Photo courtesy Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries
For years, a pair of concrete pillars stood close to the parking lot of Briarcrest School, when the main campus was located on Sweetbriar. Those posts, adorned with a metal sign reading “Briar Patch,” marked the entrance to the private estate of Robert and Eugenia Whitnel.
Robert was a retired farmer and an executive with the Federal Land Bank, but I’m mainly concerned here with his wife, a woman described by the Memphis Press-Scimitar as “the girl who made her dreams come true.”
Eugenia Buxton (that’s how most people knew her) grew up in Memphis. Raised by music-loving parents, stories go that she attended her first opera at age 4. She graduated from Miss Hutchison’s School, as it was then known, and studied piano at the old Bolling-Muser School of Music (long gone, I’m afraid).
Eugenia then moved to New York, met big-name musicians like Artur Rubenstein, and supposedly created a sensation with her professional debut at New York City’s Town Hall in 1936. I missed that — I guess my invitation was lost in the mail — but let’s just assume the stories are true. At any rate, she began to perform with symphonies throughout America and Europe. After a particularly fine performance in Syracuse, New York, a critic said, “Miss Buxton has no superiors among the younger concert pianists of modern America.”
In the late 1930s and 1940s, she regularly opened the season for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and, in fact, served as president of the Memphis Symphony Society.
But music wasn’t her only passion. A writer for the Press-Scimitar observed, “She is truly the American girl in every sense of the word. She fences, swims, plays tennis and golf, rides horseback and raises pedigreed dogs, not to mention her outdoor camera activities and her love for the great American pastime, baseball. Fencing is her favorite sport, and she fences with either hand, which is somewhat of a feat in itself.”
In her spare time (whew!), Eugenia began to take up photography, and like everything else she did, she soon excelled at it. She became a Fellow of the Photographic Society of America and an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, and won awards from all over for her particularly fine nature photography.
On the the grounds of her Briar Patch estate, she built a first-rate studio, complete with reception room, darkroom, den, kitchenette, and music room with a Steinway grand piano. Quite a charming place, so I’m told.
After Eugenia married Robert Whitnel, they traveled the globe, documenting their journeys with travelogues that she set to her own music. I wonder where those are today?
Robert died in 1966, and Eugenia passed away in 1972. They are buried together in Memorial Park. Soon afterwards, East Park Baptist Church bought their property, demolished all the buildings, and opened Briarcrest Christian School.
Does anyone today even remember Eugenia Buxton, “truly the American girl in every sense of the word”?