Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Forgetting Miss Daisy

Memphis's Victorian Village exists today mainly because one determined old woman was too stubborn to move out.

In the 1880s, Adams Avenue was known as "Millionaire's Row." James Columbus Neely, a wholesale grocer, bought an imposing pile at 652 Adams in 1883 for $45,000 and made it still more grand, adding a third storey, hand-painted wallpaper, faux wood grain on the cypress doors, and, later, Tiffany-inspired stained glass bought at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. His oldest daughter, Pearl, married a son of the former Mayor of Atlanta in the house in 1890, in front of 400 guests. A replica of Canova's sculpture "The Kiss," purchased by the Neelys, was so heavy that the parlor floor under it had to be reinforced by a brick column built in the basement. Neely lighted his parlor with some of Memphis's first electric lights and was buried from it when he died at 75 on the same day as Queen Victoria, in 1901.

His second daughter, Frances, known as Daisy, entered the house as a girl of 12 in 1883 and died upstairs in her half-tester bed 10 days before the first Apollo Moon landing in 1969. Too frail to ascend the steep stairs in her 80s, she had one of Memphis's first non-commercial elevators installed.

By the '20s, Memphis society no longer dwelt on Adams, some of whose houses stood vacant or were used as boarding houses or, in the case of one of the decaying mansions, as an art school. Daisy refused to leave the house where her parents had lived and died and from which she buried her own husband, Barton Lee Mallory, in 1938; the house where she had raised three children and where she lived with memories of her oldest son, Bill, a decorated soldier of the Second World War, who died a few days before the end of the conflict in an aviation accident. She had hired Annie Cartwright Bess as a nanny for her children in 1907; she moved Annie into the room next to hers when both were in old age.

Her uncle's equally imposing mansion next door, for which the Tennessee State Legislature and Supreme Court had suspended sessions to attend the housewarming, was torn down to make way for the Juvenile Court; stone dogs that once adorned the front steps still keep watch in front of the court building. Had Daisy moved out, as did her neighbors the Fontaines, around 1929, the house would have been sold and eventually demolished, to be replaced eventually by a housing project or a parking lot. But Daisy refused to leave. A local paper says of her that, participating in a fox hunt around 1897, she caught up to the fox, being mauled by the hounds, dismounted her horse, drove the dogs off, and cradled the dying fox in her arms as she rode back to rejoin the hunt. The same determination informed her treatment of the imposing old place where she had engaged in tableaux vivantes at the turn of the century and where her book club, inspired by an idea that occurred to her and her friends on a tennis court one day in 1895, had gathered to improve their minds.

She willed the house to the Daughters of the American Revolution, who first operated it as a museum in the 1970s, but its maintenance proved too much for their slender resources, and they sold it to the City of Memphis around 1987. The city operated it as a house museum, a nationally recognized example of the Italianate Gothic style and late Victorian decorative art (the carriage house behind the mansion contains a 1988 doctoral dissertation of 800 pages on nothing but the house and its contents).

I volunteered as a docent there in 2003 and 2004, after spending years taking my children there when they were small, to give them a sense of history. My daughter thought it was the natural fate of a house to become a museum after the death of its occupants and, when we went home, took me to her bedroom and showed me where she wanted the silk ropes placed a century from now.

The Fontaine House, two doors away, abandoned by the 1960s, was magnificently refurbished and is now operated by the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities. A mansion across the street from it, built as a wedding gift for a Fontaine daughter, is an upscale lounge. Up the street, the 1859 Greek Revival Pillow-McIntyre house contains law offices. Next door to the Fontaine House, the Goyer-Lee Mansion is the periodic beneficiary of enthusiastic corporate volunteers who spend a day refurbishing it and non-profit organizations who propose to develop it for community use, and those plans generally come to nothing.

Daisy's house was closed by the city in 2004 for lack of funding to maintain it, and its reopening is perpetually postponed. Following an agreement between the city and the federal government in 2005 to make all city facilities ADA-compliant, the house must await that necessary work, as well as $268,000 in repairs to the roof and refurbishing of a third of its 70 windows, at $4,000 apiece.

Meanwhile, if someone would only lend me a key, I would gladly go there on weekends and continue to give tours, as I once did.

If, as we read, the Pompeiian ruins are crumbling away from sheer neglect and the Renaissance palazzos of Venice are sinking into the sea, one must be philsophical about the deterioration of a single house not 200 years old; if, as a friend assured me yesterday, a part of our city's continuing financial troubles is the fact that city employees received no raises for 3 years, we must rate the urgent needs of the present over the stained glass and hand-stencilled wallpaper of those long dead.

Still, the likes of the Mallory-Neely house is something we can ill-afford to lose. More than faded wallpaper and forgotten fashions, such houses are a link to an era, the understanding of which is moving away from us as rapidly as galaxies recede from each other while the universe forever expands. In these houses, the telephone was kept in a closet and answered by the butler; bathrooms were a luxurious innovation that no one was ever seen entering because they were concealed in small hallways; husbands and wives slept in adjoining rooms and "kept each other company" by invitation and agreement; the disposition of a visiting card spoke volumes, eloquent in their silence. Men welcomed the discharge of factory smoke as the harbinger of a modern age and studied new and more advanced weapons as devices to forever keep barbarism at bay. A single financier saved the United States from catastrophe in the panic of 1903, and more modern thinkers who proudly called themselves "Progressives" fervently hoped that the 20th century would herald a new era of peace and prosperity.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

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