Historic Mansion Being Restored Into Exclusive French-Asian Restaurant

By Madeline Faber

The Nineteenth Century Club, one of the last great mansions of Union Avenue, was slated to become a strip mall. Next door to the 107-year-old building is a Taco Bell, which stands on the site of the Nineteenth Century Club’s former ballroom.

There will be a fireplace in every room at Izakaya, stained glass windows and all details of the historic mansion will be restored at the Nineteenth Century Club building on Union Avenue. (Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

There will be a fireplace in every room at Izakaya, stained glass windows and all details of the historic mansion will be restored at the Nineteenth Century Club building on Union Avenue. (Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

There will be a fireplace in every room at Izakaya, stained glass windows and all details of the historic mansion will be restored at the Nineteenth Century Club building on Union Avenue. (Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Shon and Dana Lin are investing $3.5 million to restore the Nineteenth Century Club building into an exclusive fine-dining restaurant called Izakaya that is scheduled to open in November. (Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Members of the women’s-only philanthropic society the building is named after sold the ballroom in the 1970s as a way to keep the club afloat. When the three-story mansion was sold at auction to the Lin family in 2013, it would have succumbed to the commercial character of Union Avenue as well. A year-long court battle and a change of heart saved the historic building at 1433 Union from demolition.

The building, the last vestige of Union Avenue’s grand past, overlooks a commercial strip occupied by Papa John’s Pizza and All Star Hot Wings.

“It’s one of our great success stories,” said June West, executive director of Memphis Heritage. The nonprofit supported members of the Nineteenth Century Club, who sued the new owners when they learned that demolition was planned. Preservationists tried to overturn the sale on the grounds that the club made a procedural error in its attempt to stipulate that the building be spared from demolition in the event of a sale.

“They’re from China, so it’s a different culture,” West said of new owners, Shon and Dana Lin, who also own Redfish Sushi Asian Bistro, New Hunan and Kublai Khan restaurants. “They didn’t understand that we were trying to express to them that if you do this, if you tear it down, the people won’t come.”

Not only is the building a gem among preservation activists, it will be a standout in Memphis’ roster of historic rehabs.

Saved from the brink, the 16,000-square-foot building is undergoing a $3.5 million renovation into Izakaya, a fine dining steak and sushi restaurant. The restaurant is set to open in November.

“The goal is for you to walk in and not think that anything was done other than it just got a facelift,” said Hans Bauer with Archer Custom Builders. “But really and truly, this place got torn to pieces and put back together.”

Technically, the building was torn to pieces before Izakaya was even a concept. The Lins had already begun some demolition on the building, and architecture elements like bannisters and marble mantles had to be retrieved from off-site. Other pieces were stolen while the building was shuttered, but Bauer said a visitor will hardly be able to tell the difference. Archer sourced antique fixtures from local dealers to keep everything in the mansion true to its turn-of-the-century form. Electrical heat and air had to be wired throughout the building.

“Being on the national historic registry has made it really difficult because there’s not a lot of liberty you can take,” Bauer said. “The main goal was to make it look exactly how it looked a 100 years ago with all your modern amenities.”

The building’s grandeur and elegance translates well into a fine dining restaurant, said Tony Pellicciotti, principal with LRK Architects, which is working on the project with Archer Custom Builders.

The Union-facing double doors open into a grand lobby with an ornamental stair. Al-fresco dining will take place on the front porch. Another entrance leads from valet parking on the west side of the building.

The two-story restaurant will be split among different seating styles with multiple bars, lounges and private dining rooms. There’s a fireplace in every room and plenty of stained glass, ornamental moldings and beaux arts elements.

“To me, it’s the closest thing I have done to a restoration,” said Pellicciotti, who is also working on the renovation of Crosstown Concourse and the Tennessee Brewery. “Most of what we do is an adaptive reuse and taking an old building and turning it into something new. This wasn’t a restaurant, but a club was similar. The idea here was to put it as much back like it was because it was so grand and so fabulous and fit this purpose.”

A ticket, from appetizer to dessert, will cost about $75 to $80. John Lee, general manager of Izakaya, said he sees the restaurant breaking into the echelon of fine dining locations like Restaurant Iris and Capital Grille.

The restaurant sits at the edge of the Memphis Medical District and is well-distanced from any other comparable venue. Pellicciotti said the income levels of the medical district and nearby Central Gardens neighborhood will help sustain the restaurant, adding that corporate users will be attracted to the restaurant’s many private meeting rooms.

“The location itself sells it for what it is,” Lee said. “I don’t think it will be a big advertising issue. Around this area, everybody knows about this place.”