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VOL. 127 | NO. 163 | Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Lee House Development Could Propel District

By Sarah Baker

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In the 19th century, Victorian Village was home to Memphis’ elite.

Nowadays, the 10-square-block area in Downtown Memphis has one of the highest concentrations of historic structures in the city, with 24 properties on the National Register of Historic Places within four blocks.

One of those is the James Lee House at 690 Adams St. The 171-year-old house has been selected by the Library of Congress to be on its Historic Building Survey – one of only 400 buildings nationally and the only one in Memphis.

The 8,100-square-foot Lee House has been the focus of Victorian Village Inc. since 2006. Executive director Scott Blake, principal of museum planning and exhibit design firm Design 500, leads the community development corporation.

“We’re here to help promote redevelopment, new residential infill and economic growth of the neighborhood,” Blake said at a public meeting at the Lee House Friday, Aug. 17. “(The Lee House) is one of our head projects we’ve been working on for about six years. It’s such a fascinating place.”

The house at Adams and Orleans Street was built in 1841 as a two-story, four-room farmhouse. It underwent massive renovations in three phases through the 1870s.

The house was built in the Italianate style, but with architectural influences of French second empire – dominated by heavy stone work, limestone on the front façade and scored stucco made to look like limestone throughout.

It was the original home of Memphis College of Art in 1927, thanks to a donation by James Lee’s eldest daughter, Rosa, until the organization moved to its current location in Overton Park in 1959, and has been vacant since.

“This house has a wonderful history – it’s all about altruism and kindness and goodness,” said Randle Witherington, emeritus professor of art and interiors at the University of Memphis and board member/head of historic properties committee for Victorian Village Inc.

“Because it is the beginning of the Memphis College of Art and also Theatre Memphis, and also the second owner of this house was very influential with Porter-Leath. So if there’s any good karma (in Victorian Village), it’s got to be this house. It would be a horrible thing if it ever went away.”

The Economic Development, Tourism and Technology Committee of the Memphis City Council approved on a 4-3 vote Tuesday, Aug. 7, the $1 transfer of the Lee house from the city to The James Lee House LLC, a corporation led by local developer Jose Velazquez. The approval, led by councilman Lee Harris, will go before the full council for consideration Tuesday, Aug. 21.

Velazquez, former executive director of Latino Memphis, plans to invest $2.1 million to turn the mansion into a “top-notch, luxury” bed-and-breakfast inn with five suites. He and his family plan to live on the third floor.

“We are standing in the very broad and strong shoulders of the people that have come before us, with a mission to not let this place and others like it fall, the way that we know in Memphis, other places have come and gone,” Velazquez said at the public meeting. “We’re very excited to be able to take that to the next level, bring a family back into this place, and also have the opportunity to share it with both local and foreign tourists.”

Velazquez said the plans that were submitted to both the state and to federal government focused on restoring the property to “its original grand glory.” He was speaking of his application for a federal tax credit for 20 percent of the restoration cost, plus the cost of the land.

The architect for the project is Fleming Associates Architects PC, the local firm that was part of the renovation of the former U.S. Customs House/Post Office for the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. The contractor is Montgomery Martin Contractors LLC.

“We’ll have to make some adjustments, there are no bathrooms in the house, but all of it has been in accordance to the very strict preservation stipulations and they are very excited to see what we were planning here,” Velazquez said.

Yet the house is in “remarkably good condition for its age and having been left empty for 50 years,” Blake said.

“We’re so lucky to have these original mirrors here (in the ballroom),” Blake said. “This was all lit by gasoline and they needed the mirrors to double and triple the amount of light that was being put out at night.”

Blake called the Lee House “the linchpin” for Victorian Village Inc. and what the organization is trying to do with infill of residential property around the neighborhood.

“We’ve got a lot of land that’s not at its highest and best use,” Blake said, mentioning the Fleet Apparatus Maintenance facility at Washington Avenue and Adams. “We have plans for doing apartment housing, medium income townhouses like you see on Jefferson. To get people here spending 24 hours a day, keeping an eye out for each other, walking to church like I do here at St. Mary’s, that’s the vision for the neighborhood.”

Victorian Village Inc. is also associated with the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities, which runs the Woodruff-Fontaine Museum next to the Lee House. And down the street, the Mallory-Neely Mansion has a new roof going up and will reopen to the public Nov. 3, seven years after being shuttered.

Blake said Harris is helping his organization with initiatives to redesign Morris Park so it’s “a safer, friendlier place for everybody.” Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital has even expressed interest in making it a place where the families and children can come during their stay “to get some fresh air,” away from “the florescent lights.”

PROPERTY SALES 36 154 6,546
MORTGAGES 34 94 4,129
BUILDING PERMITS 201 554 15,915
BANKRUPTCIES 43 126 3,396