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VOL. 128 | NO. 52 | Friday, March 15, 2013

Rediscovering the Past

Historic Magevney House may reopen to public in spring

By Bill Dries

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High-rise office buildings surround it on two sides and even the multistoried rectory at St. Peter Catholic Church offers a downward view of the Magevney House on Adams Avenue, east of Third Street.

The Magevney House at 198 Adams Ave. has been closed to visitors since 2005 because of city budget cuts. There are talks of reopening the home. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

But to the east are some reminders of what the surrounding neighborhood must have been like when the circa-1830s home was bought by Eugene Magevney, who had rented a room there.

Magevney was a schoolteacher when he came to Memphis via Lebanon County, Pa., from County Fermanagh, Ireland.

Farther east of Danny Thomas Boulevard is a hopeful sign for the future of what remains a museum run by the city of Memphis.

The Magevney House was closed to visitors in March 2005 because of city budget cutbacks and has remained closed since then despite some talk five years ago of reopening it.

But just last year, the city reopened the Mallory Neely House in nearby Victorian Village for tours. And Ronda Cloud of the Memphis Pink Palace Family of Museums said the Magevney House could be next.

“We are working on a historic structures report for the Magevney House,” Cloud said. “And we are hoping to reopen it in April or May.”

The closing in 2005 and the still very tentative and general reopening plans are close on the calendar to St. Patrick’s Day.

It’s been years since the breastplate of St. Patrick, a tradition of the annual observance, was read in the house’s garden. The short-lived annual observance of the Catholic feast day was meant to counter the more raucous Midtown pub crawl that was much more expansive in its definition of Irish identity. The pub crawl too is gone.

The 2005 closing date and the latest reopening date are also close to the city budget season in which decisions are made about whether city finances allow for items like the reopening of tiny two-story houses from the first quarter century of the city’s existence.

Magevney House

The structure report under way takes a look at the physical structure and condition of the house and the surrounding structures on the property. That includes a brick building by the back wall of the garden and an arbor from the back of the house along the west brick wall.

The garden in back of the house – as it was during Magevney’s life – is a kitchen garden with brick walkways still separating the different areas of the garden.

As recently as two years ago, the garden included beehives that were moved for maintenance work on the garden by the city.

Just about everything that can be seen from the property came long after the house unless one catches a glimpse of the tops of some of the grander homes in Victorian Village like the Mallory Neely House.

The city’s first Catholic wedding, Mass and baptism took place in the Magevney House before the neighboring St. Peter Church was built.

And Magevney lived there until he died in one of the yellow fever epidemics, just before the worst of the outbreaks in 1878.

What remained after he died was the legend of a schoolteacher that the modest home lends itself too.

Some histories and accounts of the city’s early years even claim Magevney was the city’s first schoolteacher, much to the chagrin of local historians like the late Paul Coppock.

When he came to Memphis in 1833 Magevney taught in an earlier teacher’s one-time schoolhouse in what is still Court Square.

He taught for eight years and by then had amassed some real estate holdings, which grew into his business and then a family business.

Coppock wrote in his 1976 book “Memphis Sketches” that the land came without any plans at first to get into real estate.

“Against his wishes, Magevney soon became a real estate man,” he wrote. “Cash was scarce and some of the fathers could pay the tuition fees only by deeding to the schoolmaster some abundant cheap land.”

A year before he quit teaching, Magevney paid $1,000 for a pasture 200 feet south of Union Avenue in what became the town of South Memphis and was later annexed as part of the city of Memphis.

He bought the land from Robertson Topp, the developer of South Memphis as well as the original Beale Street, in a period of rapid growth for the city. But Topp was not the father of one of his students whose tuition was due.

“This fable, like the legend that Magevney was the first teacher here, is sure to be printed again, though both are untrue,” Coppock wrote.

Magevney was soon wealthy enough to add a front porch and back rooms to what had originally been what Coppock described as “a plain crackerbox, with two rooms separated by a hall downstairs, repeated upstairs.”

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