Uptown, the oldest subdivision in Memphis, is defined by its reinvention. When it was founded in the mid-1800s it was known as Greenlaw, a name that persisted until federally-backed redevelopment rendered the area Uptown.
The neighborhood’s foundation persists, however, as it contains some of the city’s oldest inhabited properties. As historic structures have been demolished to remedy blight and facilitate progress, the remaining historic homes stand in stark contrast to the momentum of new development and provide a window into the long history of the neighborhood.
Jordan Thomas, a pastor at Grace Church Memphis and Tracy Thomas, a former educator who is now a stay-at-home-mother, live in one of these homes with their family of ten.
Jordan Thomas leads his family in a short devotional in the kitchen of their historic Uptown home. (Brandon Dahlberg)
“We didn’t really choose the house — the house chose us,” Jordan Thomas said.
In 2006, the Thomas family left their newly-built Uptown townhouse, which was located down the street from their present home on Mill Avenue. In need of more space, the family went back in time and landed on a house that is suspected to have been built in 1854.
When the Thomas first arrived in Memphis from Minnesota, they had four children. Now they have eight.
Related: "Building something out of nothing: New housing opportunities spring from once vacant lot in Uptown"
“We knew we wanted to be in the neighborhood,” Thomas added.
The Thomas family’s current home on Mill Avenue was originally part of a larger mansion complex. The mansion was, at some point, torn down. But, the smaller house remains.
The house was reportedly built for the owner’s unmarried daughters in 1854. Over time, the property fell into increasing disrepair until being restored in the early 2000s. Larry Bonds, who did the restoration work, bought the house in 1999 when many historic buildings were being torn down to make way for new mixed-income housing to replace Uptown’s public housing complexes.
New houses built in the area mimicked the aesthetic of the historic homes. While this new construction was occurring, Bonds was committed to preserving many of the original elements of the homes he restored.
“It’s amazing though if you think about it, that’s the original trim. The fact that it’s even stuck around … they don’t build them like they used to,” Thomas said. Jordan Thomas leads his family in a short devotional in the kitchen of their historic Uptown home. (Brandon Dahlberg)
Throughout the Mill House, details such as this original brick are incorporated into the design of the restoration. (Brandon Dahlberg)
Photos of the Mill House pre-restoration reveal the state of the property when Larry Bonds initially purchased it. (Brandon Dahlberg)
The exterior of the Mill House in Uptown. (Brandon Dahlberg)
Two blocks over from the Mill House, Chris and Charlotte Davis live with their twins in a historic home. Chris Davis writes for the Memphis Flyer and Charlotte Davis is a freelance scenic designer and artist.
They had been living in the South Main district in the upper floor of a warehouse before moving to another house in Uptown. When they saw the “for sale” sign in front of their current house, they knew they had to buy it.
“We moved into this house right at the turn of the century. We loved the old houses in this neighborhood, and we loved the bay window on this house and some of the other features," Chris Davis said.
The house had been largely restored, but as it frequently is with older homes, there were still changes that needed to be made.
“We’ve done a fair amount of work, but weirdly, we were just about to start undertaking a lot of work but then we had twins and the economy tanked at the same time.”Chris Davis sits in the living room of the Dave Wells House. (Brandon Dahlberg)
The upstairs library in the Dave Wells house features an original banister and overlooks the living room. (Brandon Dahlberg)
Davis does not know if the house technically has a name, but he calls it the Dave Wells house. Dave Wells’ father built the house in 1880 just before his son was born. Wells, who was once the top political power in North Memphis, lived his entire life in the Uptown home.
Development of the neighborhood known as Uptown began in 1849, when J. Oliver and William Borden Greenlaw purchased land in 1849. Within seven years, they owned thirty blocks worth of development which covered housing, retailers and factories.
Related: "Uptown & The Pinch: How Memphis' oldest subdivsion became its newest boom town"
According to Chris Davis, “When the cotton barons were building their mansions in what we call Victorian Village now, all the Pinch merchants were building cottages, they were building cabins, they were building townhouses.”
Davis has lived in the neighborhood long enough to have witnessed a good deal of the change and development that has taken place here.A stairway with original banisters leads to the upstairs living area inside the Dave Wells House. (Brandon Dahlberg)
Few walls in the Dave Wells House are without artwork. (Brandon Dahlberg)
“When the development started over here, there were some very good ideas and some very bad ideas. Overall, the general idea was to bring the neighborhood up without changing its character and its makeup too much," he said.
Many condemned homes were demolished during the 1990s and made way for new housing. This new housing was intended to satisfy the needs of those who sought public housing, mixed-income housing and homes sold at market value. In Davis’ view, that has not always worked out.
“I think the fact that the way the development happened over here has been tragically suburban.”
But, this development shows no signs of slowing in the future. The Community Redevelopment Agency, which oversees Tax Increment Financing, recently concluded meetings with the residents of Uptown to get their input on future development plans. This, along with the city’s plans to undertake infrastructure improvements across the neighborhood, indicates the changes will continue to occur. In the wake of those changes, these historic homes will continue to serve as touchstones for Uptown’s broad history.
A decorative mask keeps watch above a doorway inside the Dave Wells house. (Brandon Dahlberg)
The wraparound porch at the Dave Wells House. (Brandon Dahlberg)
The Dave Wells House features striking original woodwork. (Brandon Dahlberg)
The original hardwood floors in the Dave Wells House. (Brandon Dahlberg)
A dog's pawprints mark the handmade bricks in one of the fireplaces in the Mill House. (Brandon Dahlberg)
A period specific clawfoot tub serves as the centerpiece for the downstairs bathroom in the Mill House. (Brandon Dahlberg)
An Uptown community-specific cookbook features the Mill House on its front cover. (Brandon Dahlberg)