1830’s Magevney House Re-Opens for Tours in Memphis
This is the story of a house.
As with most houses, its story holds more than “good bones” and cozy interiors.
It’s the story of a family – love stories, sad stories, sensational stories – stories that live on.
Welcome to the Magevney House in downtown Memphis, recently re-opened to the public:
I love imagining how its backdrop, now the city skyline, might have looked in the 1830s when the home was built: Memphis the frontier town, scarcely a decade old, population 700-and-some.
It was then that Eugene Magevney (b. 1798) came to live here and to teach at a local log schoolhouse (where Court Square lies today) – away from his native Ireland and his love, Mary Smith.
The pair spent 12 years apart before Eugene felt “established” enough to send for Mary Smith. (A career shift to real estate seems to have improved his station.) Upon Mary Smith’s arrival in Memphis, she and Eugene were married in the home (in 1840); one year later, their firstborn was christened in the home. Today, the Magevney House tucks into the shadow of St. Peter Catholic Church, the Gothic beauty on the National Register that owes its founding in part to donors like Mr. Magevney.
Magevney’s faith echoes through the home: In 1839, he hosted Memphis’ first Catholic mass in the parlor. (The family bible remains in the room today.) A portrait of the Magevneys’ daughter Mary as a nun hangs in the couple’s bedroom. Docents believe that the home’s modesty, both in scale and décor, reflects Eugene’s commitment to faith and philanthropy.
In other words, don’t expect the opulence of Memphis’ Mallory-Neely House. Do expect a handful of family heirlooms – Eugene’s schoolmaster chair and letterbox; portraits evidencing the passing-down of a black cross necklace dotted with diamonds from Mary Smith to her daughter Mary and granddaughter Blanche – set amid pieces indicative of the mid-19th century: a melodeon in the parlor; a sugar box with lock and key in the kitchen; Victorian hair art in the children’s bedroom.
Do ask the docents to divulge the stories behind the portraits – how daughter Mary decided to become a nun and later adopted a toddler named Blanche; how Mary died when Blanche was just 13; how the Magevneys’ other daughter, Catherine, adopted Blanche upon Mary’s death. Finally, ask how the home’s modesty belies the Magevney fortune (prepare yourself: The story involves a legal dispute over a multi-million-dollar inheritance and a “scandalous” marriage between a Magevney family heir and the bandleader at The Peabody).
Behind the home, Mary Smith Magevney’s original kitchen garden and a legacy muscadine vine are being revived. Trees of apple, fig, Damson plum and magnolia thrive; red spider lilies, goldenrod and purple coneflowers splash color against a white fence. A stray the docents call “Mama Cat” comes and goes. Though the family left last century (and budget cuts closed the home to the public for several years), in the garden, it’s easy to imagine that life has always persisted here.
Visit the Magevney House
It was 1941 when Blanche gifted her family home to the city of Memphis – and specified that it remain free for public access. And so it is. Visit the first Saturday of each month between 1 and 4 p.m. Bring an “offering” if you wish – you’ll find a donation box in the kitchen.
From the Magevney House, head a mile southeast to Memphis’ Victorian Village, a collection of historic homes and buildings (including the aforementioned Mallory-Neely House). The Village recently welcomed a new restaurant, Monsieur Demarcus, and I think it’s parfait as a book-end to your tour of the Magevney and/or Mallory-Neely homes.
With French music, fresh flowers and a bonjour at the door, the place is adorable, and sweet and savory crepe options, plus salads and soups, can work as a meal or snack. For my taste, the French Classic crepe, a ménage a trois mingling butter, cinnamon and sugar, is about as decadent as it gets. Current hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Hours may vary as Chef Kevin Demarcus gets things going, so you may want to call (901) 528-8799 before you go.
What’s your favorite historic property in Memphis? Share with us in the comments section below.