Inside a Memphis mansion's $4 million conversion into an exclusive restaurant

The Nineteenth Century Club, which dates back to 1908, has been revived and converted into Izakaya, a Japanese-French fusion restaurant. 
A historic Midtown mansion once on the verge of being torn down makes its triumphant return this month as the home of Izakaya, a new Japanese-French fusion restaurant that advertises world class sushi, cocktails, and the best beef in Memphis.
The home had formerly been the site of the Nineteenth Century Club, a women’s activist group and social club. It operated from the mid-1920s until the early 2000s when its disrepair became too much for the group to bear.

When you walk in, it should look and feel like it did in 1910. It’s the last of a dying age of mansions along Union Avenue in that part of Midtown.
Restauranteurs Shon and Dana Lin purchased the dilapidated property, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and they initially had planned to tear down the house and build a new restaurant. They were able to purchase the property for less with the decaying house still standing than they would have paid for an empty one-acre lot on the commercial thoroughfare of Union Avenue.
The Lins began to tear out portions of the three-story, 16,000-square-foot house, but in the process they fell in love with the property and decided to save it. In advance of and during demolition, local community groups such as Memphis Heritage voiced intense opposition to the Lins’ initial plans.
A historic rehabilitation tax credit makes the project possible. The owners receive a 20 percent tax credit on any capital improvements they put into the building. The project cost is nearly $4 million.
LRK has handled the restoration project’s planning and design.
“The demolition process had already started, so a lot of light fixtures, mantles and really nice decorative pieces had been removed,” said LRK Principal Tony Pelleicciotti, who leads the firm’s adaptive reuse and historic rehab efforts.
“Once the decision was made to go ahead and save the building, there was a tremendous effort to go back and get those pieces from the demolition contractor and secure everything so we could reuse it, and I think it’s one of the key pieces for the project turning out as well as it did,” he added.
The balustrades for the main stairs and the downstairs wooden mantle had been stolen and had to be recreated from old photographs.
“When we got in there, there was a lot of hardware missing and some custom woodwork and millwork missing, so that was something that we had to take on as a challenge,” said Hans Bauer, project manager with Archer Custom Builders, the general contractor for the restoration.

The house had sat dormant for several years before the Lins purchased it, taking on water damage from a leaky roof and growing mold all over the walls and acting as a temporary home to vandals and vagrants.
“The old knob and tube electrical system was completely outdated,” said Bauer. “A lot of the plumbing was pipes that contained lead. The heating and cooling system had been pieced together over the years to try to keep it comfortable, but it certainly was not anything that you could have for a commercial establishment.”
Most of the walls were torn out, and new plumbing, electrical and heating and air systems were installed.
In order to convert the residence into a commercial facility that could handle hundreds of guests, large HVAC units were installed on the third floor and in the basement.
“A big part of the project was replacing all of the woodwork that had either been broken, stolen, or was just so out of sorts that it needed to be fixed, including trim pieces, the bannister on the stairway, and the spindles on the grand staircase,” said Bauer.
Many of the floors were patched and refinished. In some cases, they had to track down reproductions or antiques for items like door knobs, window hardware, door closers, cabinet hardware and more.
“We were able to salvage the marble that was in the original restrooms and reuse it in the new restrooms,” said Janis Piwonka, LRK senior associate who led the interiors work. “On the second floor, the bedrooms were converted into lounges, and there’s one room that is a private dining/conference room.”

Creating a flexible space that could be used for a variety of large gatherings as well as live music performances was an important design consideration.

Because the existing kitchen was not suitable for a large, modern day commercial operation, an addition was built onto the existing kitchen, which was then converted into a prep space with walk-in freezers.
The new parking lot sits atop the spot of what was an Olympic-sized swimming pool during in the early and mid-1900s. The pool was filled sometime during the 1970s.
“Any time you do a renovation project, you find surprises,” said Pelleicciotti. “The pool was not properly filled in, and when we started driving construction traffic across it the asphalt started sinking into the pool.”
To stabilize it and make sure it did not happen again, the pool was dug out, filled back in with soil and graded for an additional project cost of approximately $20,000.
The finished home includes a mix of old and new materials, and the goal for Archer was to make sure they blended seamlessly.
“When you walk in, it should look and feel like it did in 1910,” said Bauer. “It’s the last of a dying age of mansions along Union Avenue in that part of Midtown.”

Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.
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