VOL. 123 | NO. 45 | Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Anxious Observers Track Old Justine's Decline
By Bill Dries
CRUMBLING ICON: The Anderson Coward house is boarded up now, but the historic structure recently lost to thieves some wrought iron gates and the round iron vents across its front. The house was built in 1843 and is best known as being the home to the French restaurant Justine's for 37 years.
-- Photos By Bill Dries
It was once a house in the country surrounded by farmland near what used to be Pigeon Roost Road.
The 165-year-old Anderson-Coward house, just off E.H. Crump Boulevard where East Street dead-ends into Coward Place, has enjoyed a charmed life until recently. Most Memphians know it as the old Justine's restaurant, the New Orleans-style French restaurant owned by Justine Smith for 37 years starting in 1958.
The stark-looking light pink stucco house with white marble front steps survived a Civil War skirmish on the property, the worst of the Yellow Fever epidemics in the late 1800s and the volatility of the 20th century restaurant business.
But its most formidable enemy is proving to be vacancy.
The property is now owned by Euniquestar Inc. The principal of the company couldn't be reached by The Daily News, but Memphis Heritage Director June West said she's talked with him while making regular trips by the house to check on its condition.
"Within a period of the last eight months, somebody stole the big gates," she said, noting that the current owner has taken steps to board up the property. "Somebody had gotten in about two months later and stole the round vent plates on the top.
"We're very concerned. We keep putting out feelers to people, especially with the new development of University Place there. (The owner's) intent is not to tear (the building) down. But he doesn't have the wherewithal to restore it either."
If walls could talk
The house was built in 1843 by H.W. Grosvenor, part of a family that constituted the city's leading real estate firm before the Civil War. The property included several thousand acres of farmland. The bricks in the 18-inch-thick walls were handmade by slaves with clay taken while digging the home's basement.
The structure later became the home of Nathaniel Anderson, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. Like Grosvenor, Anderson was a pillar of the business community. He was also a trustee of the town of South Memphis.
William Coward, a planter from North Carolina, followed and his children moved in after the worst of the Yellow Fever epidemics passed in 1878. The street that runs in front of the house is named Coward Place in honor of the family.
These days the street east of the house is blocked by a chain-link fence awaiting the next phase of development of University Place - one of several city government/private developer partnerships to create mixed-income neighborhoods on and near the former sites of public housing developments.
Smith and her husband, Dayton Smith, spent more than a year restoring the house for its 1958 opening as the second location of Justine's. The original opened in 1948 in an old warehouse on Beale Street.
The Smiths included remnants of the old Gayoso Hotel, including the Italian marble bathrooms and the stairway banister. The now-missing wrought iron gates of the courtyard arrived in the city in 1881 from Louisiana. The house has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1986. It made the Tennessee Preservation Trust's top 10 most endangered historical sites in 2005.
The courtyard pavilions are still standing, behind a recently installed chain-link gate, but the lush gardens that once surrounded the pavillions have been gone for years.
The Justine's name and the building were auctioned in 1996 with several short-lived attempts to operate other restaurants there.
"We are keeping an eye on it," West said. "I have talked to a couple of people who I've encouraged to have conversations with the owner. But nothing has transpired."