Frayser Bauhaus Draws Preview Crowd of 300

By Bill Dries

The investor developer of a Bauhaus-style home from the late 1940s in Frayser says the area is the “next frontier” in Memphis real estate.

Dana Gabrion, left, and Larry Harris, right, work together to open a window at the Frayser Bauhaus that's been sealed by paint. Gabrion purchased the Bauhaus-style home in April of 2017 and has been working to restore the property to it's original condition. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

“I’m super passionate about Frayser. When I came out here and saw the beautiful rolling hills, I’m like, ‘This is the next frontier,’” Dana Gabrion told a group of 300 people outside the house at 3590 Thomas St. at Floyd Avenue Thursday, July 12.

The Highway 51 landmark Gabrion bought for $75,000 in April 2017 was the featured house in Memphis Heritage’s latest “Preservation Posse After Hours” fundraiser. Cars lined Floyd Avenue in the neighborhood that followed what was built as the home of Maxwell McCall Millstead.

“We keep trying to get people to own their homes instead of renting them, which I think is great because eventually this will be the next area where everyone says, ‘I remember when you could buy a house for that,” Gabrion said “Instead of gentrifying and pushing people out, I would love to see the people in the community own their homes so that when that tide rises that we all rise together.”

Gabrion’s renovation of the 1948 home built by Max Milstead on a large lot with Highway 51 frontage is making progress with some key decisions still to be made. The structure later became a doctor’s office and medical clinic.

“I was worried that they would expect it to be fully developed,” Gabrion said later as visitors circulated through the un-air conditioned house. “People were stopping by when I was doing demolition. And they wanted to take a look and talk about the history. We thought let’s give as much information as we can all at once and I didn’t want to continue to do any work until people could see it like this.”

What had been a closet near the front door is now a winding staircase with a curved plaster wall down to a subterranean garage built into the hill under steel girders that support the house above.

On two walls by the staircase entrance, Gabrion left signs asking those at the event to write on the walls whether they should stay or go.

“Curvy, narrow staircases are fun and mysterious,” read one comment. Another comment, “I don’t think it’s original, take off the molding and see,” was crossed out with a new comment below. “Nevermind … just saw the amazing curved plaster going downstairs. KEEP.”

“I want to keep it as true to the original part as I can. But still it’s nice to be able to see the transformation it’s had over the years,” she said. “It’s been altered too much.”

Frayser Community Development Corporation director Steve Lockwood said the Bauhaus is a symbol of progress in rising property values and a drop in the number of blighted and vacant houses.

“It’s another great statement about what’s going on here, that somebody wants to come and rebuild this thing and do this. It’s great for the house and it’s great for what it stands for,” he said. “It is true that Frayser has an incredible amount of revitalization and rebuilding going on. And it’s such a big neighborhood it takes a while for that to sink in but the number of blighted houses is going down dramatically.”

Bank of Bartlett President Harold Byrd said his bank has worked with Gabrion on the Frayser project and others she has undertaken in Memphis including the Cherokee Arms apartment building and Talbot Heirs Guesthouse.

“It’s the most beautiful land in all of Shelby County,” Byrd said. “Rolling hills and so much opportunity out here.”

Thousands of people drive by the white house with curved windows atop the hill every day making it an icon and a barometer of good times and bad times in an area that saw blue collar prosperity with the late 1940s-early 1950s arrival of the International Harvester plant and Kimberley Clark plant joining Firestone and other industrial giants just across the Wolf River in North Memphis.

The 1980s trauma of the plant closings was renewed in the recent national recession where home foreclosures took a particularly heavy toll on Frayser followed by investors drawn by the rock bottom residential prices that have since risen.

“This is probably the most unique residence or building of any kind in Frayser. I think it’s been selected as one of the 10 most unique houses in the city of Memphis,” Lockwood said. “And this house was blighted. It wasn’t the worst around. Nobody was suggesting we tear it down but it was problematic. This is just a really good symbol. There are thousands of houses that have been revitalized and it’s pretty fun to watch.”

During the event, Gabrion met the owner of one of the other two houses in the city like the Frayser Bauhaus and quickly made plans with the owner to have a look around there. The owner told her he spent about $500,000 over 30 years on what could be a model for the full restoration of her property.

She commiserated about the surprises that come after the decision to buy and restore.

“Just your usual pulling back sheet rock and find rotted wood underneath that has to be replaced and having to go steps further than you expected to have to go,” Gabrion said of the surprises. “I didn’t expect to have to redo all of the electrical. … In the end it will be good because it’s a better long term fix.”

One of the comments written on the walls that Gabrion is considering taking out is “Follow your heart.”

Gabrion has not decided what the Bauhaus’s ultimate use will be.

“I’ve been thinking lately that I will probably just rent it as a rental house. I think an artist would be good because we have the open space,” she said. “You have a lot of open space in here that is great for a studio for an artist or a musician too because you have so much room that you are not going to disturb your neighbors. There is still the option of possibly doing an event space or Airbnb. There is an extra level of expense and management. It’s a lot of time.”

After taking out all of the walls that separated the main floor’s space into patient rooms to reveal a single room surrounded on three sides by windows looking out on a mixture of sunlight and the shade of several large trees, Gabrion has one definite thought.

“Maybe at first it becomes a rental house and then the second step is to go on to the next level,” she said. “I do need to kind of keep it for one person because so many people seem to enjoy it.”