VOL. 132 | NO. 253 | Friday, December 22, 2017
By Bill Dries
Memphis' best and most unique example of art deco-international style Bauhaus architecture has been hiding in plain sight in Frayser for nearly 70 years.
Tens of thousands of daily motorists drive past the white, multilevel building at 3590 Thomas St., on the northeast corner of Thomas and Floyd Avenue, where curved windows look out on the highway down the hill and large trees landscape the slope to the street.
Once a home and later a doctor’s office before being vacated in recent years, the late-1940s structure has seen new signs of life in the past week, including a new coat of paint and some cleaning out.
Dana Gabrion, a real estate investor with a curiosity about Frayser and a love of mid-20th-century architecture, bought the property in April for $75,000.
“I went and looked at in person last Christmas – driving around in December,” said Gabrion, who is a Memphian with ties to Los Angeles. “I’d actually never been to Frayser ever. So I started driving the area and discovered there is a ton of midcentury out here.”
When she learned the house was on the market, she immediately tried to get it under contract and learned there was competition for it.
“My heart sunk,” she said. “The fact that it’s on land that slopes down where you can see the road and I’ve always been intrigued by Frayser – this is one of I think only three houses like this in Memphis. … It’s an intriguing piece of architecture.”
Judith Johnson, a broker with InCity Realty, also researched the house, which was built in 1948 – 10 years before Frayser was annexed into the city of Memphis – as the home of Maxwell McCall Millstead.
Millstead developed a nearby subdivision on the other side of Floyd at about the same time, as well as the Cherry Road subdivision in East Memphis.
“This is a stunning singular example of basically the art deco-international style of residence. It is something you would normally see in California or France,” Johnson said. “I just think that when you’re looking at the built environment to get a sense of history, architectural styles over time – it’s kind of retro. But in terms of pure international-style art deco house, it is our sole example and it has held up extremely well.”
Gabrion says it is a symbol.
“Frayser’s pretty big. I’ve driven around and this is pretty massive. So size-wise, it’s not a catalyst,” she said. “However, I think as far as having something that’s iconic and done well and for people to be proud of, I think it’s a catalyst in that way to say you can bring something cool, beautiful and inspiring to Frayser and show that someone cares.”
The competitor for the property ultimately never materialized and Gabrion was able to buy the house. But with other projects underway, she debated whether to pull the trigger on the deal.
Among her past projects was a renovation of the Cherokee Arms apartment building in Midtown.
“I started discovering some of the old architecture here and I got completely fascinated with Frayser,” she said. “So then I thought, ‘It’s far out and I shouldn’t be buying anything right now.’ I was going into development on another building. … And then I had a couple of other friends look at it who said it’s amazing. I said, ‘That’s it. What am I waiting on?’”
There have been some hitches for the building, which is something of an enigma. No blueprints are on file with city or county government because Frayser was not part of the city when it was built.
“Part of the reason I’m just now getting started on this is we couldn’t get an appraisal,” Gabrion said. “The residential appraisers were, ‘No, it’s commercial.’ The commercial appraisers were, ‘No, it’s residential.’ And everyone dropped out. It took forever. We finally got someone to do it.”
It is currently zoned commercial because it served as a doctor’s office and clinic longer than it was a home. But Johnson said it could easily be zoned residential again.
“I went back and forth and I thought it might be my house. … What I would love to have here is someone who wanted a live-work space, like an artist,” Gabrion said. “That whole upstairs area is going to get blown out to just windows. It’s going to be one big, open room with a lot of windows. I love windows. … I envision a master bedroom up there with a painting canvas or a piano.”
The upper floor has had some additions over the years and currently is divided into small offices or treatment rooms.
Since Frayser wasn’t in the city, Millstead didn’t have to file plans for the house. So it’s been difficult but not impossible to determine what was original and what was added by the doctors who came later.
“I would say about half of this house is not original. I’m going to leave it. They didn’t do a terrible job,” Gabrion said. “It’s not what I would have done. I’m going to leave all of the exterior walls in place. But any interior walls that weren’t here originally are probably going to go.”
Another idea was an Airbnb styled as an artistic retreat. But that’s where the challenge of Frayser real estate entered the picture. Prices are so low in Frayser that multiple properties are being bought at one time. But the market values in Frayser are also low compared to the rest of the city, even though they’ve risen recently.
“Honestly, on the renovations, just to get it up to livable. I can’t really go that extra step and furnish it and do all of that – maybe eventually,” Gabrion said of the Airbnb idea. “But right now my hope is that it would be an artist – a photographer or someone like that who wanted more space.”
Gabrion’s excitement at the property’s potential has led her to go ahead and get the exterior painted and consider the possibilities of a patio atop the main room. She speculates a patio probably originally stood where most of the second-floor rooms were added later. That includes a room with a mosaic floor.
As the structure shows new signs of life, Gabrion continues to make discoveries like steel beams in the subterranean garage that support the main room above it. And after a recent rain, Gabrion found the drain system and the house’s position on a hill quickly handled the water without the garage flooding.