Photographs by Andrea Zucker
Sometimes one finds remarkable surprises in the most unexpected places. On the long driveway that leads up to Betha and Ray Gill’s home in the beautiful Yorkshire Forest neighborhood, you are transported to the countryside — far away from East Memphis’ busy streets. The three-board white fence, towering magnolias, and over eight wooded acres conjure up an entirely different place and time.
The Gill home was built in 1939 by Ray’s maternal grandfather, Cordra York Sr. (“Mr. Cordra” as he was fondly called by all) on farmland that once belonged to the W. Battle Malone family. Ray explains that back then “there was no development along Park east of our property, all the way to Germantown.” During World War II, the Yorks kept chickens in the backyard and cows and hogs in a barn located near today’s intersection of Quince and the Interstate. The family was well-known for its York Arms sporting goods business, a Memphis fixture for years on Main Street. Every day Mr. Cordra would direct the operations at the farm and then drive 45 minutes downtown to “the store.”
The open pool area offers a panoramic view of the house and its new additions.
Ray recalls that when he was growing up, he often stopped by to see his grandmother, who usually could be found outside raking leaves or working in her garden. She would stop what she was doing, pull out her lipstick, swipe her lips and say, “Won’t you come in for a Coke?” As he got older, he spent weekends with his grandparents and has fond memories of spring and summer Friday nights eating fried chicken, rice, and gravy on the screened-in porch and listening to quail calls.
Years later, in 1987, Betha and Ray were privileged to take possession and move into the old home with their three children, Lizzie, Brown, and York. The home’s historic character comes from its imposing Corinthian columns, doors, banister, living room mantel, and other antique architectural elements that were salvaged from the old Van Vleet home at Poplar and Bellevue. Yet, despite the fancy trappings, Betha likes to call it a Leave It to Beaver kind of house — the conventional two-story layout with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a cramped kitchen.
The family lived there contentedly for 20 years, with the only major upgrade being the addition of central air conditioning. Ray’s thinking was always, “If it was good enough for my grandparents, it was good enough for my family.”
Top left and right: The family room showcases the Gills’ art collection, including a number of fine bronzes. Bottom left: The original living room, with its airy, open feel, remains relatively untouched. Bottom right: The family dogs enjoy the new open-plan kitchen.
Finally, though, the decision was made to greatly expand their living space and enhance their quality of life by adding two spacious wings on either side of the house, two large garages for automobiles, as well as an exercise room and a guest house that would overlook the swimming pool. The project took two years to complete and was finished three years ago.
Because of Ray’s sentimental attachment to his family home, he supervised every aspect of the construction project. To ensure that each new brick matched the color and size of those used in the old house, for example, he went so far as to have thousands of bricks hauled in from Washington State. Likewise, moldings were custom-made to match those of the original house. New, random-width oak floors were cut to have the same beveled edges as those of the old floors, and porthole windows over the guest house were specially designed to match the original over the home’s entrance. And of course, the beloved old laundry chute and archaic kitchen buzzer system were left untouched.As for Betha, she says that “a home is where you have a roof over your head, with children, dogs, and some popcorn thrown in.” Despite this casual philosophy, we are here to tell you that this home is all that and so much more. Her decorating style mixes sophisticated formality with comfort and practicality, blending well-loved family antiques with newer acquisitions.
The Gills’ interior designer, Brad Collier, settled on a color palette of deep, warm reds and rich blues for fabrics and oriental rugs which, Betha says, “don’t show the dog hair.” Of course, she’s clearly a humorous master of understatement, because what the Gills have achieved is an elegant and comfortable home — a true Southern showplace — whose best achievement is that it does not sacrifice any of the essence and charm of the original structure.
From the front door, one now passes through the older portion of the home, which is unchanged, into a huge open-plan kitchen that gives way to a large family room and bar area. The new wing on the opposite side of the home contains a magnificent, light-filled master bedroom suite with gorgeous garden views. These new additions have 12-foot ceilings and surround a beautiful center courtyard.
Above: Betha and Ray Gill. Top right: The master bedroom fills part of the home’s new wings. Bottom right: The sunroom overlooks the meticulously maintained gardens.
Out back, situated beyond the swimming pool, is an architectural jewel of a guest house that features two bedrooms, a large central living space, and a well-appointed terrace. Touches of whimsy are here as well, including Adirondack-style chairs made of vintage water skis, which the Gills discovered at Memphis’ downtown farmers market, and a large artwork by Memphis artist Wayne Edge titled Sticks and Stones with bits and pieces collected from Pickwick — a place dear to Betha’s heart.
Betha and Ray have worked diligently to find truly unique art for their new spaces. With the help of Betha’s close friends from her Rhodes College days, Memphis artist Carol DeForest and Margaret Chancey, and the expert advice of David Lusk, they now have amassed quite a collection. One of the most striking pieces is a painting by Jerry and Terry Lynn, local artists known collectively as Twin, who are renowned for painting the same canvas at the same time (!), and Carroll Todd’s Fish Out of Water bronze sculpture is truly eye-catching.
Betha says kiddingly that “we love bronzes because we can’t break them,” but the Gills have some seriously wonderful pieces, including bronzes of polo players by Rich Roenisch. One very special bronze by Robert Glen depicts a Kenyan elephant hunter named Abakuna Gumunde, who hunted with Ray’s uncle, and later turned conservationist, before sadly being murdered by poachers.
The Gill House grounds are maintained by a close family friend, Alex Boggan, owner of Boggan’s Landscaping, who takes great pride in attending to every horticultural detail. In addition to all those beautiful trees, the property features artistically laid out lawns, shrubbery, and flowers, punctuated with several elegant pieces of statuary.
Simply elegant. And elegantly simple. When describing this city home with its country feel and luxurious new additions, all kinds of descriptive words come immediately to mind: oasis, refuge, retreat. Ray Gill laughs, and calls it simply his family’s “safe haven.” We should all be so lucky to feel so safe!
Above: Two of the most striking features of the Gills’ home are the classically designed guest house and pool house, shown here inside and out. Opposite: An antique iron gate provides a dramatic entrance to the garden.