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VOL. 126 | NO. 134 | Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Renewed Vision

Victorian Village renaissance mixes heritage, community development

By Aisling Maki

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Victorian Village Inc. executive director Scott Blake has spent the past five years diligently working to revitalize the neighborhood he calls home, and a slew of recent projects indicate Victorian Village could be on the cusp of a renaissance.

Dorothy Broadnax, left, and Carolyn Swanson stand outside the Woodruff-Fontaine House in Victorian Village as “ambassadors” to the historic homes in the area.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

This time around, however, the ambience in the historic, formerly exclusive neighborhood once known as Millionaire’s Row is one of inclusion.

Victorian Village in the 19th century was home to Memphis’ elite; its opulent then-suburban mansions were occupied by the families of commercial and industrial magnates, as Blake calls them, “The Fred Smiths of their time.”

But the renewed vision for Victorian Village is one of a vibrant, diverse, mixed-use urban neighborhood that treasures its architectural heritage while maintaining a safe, clean and prosperous community for residents and visitors. Blake, principal of Design 500, a museum planning and exhibit design firm, is passionate about all things historical and architectural. The 50-year-old has lived and worked in the neighborhood for 15 years.

“As a homeowner and business owner in the neighborhood, I began to realize that we were not represented,” he said. “We had really strong partners with the Center City Commission Downtown, the Memphis medical community just on the other side of us, and St. Jude (Children’s Research Hospital) to the north. But we were the center of this triangle that was just kind of still in the water.”

A series of informal meetings with neighborhood stakeholders resulted in 2006 in the formation of The Victorian Village Inc. Community Development Corp., a nonprofit dedicated to preservation, heritage tourism, economic development, crime prevention and social justice in the neighborhood.

Its 10 square blocks, with boundaries at Poplar Avenue, Danny Thomas Boulevard, Madison Avenue and Manassas Street, feature 25 registered historic sites.

“The stories about the people, the way they lived, the effects of the yellow fever, really do tell the story of Memphis,” Blake said. “This neighborhood has always been a place where very creative people spring from.”

The VVI board this spring began to recruit elderly, low-income residents who live in nearby Memphis Housing Authority developments to serve as neighborhood ambassadors.

Built on the idea of Downtown’s Blue Suede Brigade, the Victorian Village Ambassadors complete 12 weeks of classes, given by University of Memphis architecture professor Randle Witherington, centered on the people and history of the neighborhood, as well as connections to larger ideas in society.

Paid through grants from the Strategic Community Investment Fund and the Durham Foundation, ambassadors work part-time, five days a week, walking a four-block area north and south of Adams Avenue, checking in at neighborhood businesses such as Neely’s Bar-B-Que and Molly Fontaine Lounge. Hard to miss, wearing khakis, pith helmets and red vests that read “Tour Info,” ambassadors inform visitors about neighborhood history and attractions. They also help keep the neighborhood clean by picking up trash and, carrying walkie-talkies, help improve public safety by reporting any suspicious activity.

“We have a lot of people who just walk past these places,” said VVI ambassador Carolyn Swanson. “This gets people to pay attention to the neighborhood and give Victorian Village a chance. If more people participate, we can draw more tourists in. I think it will really grow.”

Their work hours coincide with the operating hours of the Woodruff-Fontaine House, the only house museum currently opened. It’s operated by the Association for the Preservation of Antiquities (APTA), which rents the house from the city for $1 a year and has been running it successfully, and mostly by volunteers, for 50 years.

VVI is currently looking at the adaptive re-use of the historic Lee House. Built in 1847 and listed in the Library of Congress, the original home of Memphis College of Art has stood empty for more than half a century.

Owned by the city, and mired by deed restrictions, Lee House has become a blighted liability, Blake said, and VVI is working with the Memphis City Council and Center City Development Corp. to put the house up for sale to a buyer who can restore the home as a residence, office, school or retail business.

Blake calls it “one of the best examples of second Empire architecture we have in the United States. It’s not just an empty house; it’s a tooth out of our smile. And it has the potential of being a major tourist draw when it’s restored, whatever the use will be.”

Another project involves a major makeover of Morris Park, a city park at the corner of Poplar and Manassas plagued by a number of drug and prostitution arrests. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. last year pledged $35,000 to the project. Neighborhood stakeholders Le Bonheur, The Urban Child Institute, Memphis Medical Center, Housing and Community Development and St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral joined VVI as funding partners. A contract between the city and a landscape architect/urban planning team is in the works for the project, which comes with a price tag of about $70,000.

VVI has just launched an ambitious cyber-project to market Victorian Village and other historical attractions to visitors. Funded by the Assisi Foundation, www.originalmemphis.org is an online heritage tourism initiative that includes museums, historic neighborhoods and guided and self-guided tour resources. VVI hopes to gain the support of larger attractions and charge for-profit businesses for listings.

PROPERTY SALES 28 290 16,197
MORTGAGES 33 165 10,087
BUILDING PERMITS 184 608 38,544
BANKRUPTCIES 33 125 7,597