This place in history: The top ten most unique houses in Memphis

As much as I love interesting architecture, coming up with a top ten list of Memphis homes seemed like a daunting task.  Central Gardens alone, known as one of America’s best “Old House Neighborhoods,” could sweep any list. Since I am a history buff, I tend to prefer the older homes with character that are aesthetically pleasing, and an intriguing back-story is always an added bonus. What makes a home historic?  There are specific guidelines set forth by the National Register of Historic Places, but I consider a home historic if it is at least 50 years old, embodies distinctive characteristics in its construction and is associated with significant people or events in history. The following are a smorgasbord of unique homes that certainly fit the bill and make Memphis a unique place to call home.

Captain Harris House, built in 1898

1. Captain Harris House

The largest and second oldest home in eclectic Cooper-Young is also the most colorful. Built in 1898 by real estate developer Frank Trimble, this delightful example of the Queen Anne style stands out on Young Avenue. A round turret, veranda with bracketed posts, pagoda-like roof, panels of sunburst carvings, and contrasting textures and colors all add to the whimsy of this one-of-a-kind Midtown landmark. 

Captain Harris moved to Memphis from Ripley, Mississippi and bought the home from Trimble in 1900. It is said that his move was likely due to the shooting death of Colonel William C. Falkner, who was killed by a relation of Harris’. Falkner’s great-grandson William Faulkner would later use the drama in two of his novels, Requiem For a Nun and The Unvanquished. In 1909, a majority of the three-acre lot was sold to the City of Memphis for Peabody school. The home is back on the market as it is a popular AirBnB stay.

Home on St. Albans Fairway, designed in 1938.

2. Home on St. Albans Fairway

The Memphis Chapter of the American Institute of Architects considers this home “perhaps the best example of the Art Deco-International Style” in the city. Designed by George Awsumb and built in 1949, it was named Design of the Decade at AIA’s Memphis Millennium Celebration.  According to Judith Johnson, former president of Memphis Heritage and author of The Art of Architecture: Modernism in Memphis 1890-1980, the house was designed in 1938, but materials shortages due to World War II delayed construction. The home’s original owner Walker Wellford was an engineer who designed its heat pump system, heated driveway and pump house. The use of natural stone, a steel-frame structure, reinforced concrete floors, and a third-floor roof terrace, make this a quintessential modern East Memphis home.

Neander Woods Home, built in 1909.

3. Neander Woods Home, Central Gardens

Built in 1909, this was the third home prominent Memphis architect Neander M. Woods, Jr., designed for himself. Built during the golden age of American architecture, this unique American Craftsman seems to have jumped right out of the pages of a fairy tale. The irregular stone window surrounds, overhanging tile roof, and diagonal porte-cochere make this a triumph of the local architect. Woods’ mixture of textures and materials was his signature style, and unfortunately for Memphis, he moved away to Connecticut circa 1913 and also practiced architecture in New York and New Jersey.

Annesdale Mansion, built in 1850s.

4. Annesdale Mansion

This gorgeous Italian Villa is quite a hidden gem, as I did not know it existed until just a few years ago. Sitting atop a hill on Lamar Avenue and blanketed behind trees, Annesdale Mansion is a stunning example of 1850s opulence. Built of bricks hand-fired on site, other architectural delights include a four-story square tower, arched french windows, square linteled windows, bracketed balconies and gables, and of course a porte-cochere covered entrance. Inside there are 14-foot ceilings, black and white checked marble floors, plenty of marble throughout, heavy crown moldings, and a free-standing curving walnut staircase with a crystal newel finial. The same family lived in the home for several generations, leaving behind original furnishings, fixtures, and draperies.

Annesdale, built by druggist Dr. Samuel Mansfield, was once used as a hospital for victims of the Battle of Shiloh. In 1869, Robert Brinkley bought the house as a wedding present for his daughter Annie Overton Brinkley and her husband Robert Snowden. Both Brinkley and Snowden had much to do with the development of Memphis and attracted George Peabody to invest in numerous ventures without even visiting the city. Heirs of the prominent Snowden family lived in the home for 160 years and it is now a venue for weddings and special events.

Frayser Bauhaus, built in 1946.

5. Frayser Bauhaus

Bauhaus was a German art school that operated from 1919 to 1933 and combined crafts and fine arts. The term is now used to represent modern architecture that blurs the distinction between form and function. It is noted for its absence of ornamentation and the harmony of aesthetic design and utility.

Located on the northeast corner of North Thomas and Floyd Avenue, this unique structure was built in 1946, and the architect is unknown. The design was clearly influenced by the Bauhaus modernist design of the post-World War II era. The AIA describes the building as being Art Moderne and “the best example of the Bauhaus inspired International Style to be found in Memphis.”

It was originally built as the home of Maxwell McCall Millstead, who developed a nearby subdivision, as well as the Cherry Road subdivision in East Memphis. The home later served as a doctor’s office. Producer Dana Gabrion has purchased the property and plans to make it a residential dwelling once again.

