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VOL. 128 | NO. 129 | Wednesday, July 03, 2013

19th Century Club, Lee House Facing Different Futures

By Bill Dries

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Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said Monday, July 1, the Midtown mansion that has been home to the 19th Century Club on Union Avenue for most of the 20th century and some of the 21st will probably be demolished.

The renovation of the Lee House in Victorian Village got a formal groundbreaking Monday, July 1. The historic home is being renovated as a bed-and-breakfast, with some historic items moving to the house.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

“That is probably going to be destroyed. Let’s just face it,” Wharton said as he spoke at the groundbreaking for the renovation of the Lee House in Victorian Village. “There are things that happen that get us down a little bit, but never so low that we never rise again.”

Wharton spoke as opponents of the plans to bulldoze the mansion on Union began the first of two days of afternoon rush hour picketing along the busy traffic artery.

The new owners of the property are due Tuesday, July 9, in General Sessions Environmental Court with a specific plan for the future of the property. But they have already said they intend to demolish the mansion.

Between Midtown and Downtown, before most of the visitors made it to the Lee House late Monday afternoon, there was a private moment outside the house that marked a different passage for it to a new future.

James Lee Sr., a descendant of those who lived in the house before the family donated it to the city as an art school, rang an old bell.

The bell from one of the family’s line of steamboats in the 19th century symbolized the house had again changed hands, this time to become a bed and breakfast.

Jose Velazquez, the owner of the bed and breakfast, also got a house warming gift from the Woodruff-Fontaine House, two doors down.

A.J. Northrup, president of the Memphis chapter of the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities, presented Velazquez with a pink and green hand-painted decorative urn from 1890 with the permission of the Goyer family.

A.J. Northrup, president of the Memphis chapter of the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities, presented James Lee House owner Jose Velazquez with a pink and green hand-painted decorative urn from 1890 with the permission of the Goyer family.

It was painted by Sally Compton, the wife of Robert Lee Goyer who lived in the Lee House in 1885. The urn is the first of several items from the archives Northrup plans to turn over to Velazquez with the permission of the Goyer family.

“We have a host of silver things,” Northrup said. “We have photographs and memorabilia from books. We have some furniture as well.”

Some of those waiting to get a look at the ground floor of the long-vacant property mistook the urn as a call for financial donations and dropped in a few dollars.

Those who played a more substantial role in financing the renovation laughed as Northrup told of the mistake. They included executives with Triumph Bank, J.W. Gibson and developer Bob Loeb.

Gibson is among Velazquez’s partner in The James Lee House LLC, and Triumph Bank is financing the project with a $1 million construction loan.

Loeb helped Velazquez get started in a project that Velazquez said others warned him would be difficult to get beyond the talking and proposal stage.

That included Earl Williams Jr., the chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Loeb Properties who did an initial walk through with Velazquez and Loeb.

“Earl looked at him,” Velazquez remembered, “and said, ‘Please tell me we are not getting involved in this thing.’”

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