Next to the parking lot of a modern-style church on Colonial Road is a smaller stucco building that looks like an old carriage house — something you’d see in Central Gardens instead of East Memphis.
What’s the story behind this unusual property?
— F.R., Memphis
Dear F.R.: I have also noticed this old building, apparently the garage for a now-vanished home. Many years ago, when Mother would take me to the Penal Farm to visit Father, we would drive past a gravel driveway that stretched back through woods, and I tried to imagine what the house at the end of the lane must look like.
What I eventually found, with help from my pal Nancy Deal, was much better than I ever dreamed. Nancy, you see, is the unofficial historian of the Colonial Acres Neighborhood Association; everything I’m about to tell you comes from her. She deserves credit for her detective work, but also if something you read here is wrong, take it up with her, okay?
I think most people understand that the neighborhood bordered by Quince, Park, Mt. Moriah, and Cherry (get a map if this confuses you) was once open land and woods. Into this area, sometime around 1910, came a prominent Memphis attorney named Henry Craft. Well-known in his day, Craft was president of the Tennessee Club and Colonial Country Club. A biography entry uncovered by Nancy noted, “He enjoyed a lucrative practice, as clients were quick to recognize his grasp of the law and to appreciate his painstaking care of every interest entrusted to him.” He purchased 98 acres of land at the southeast corner of Park and Colonial, and erected the rambling Spanish-style mansion you see below. He named his new estate, “Hillacres.”
A newsletter for the Church of Christ at White Station — yes, this is the church F.R. mentioned in his query — describes the home: “The mansion was a three-level Spanish-style house of pink stucco with a matching tile roof. The interior contained massive, ornate fireplaces, rare tinted glass, vaulted ceilings, and iron fretwork on stairways and balconies.” An old newspaper article provided further details, including “a crypt-like entrance hall built entirely of carved stone, intricate, high windows draped with velvet, a unique floor of hand-molded tile, walls of gold leaf, and ceiling beams carved in a rope design.”
A separate building, the smaller one still standing, had space for six carriages and a two-room apartment.
Okay, that’s the easy part of this story. What’s complicated is the later ownership. Henry Craft died in 1925 at the age of 59. I believe that his widow continued to live in the house for several years. After all, why would anyone want to leave such a wonderful home? But in the late 1920s, a good chunk of all those 98 acres, including the mansion, was purchased by Curtis King, who owned a sprawling estate called the Watkins Experimental Farm, at Cherry and Park. Watkins was a nationwide distributor of medicines, tonics, and other household products, and King ran the company. In other words, a man with money. The result of this purchase was that King’s property stretched from Cherry to Mt. Moriah. By the way, King’s first home is still standing today; the two-story brick building serves as the administration building for Harding Academy.
Back to the “Spanish Mansion,” as it came to be called, on Colonial. According to the church newsletter and old newspaper articles, King “remodeled the house, improved the grounds, and built the entrance on what we now know as Park Avenue, just west of Holy Rosary Church.” This is the driveway I remember as a child. He also laid out two polo fields on the grounds, “one for practice and one for contests.”
In 1940, records show the property changed ownership again. Robert Galloway bought it, but it wasn’t the same Robert Galloway who established the Memphis Park Commission, among other worthy endeavors. This was apparently his son, and any research about the “Spanish Mansion” gets very confusing because the newspapers often referred to it as the “Galloway Mansion” and Memphis already had a Galloway Mansion — the one by the zoo owned by the elder Galloway.
Okay, but what happened to such a fine-looking home? Well, in the late 1950s, a group of Memphians decided to form their own church, to be called the Church of Christ at White Station. The name, like everything else I’ve told you so far, can be misleading, but at that time “White’s Station” was a railroad station located close to Poplar and Colonial. The road we know today as White Station came later, much farther east. Please, just pay attention.
Anyway, this church, which originally had only 50 or so members, first met in the King Mansion on Cherry, but eventually grew large enough that they were able to purchase the old Spanish Mansion on Colonial. According to church records, “the large living room, dining room, and hallway of the mansion were used for an auditorium when the church assembled on the property for the first time on January 9, 1953.” The very first minister, by the way, was the Rev. E.H. Ijams.
As the church expanded over the years, the old house was used as offices and storage. Eventually, though, the church outgrew its buildings, it needed a larger sanctuary with meeting rooms and an educational wing, and the old house had to go. It was razed sometime in 1964.
Several months ago, with help from Senior Adult Minister Leon Sanderson, Nancy Deal arranged for long-time church members to meet at the church and talk about their memories of the house. Theresa Ellers attended Sunday School in the old mansion. “It was wonderful,” she says. “The acoustics were perfect, so the sound [from singing hymns] was great.” Earl Priest remembers the big fireplace in the living room, and recalls that “the minister at the time had moved his office into the entrance hall.”
Dot Douglas took us outside the meeting room to show us a nicely framed print of a watercolor she had made of the mansion, based on the old newspaper photograph that you see here. And then came one of those “oh, by the way” moments that brightens the life of any historian. While we were standing there admiring the print, someone — I believe it was Dot — asked, “Would you like to see the original painting?” Well sure, that would be nice, I thought. And then she said, “It’s hanging over the old fireplace in the room next door.”
“What fireplace?” I asked. And her reply: “The big fireplace we saved from the Spanish Mansion.”
I’m not sure why nobody mentioned this when we first gathered at the church to talk about the house, but sure enough, at one end of a nearby meeting room called, logically enough, “The Fireplace Room,” stood a massive wooden mantel. It was incredible to behold, crafted of solid oak adorned with all manner of figures and elaborate carvings, with its original andirons and fancy iron screen. Above the fireplace, as you can see, is Douglas’ original oil of the Spanish Mansion. And outside, just across the parking lot, for several years the old carriage house was home to graduate students attending the Harding School of Theology; it’s currently serving as a private apartment.
So that’s the basic story of the old house, but obviously big holes in this long history need to be filled. For example, anyone driving around that neighborhood has probably noticed two or three homes that are obviously much older than the surrounding properties, which were constructed when Colonial Acres was laid out in the 1950s. One of these houses, on Essexshire, was originally a farmhouse, and another building, at Colonial and Amboy, has been identified by Nancy Deal as the original overseer’s house when the Crafts owned all that land.
Even more intriguing, to me, is that quite a few neighbors remember buying candy from “the old ladies” (sometimes it’s just “an old lady”) at the mansion. The name “Annie” even comes up in some of these stories. Who was this woman, and why was she selling candy?
C’mon, Nancy. Get to work on this!
Special thanks to Joe Lowry and Chris Ratliff for turning up the old photograph, and to the Colonial Acres Neighborhood Association.
Got a question for Vance?
Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine,
460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103