Paisley Hall, built in 1910.

6. Paisley Hall

Built for Robert Galloway in 1910, Paisley Hall is considered one of the best examples of early 20th century Greek Revival architecture in Memphis. Four massive limestone columns support a two-story front portico. Elaborate interiors, much imported from Europe, include a marble fireplace with an elaborately carved French walnut mantle. According to blog Historic Memphis, Elvis considered buying the mansion before deciding on Graceland.

Galloway was chairman of the Memphis Park Commission when Overton Park, Riverside Park, and the parkway system were laid out. He loved the outdoors and along with his large tract of land he bought for himself, he was instrumental in getting the nearby Memphis Zoo built. Galloway now resides at Elmwood Cemetery.

Mollie Fontaine Taylor House, built in 1880s.

7. Mollie Fontaine Taylor House

On Valentine’s Day, 1886, Mollie Fontaine married Dr. William Taylor in a grand wedding at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, followed by a reception in the Fontaine ballroom. Mollie’s father Noland, built a “Victorian Valentine” house for the newlyweds, which was across the street from his home, the Woodruff-Fontaine House.

The other remaining Victorians on Adams Avenue have Mollie’s beat in size. But she makes up for it in grandeur. Memphis An Architectural Guide puts it best: “The porch contains enough decorative elements for a house twice this large, and its effect is almost that of stiffened macrame’ made by a giant inspired by some of the more curious elements of Chinese and late baroque art.” This is definitely not a less-is-more house. Heavily decorated eaves and railings, carved posts, terracotta and stained glass windows and doors embellish the home.

Mollie lived here until her death in 1939. Today, Mollie Fontaine Lounge is a local hotspot open Wednesday through Saturday from 5 p.m.‘til the spirits go to sleep.

Lowenstein House, built in 1890.

8. Lowenstein House

Perhaps my favorite structure in the city, Lowenstein House adds a surprising whimsical touch to the Medical District. The square tower with pyramidal roof suggests an Italianate influence, while the arched windows and entrance present a clear Richardson Romanesque touch. A round stained glass window, a veranda with curving, wooden latticework, decorative brickwork, and terracotta complete the façade. The interior boasts a three-story stairwell with stained glass on each landing. Fleur-de-lis on plaster friezes with ceiling decorations, more stained glass windows, and elaborate gas chandeliers round out the inside. Need I say more?

Elias Lowenstein had several businesses that prospered in the mid-to-late 1800s and built the home at the corner of Jefferson and Manassas for his family in 1890. In the 1920s, the house was used as a residence for women helping with the war effort. In 1979, it became a mental health facility, which has since moved to two new locations. For a man who arrived in Memphis with only thirty-five cents in his pocket, Mr. Lowenstein would be proud his home still stands today.

Home on Kenilworth Place, built in 1923.

9. Home on Kenilworth Place

Right around the corner from Galloway’s Paisley Hall sits this unique home built in 1923, considered one of the best designs of renowned Memphis architects Jones and Furbringer. Memphis An Architectural Guide notes the rarities of the home: “The center of the façade looks like an ordinary two-story Colonial. To the left, however, the one-story sunporch fairly flaunts its Ionic order.” To the right, the façade steps forward vertically bordered by skinny stone pilasters, all of this creating a “contest for our attention.” The home certainly caught my attention.

Ashlar Hall, built in 1896.

10. Ashlar Hall

A top ten Memphis homes list would not be complete without mentioning Ashlar Hall, known to locals as “the Castle.”  Sticking out is an understatement. The fortress-like house is built of ashlar stone that was shipped to Memphis on barges from Indiana. Stained glass windows in the stairwell and oak carvings on the foyer mantle were installed by Italian craftsmen. Its randomness of form, multiple towers and chimneys, stone porch railings with circular cutouts, and randomly placed gargoyles make Ashlar Hall a force to be reckoned with.

The Gothic Revival mansion was built in 1896 by Robert Brinkley Snowden, (son of the Colonel and Mrs. Snowden of Annesdale Mansion), who studied architecture at Princeton and returned to Memphis to be a real estate developer, later a banker, and was also co-owner of Memphis’ Peabody Hotel. He designed the home for himself set on seven acres of wooded land near his parents’ home where had hunted and played as a child.

Other than being a fine residence, the Castle has served the city in many ways through the years as a restaurant, haunted house, and nightclub. No longer owned by eccentric Memphis millionaire “Prince Mongo,” there is hope for the state of this once stately manor.  After years of vacancy and neglect, the Castle has a new owner and some restoration efforts have begun.

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Read more articles by Julie McCullough.

Julie McCullough grew up in Millington, Tenn. She received a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and M.A. in Teaching from the University of Memphis. She currently teaches CLUE for gifted students at Shelby County Schools. McCullough is behind architecture blog This Place in History.