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VOL. 129 | NO. 68 | Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Open House

James Lee House prepares for April 17 grand opening

By Andy Meek

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The historic James Lee house in Victorian Village is days away from a grand opening celebration, the culmination of a restoration several years in the making that has turned the property once home to the Memphis College of Art into a bed-and-breakfast inn.

One of the many features in the newly renovated James Lee House is this 114-year-old Steinway piano that sits in the bed-and-breakfast inn’s living room.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The property, which includes five suites, has been in a soft opening period and has already welcomed visitors who’ve booked suites in the 166-year-old mansion at 690 Adams Ave. A grand opening has been set for April 17 at 10 a.m., and looking ahead to the date, project partner Jose Velazquez still looks at the results of the transformation with a mixture of near-disbelief and elation.

The public has responded in kind, with bookings already popping up online as far into the year as September.

“My first reaction is, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this actually happened,’” Velazquez said. “To see it back to its original splendor, to be a home again with a family living here and also open to the public so individuals can come in and enjoy this piece of Memphis’ heritage is quite extraordinary.

“This could not have been done without the financial support of J.W. Gibson and Kathy Buckman. They’re our partners, and they made it happen. And we were surrounded by a great contractor who could do this job and do it in a timely manner, and a team of subcontractors that made it happen. Also a great architect. That’s what it took, a whole community coming together and believing that this was important for the city.”

The Memphis College of Art was housed in the home until the college moved to Overton Park in 1959. Since then, the home had sat vacant and deteriorating.

The home was built in 1841 as a two-story, four-room home. It was once the home of riverboat tycoon James Lee, as well as the site of an art school that was a forerunner of the Memphis College of Art.

Among other historical tidbits about the home, it was one of the first in the city to feature a functional air conditioning system.

Victorian Village stakeholders had been dreaming about a transformation and reopening of the historic home for years. According to a neighborhood newsletter from 2010, uses being imagined for the home included everything from a restaurant with apartments above to a law firm, design studio or even use by a college.

The ownership group behind the transformation is The Lee House LLC, the company that includes Velazquez and his partners and which planned to invest a little more than $2 million to resurrect the home.

The Center City Revenue Finance Corp. approved a 10-year tax freeze for the redevelopment, and in August 2012 the Memphis City Council and Downtown Memphis Commission approved the home’s transfer to the new ownership group.

The April 17 event will include a ribbon-cutting ceremony and an open house.

“It’ll be a big day,” Velazquez said. “We had quite a crowd out for the groundbreaking back in July, so we expect a lot of people to come who’ve been anxiously waiting for the opening. It’ll be a busy day, a big day.

“There aren’t too many structures in the city that have been linked to so many critically important aspects of the early years of the city. So I think it’s very fitting to bring it back to life.”

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