Mallory-Neely House Reopens on Memphis’ Millionaire’s Row
Meet the residences of Memphis’ Adams Avenue, collectively called Victorian Village. Their run began toward the latter half of the 19th century, when the Memphis elite built homes along this “Millionaire’s Row,” then considered the city’s outskirts. (Victorian Village lies approximately one mile east of the Mississippi, separated from the river by downtown.)
Few of the homes survived aging and urban renewal, and what remains demands diligent upkeep. The Mallory-Neely House is the most recent to reap some TLC: After a seven-year closure (including a three-year renovation and a desperately-needed re-roofing), the home began welcoming visitors again in November 2012.
In textbook talk, Mallory-Neely is a 25-room, Italianate Villa-style mansion; its original foundation laid around 1852 (as a two-story home for the family of banker/cotton broker Isaac Kirtland). But like any good home tour, the Mallory-Neely walk-through gets personal – examining the architecture and interior design as much as the personal lives of its residents, particularly Mrs. Frances Neely Mallory, known as Daisy.
When Daisy’s parents (James Columbus, a cotton factor, and Frances) bought the home in 1883, they made significant changes: adding a third floor; aggrandizing the existing tower; making the interiors over according to a Victorian aesthetic. This is nowhere more apparent or authentic than in the first-floor double parlor, a floor-to-ceiling study in opulence and ornamentation. A parade of busts – molded on-site by Italian artisans who had immigrated to Cincinnati – line the ceiling; ivory carpet punctuated by ruby botanicals and mustard wisps stretches wall-to-wall.
In between, a Chinese silk screen (procured by the family at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis) depicts, in forbidden stitch, the four seasons; Antonio Canova’s Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (which sits in the Louvre) is replicated in solid marble over onyx, supported by a brick pillar in the basement. A reception was held in this room following Daisy’s marriage in 1900 to local land developer Barton Lee Mallory. Also downstairs, you’ll see evidence of the Neelys’ Victorian embellishments in faux-burled wood on imposing arched doors, and in the music room/library where the ceiling is stenciled with lyres and laurel leaves – and a table tells the story of Buddha’s enlightenment in teak so skillfully that the wood, in places, feigns a lace tablecloth. The table is believed to be the oldest piece in the home, likely crafted around 1700 in Ceylon.
Touring the second floor, you’re reminded that excess tended to stay downstairs, though a stained glass window hanging in the stairwell is thought to be a La Farge original, salvaged from the demolished home of Daisy’s uncle, which sat just to the west. To me, floor two is where the heart is – we see more family photographs; works by Daisy’s daughter, Frances Mallory Morgan, a painter and sculptor who ultimately adopted the Mallory-Neely carriage house as her studio; even the bedrooms of Daisy and Annie Cartwright Bess, Daisy’s long-time personal attendant whom she moved into the room next to her in the pair’s later years (Daisy’s husband died in 1938).
The third floor, where Daisy’s childhood bedroom is located, remains closed to the public – from the landing below, cracks and peeling are visible, and our docent tells me it’s “black with coal soot,” though the original stenciling is still detectable.
Mallory-Neely’s carriage house, by the way, marks the start of your tour and includes background on all of the home’s owners and inhabitants – slaves and servants included – as well as artifacts found on site. Our docent tells me, especially after it rains, it’s common for glass bottles and dish fragments to surface. Find the carriage house at the right rear of the main house – it’s also the best vantage for Mallory-Neely’s slave/servant quarters, now adjoined to the main house by a breezeway.
While you’re in the neighborhood…
If you’re like me, you can’t get enough of old homes. Walk a few steps east on Adams from the Mallory-Neely House to tour the Woodruff-Fontaine House, an 1870 French Victorian beauty. Hour-long tours are given Wednesday through Sunday, noon-4 p.m. (last tour at 3:30 p.m.).
Late-night, cross the street to Mollie Fontaine Lounge. I can’t help but find prescience in the home’s 1886 construction in the Eclectic Revival style, for owner/restaurateur Karen Carrier has certainly revived the place eclectically. Drop in Wednesday through Saturday nights for live music, artisan cocktails and small plates in this lounge aged to funky perfection.
The Mallory-Neely House (652 Adams Ave.) is now managed by Memphis’ Pink Palace Family of Museums. Tour it Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; 45-minute guided tours begin every 30 minutes with the day’s last tour commencing at 3 p.m.
Have you toured the Mallory-Neely or another historic home in West Tennessee? What is your favorite site, architectural detail or interior element?