VOL. 113 | NO. 84 | Tuesday, April 27, 1999
Breathing new life into an old concept
Old concepts get new life
Three turn-of-the-century shotgun houses and
two apartment buildings on Mulberry Street
are getting a facelift and interior overhaul
By LAURIE JOHNSON
The Daily News
Several inner-city buildings built to house workers migrating into Memphis at the turn of the century are getting new life as apartments designed for todays Downtown denizens.
Three shotgun houses and two apartment buildings on Mulberry Street are getting a facelift and interior overhaul, with the blessing of local Downtown development and historic preservation organizations.
Plans for the project include converting the three shotgun houses, built around 1890, and the two two-story apartment buildings, built in 1905, into market-rate apartments, said Bill Mathis, whose family has owned the property since the 1950s.
The property is historically significant because it is a prime example of the type of housing built to accommodate an influx of African-American laborers into the city at the turn of the century, said Judith Johnson, executive director of Memphis Heritage.
With this type of housing, its not uncommon to find tenement buildings built next to shotgun-style homes, Johnson said.
"All of the shotgun districts in our city, with the exception of one, have a tenement building adjacent to them," she said.
In Memphis, shotgun housing generally was built between 1890 and 1900. Tenement buildings typically were built between 1905 and 1910
Migration patterns into the city and the need for additional housing played a role. Around the turn of the century, farm mechanization and the arrival of the boll weevil pest sent many long-time farm laborers into the city looking for work.
"If you think about it, shotguns are a type of tenement, just broken out," Johnson said.
"In the 19th century South, land was so cheap and lumber so plentiful, it was easy to build them. But, after the turn of the century, land prices and construction costs rose, so people started to combine them into apartment buildings."
In Memphis, similar developments can be found in the Delmar Lima neighborhood and the Wells-Arrington Historic District.
The Mulberry property is the only one of its kind Downtown, Johnson said.
The Landmarks Commission recently approved extending the South Main Historic District to include the two apartment buildings, which had been left out of the original nomination application.
Inclusion in the district means Mathis is eligible to receive federal tax credit for rehabilitating the property.
Renovation work on the three shotgun homes, which were included in the original historic register application, started in November. Mathis said he hopes to have the first of the homes completed in June, with the rest completed later this year. He would like to begin renovating the apartment buildings as work on the houses winds down.
One of the apartment buildings will be renovated entirely, inside and out, and converted into six two-bedroom units.
Work on the other apartment building, which consists of 12 two-room efficiency apartments, will take place gradually, he said.
While the exterior will go ahead and receive a facelift, interior work will be done as the buildings current residents, many of whom are former residents and employees of the Ambassador Hotel, which Mathis family owned until the 1980s, move out.
Because none of the residents will be asked to leave, this process is expected to take place over the next several years.
"Weve known them for years and years and years," Mathis said. "One man has lived on the property, first in one of the shotgun homes and then in the apartment building, for more than 40 years."
Mathis said he decided to renovate the property when he realized something would have to be done about the severely deteriorating structures on it.
After talking with code enforcement, which suggested demolition, and the Landmarks Commission, which favored preservation, Mathis decided to go ahead and "bite the bullet" and renovate the property.
Plans for the project have been approved by the Landmarks Commission and the Center City Commission.
Mathis said he plans to invest about $250,000 in the rehabilitation. The project also has received assistance from the city in the form of a low-interest loan and a tax freeze from the Center City Development Corp.
When theyre completed, rental rates of the units will be in the $650 to $800 range, which is in keeping with other market-rate apartments in the Downtown area, Mathis said.
Todd Walker, principal architect of Archimania Inc., is the project architect. He said the goal of the design is mainly to bring the buildings back from their dilapidated state and restore them so that they can be used for years to come.
"Were mainly just trying to restore them to their natural state. Were not really trying to do any more or less than that," he said. "The buildings are so significant as the only structures of that type that are left down in this area. We just wanted to keep them the way they were originally and try to put them back in good structural order."
All of the historically significant features of the buildings essentially were still in place, Walker said.
"It really hasnt been that complicated," he said. "More than anything, its just been a little bit of a puzzle, trying to put things back together."
The porches and the gables are among the most intricate features of the houses, he said.
"Theres lattice work with a fan detail, with beveled siding at the gable, which was common in houses of that size back in that era," he said. "These houses are the only ones left on this side of town with that detail that weve found."
Originally, all three houses had side porches. The Landmarks Commission has approved Mathis plans to enclose the side porches to give residents more space.
Each house includes a large front room, with the bedroom in the middle and a kitchen in the rear.
Key features of the apartment buildings include exterior walking porches and two distinctly different end gables, which have subtle detailing that gives the building a distinguished appearance, he said.
The property sites location, which is near the National Civil Rights Museum, which also is planning an expansion, is a definite plus, Mathis said.
"Just since weve started work, weve seen the Mulberry/Main Street area really take off," he said. "The whole area is becoming a very vibrant place."
The project has already received some national attention, Johnson said.
A representative from the U.S. Park Service from Washington, D.C., recently surveyed the project.
"It will certainly help preserve the sense of place Downtown," she said. "Were just really pleased that theyre doing it, and we think it will really add something to the neighborhood."