Memphis 200: Bringing life back to Victorian Village

Memphis 200: Bringing life back to Victorian Village

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - As Memphis celebrates its 200th birthday, we’re taking a look back at her history, and previewing what’s to come.

The future has never been brighter for Victorian Village, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods

Victorian Village has been Scott Blake's home for 25 years.

"We call ourselves the first suburb of Memphis,” Blake said. “I love the history of it all.”

Blake lives in Laurel Hill, a stately house built in 1868.

Blake is the Executive Director of the Victorian Village Community Development Corporation and believes this is the year his beloved neighborhood gets reborn.

“I really do,” Blake said. “I mean, especially after living here for so long, and feeling like you’re the only soldier on the wall.”

Victorian Village is where the wealthiest Memphians built spectacular mansions in the 1800′s, a time when riverboats ruled, and cotton was king.

Adams Avenue, once farmland on the outskirts of the city, became known as Millionaires Row, and grand houses hosted grand parties.

“Teddy Roosevelt was here, in fact, just across the street,” Blake said. “Came for dinner one night. The family plated their sterling silver gold for the occasion.”

But as decades passed, Memphis grew and families moved east.

“A lot of this neighborhood had turned to slums at that time [by the 1960s],” Blake said. “There were a lot of tenement boarding houses.”

"Mansions were being torn down right and left,” said Jennifer Cooper, executive director of the Woodruff Fontaine House.

Among a handful of mansions saved from the wrecking ball was the 1871 French Victorian, which is now a museum.

"The families who lived here and who built on Millionaire's Row had so much to do with building the city,” Cooper said. “And so keeping this area alive and adding to it is important to the history of Memphis."

Jose Velazquez and his wife brought new life to the old James Lee House.

“This is a $2 million renovation,” Velazquez said.

It sat vacant for 50 years until they bought it in 2013. Today, the 1848 mansion is a successful bed and breakfast.

"I mean, we have guests from all over the world that specifically come to Memphis to stay here and then experience Memphis,” Velazquez said.

All three are excited about a major spark for change in Victorian Village.

The first single family home was recently built on Adams Avenue in more than a century.

"So it’s fun, because everyone walking in is like... oh, such high ceilings for an old home, and they don’t realize it’s totally a new construction home,” said Kate Durbin, whose family owns the new home.

"It's one of those things, it becomes instantly visible,” Blake said. “And people go, ‘I never imagined you could build a new home in an old neighborhood like that.’"

“You need people to have a village,” Velazquez said. “You need different experiences to really make it a vibrant village. That only adds to the experience. So I just can’t wait!”

New growth on Millionaires' Row

The three-bedroom, three bath house has all the modern conveniences and design details to make it fit right in with the 1800′s architecture around it.

"We're really excited about it!” Blake said.

Blake said the house, an upscale Airbnb, will help jump start the village's economic engine.

"Anything that we can do to have visitors come in and stay for 2-3 days and leave their tourist dollars behind, that's really important,” Blake said.

Velazquez sees the new Airbnb not as competition, but as a complement to his business.

"The more that we can have people experiencing in different ways, this very unique and special place in Memphis, the better!" Velazquez said.

Meanwhile, Cooper watched the Airbnb going up with interest.

For years their only neighbors were old government buildings like the Shelby County Juvenile Court facility and the Memphis Housing Authority.

"It's time that this part of Memphis...this area...we're finally getting some exposure, you know,” Cooper said. “And so, it's exciting!"

Also in the pipeline for Victorian Village is demolishing the old UT medical fraternity on Jefferson and the child development center next to it, to make way for a new, 400 unit apartment complex.

Streetscape improvements are coming, too, including protected bike and pedestrian lanes on Jefferson.

The Airbnb’s officially opened in December. Named the William Henry, the house can be rented for weddings, rehearsal dinners or receptions, and it's conveniently located between downtown and the Medical District.

"We can offer spaces for Le Bonheur, Ronald McDonald House or St. Jude for people who need to stay in long term places but don't want a hotel,” Durbin said.

Karen Carrier’s Molly Fountaine Lounge is just a few steps away. The old mansion next to it is about to become a new museum and a cafe.

As Memphis marks its bicentennial birthday, Victorian Village celebrates its own rebirth.

"I’m convinced you know...3,4,5 years from now, this is going to be where everything is going to be happening, and that life is going to flourish again in this village like it did 200 years ago,” Velazquez said.

The William Henry Airbnb has been such a success, the developer said that he’ll start construction on a second Victorian Village house next month.

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