of historically significant Victorian architecture that can’t be found anywhere else in the city,” said Andy Kitsinger, senior vice president of planning and development for the Downtown Memphis Commission.
In 2004, the then-called Center City Commission, now the DMC, commissioned a master plan for redeveloping the Victorian Village neighborhood. That plan recommended a community development corporation be active in the neighborhood, hence the Victorian Village Inc. resurgence and its Victorian Village CDC.
Along with the redevelopment plan was a broader reach beyond the neighborhood’s mansions, extending from Poplar to Madison avenues.
“The key piece of that was taking those historical architectural assets and making that the centerpiece of the larger neighborhood and redeveloping those assets first and then working out from there,” Kitsinger said.
Councilman Lee Harris, who is taking the resolution before council, is optimistic that the Lee House’s adaptively reuse will make Victorian Village “the city’s next Cooper-Young or Overton Square for not a lot of investment on the city’s part.”
“I’ve only been on City Council the last eight months, but this is one of my really important projects, it’s really close to me and I’ve been working hard, not just for the James Lee House, but for a total renovation of the area,” Harris said.
He’s working with the city’s director of parks and neighborhoods Janet Hooks on finalizing a new roof for the Mallory Neely House and hopes to have it open to the public by November. Other concerns for Harris include making Victorian Village a walkable area from the Downtown core, as well as partnering the Great American Steamboat Co. when it docks at Beale Street Landing to give tours of the Woodruff-Fontaine House and Mallory Neely House.
“Before the year is over, we’re going to open a museum that’s been closed for more than half a dozen years, we’ve already got a lounge and restaurant in that community, we’ve already got two great parks there, and Morris Park, which is the front side of that community on Poplar, we’ve already committed to invest money in Morris Park,” Harris said. “In the next 12 to 18 months, I expect a full-on renaissance of that community.”