photography by Andrea Zucker
Driving through the iron gates and winding up the hill below a canopy of trees to Memphis’ magnificent Annesdale mansion, I recalled the famous opening lines of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” And indeed, when this antebellum, Italianate villa-style home with its graceful bell tower comes into view, this Midtown landmark does indeed have a romantic, slightly mysterious air about it.
The good news is that unlike Manderley — the well-described but fictional English estate which met an unfortunate end — Annesdale has had an extraordinary rebirth. Built by Dr. Samuel Mansfield in 1850 on what was then Pigeon Roost Road (now Lamar Avenue), it was later the home for 160 years for members of the socially prominent Snowden family. When the current generation finally made the decision to sell the house, along with its seven and a half acres of lawns and gardens, Ken Robison, well-known owner of Robison-Finch Estate Sales and Appraisals, stepped up to purchase it in 2010.
Robison and his events coordinator and close friend, Valerie Bledsoe, were on hand to take us on a tour through the historic home and gardens when we visited several weeks ago. At the outset I asked Ken for the back story on how he had come to own the magnificent old mansion — a tremendous undertaking by anyone’s standards. As he tells it, he attended an estate sale held at Annesdale and felt an immediate connection to the place. The dream took hold and in due course, armed with vast experience of old homes and antiques gained through his estate sales — coupled with his love of history, not to mention his “can do” spirit — the dream became a reality. I confess I attended that same estate sale and the idea to become the mistress of this manor never crossed my mind!
The second and entrepreneurial phase of Robison’s plan was to start a weddings and events business utilizing this magnificent property as an elegant and very special venue. Sounding proud and somewhat pleasantly surprised himself, he told me that since officially opening in September of 2013, he has booked 43 (and counting!) events. His operation provides valet parking and full staffing, but the choice of caterers, florists and other suppliers for events is left to the hosts. As if on cue, while we were photographing the home for this article, an engaged couple was having photos taken in the garden in advance of their June wedding at Annesdale. Ken said he is thrilled to see his ideas for Annesdale “flourish and come to fruition,” adding with gratitude that this early success had come mostly through word of mouth.
We were told that the +17,000-square-foot home has 13 rooms, five bedrooms, and four and a half baths. The downstairs public spaces have 14-foot ceilings, and the period details include: 11 fireplaces, pocket doors, carved walnut paneling, intricate needlework panels over the windows, stained glass, painted ceilings with exquisite figural details, ornate plasterwork and lustrous oak floors. By way of explanation, Robison quoted an old saying to the effect that back in the day “when the men went out the door to go hunting, the women had carpenters coming in the back door” — presumably to do their bidding in making their homes showplaces.
Robison has had to prioritize many of his planned projects, though he emphasizes that any changes to the house have and will be done in keeping with its historic character. He sees himself as its steward, and makes the distinction that he is carefully working to “preserve and restore, not renovate” Annesdale. Helping him in this monumental task, he credits the talents of his contractors, Garland Sullivan and John Griffin (see Memphis, March 2012), as well as the advice of local architectural historian Judith Johnson.
Initially there was a great deal of expensive and unexciting, albeit essential, repair work to be done — taking care of termite and water damage, and installing modern circuit breakers, not to mention central heating and four five-ton air conditioning units. In the end the only room that had to be completely gutted was the kitchen, which was unsalvageable due to damaged joists. Annesdale now has a far more functional and handsome full-catering kitchen, and Ken confessed it was designed around his own modern, floor-to-ceiling wine cooler. (A future project dear to his heart is transforming the 4,000-square-foot basement into a wine cellar.)
For the most part the rooms are spare and not overly filled with furniture, though everything that is there has been carefully thought out and arranged. One great example of Robison’s dedication to authenticity is in the entrance hall. He removed the vinyl wallpaper which was covering up the cracks and discovered underneath the original stenciling. A professional restorer convinced him to keep the exposed spidery cracks in the walls which are amazingly beautiful, and lend just the right touch of ancient Tuscan-villa verisimilitude to the place.
Robison says the Snowdens have been extremely gracious in helping him buy back antique pieces from family members that were original to the home. He has found additional items that once belonged there through other sources. Robison is especially proud of the portrait of Annie Overton Brinkley which he was able to acquire and which now hangs in the music room. As history tells us, when Annie married Colonel Robert Bogardus Snowden, her father, Colonel Robert C. Brinkley, made Annesdale a wedding gift from her father. And as the new owner likes to say, “Annie has come home at last.”
Robison lives in Annesdale on the second floor and is deeply involved in the preservation/restoration of the Annesdale-Snowden Historic District that surrounds the property. The home is and always has been the centerpiece of this Midtown area, and the tradition is being preserved and expanded. Ken told me that he has loved getting to know his neighbors and making new friendships, and was delighted to host an Easter egg hunt for the children in the neighborhood.
Speaking of Easter, Ken’s eight-year-old daughter Julia Kate who lives with him in the house (every castle must have its princess!) loves the little bunny rabbits that hop around the grounds at dusk. And sometimes six blue herons, he says, “just show up to hang out by the fountain.”
With its towering magnolias, gingko trees and boxwoods, Annesdale’s gardens are well documented, as is the house itself, in Roberta Seawell Brandau’s seminal 1936 book, History of Homes and Gardens in Tennessee, published by the Garden Study Club of Nashville. (You can occasionally find a copy of this on eBay, and you should.)
Barbara Keathley, a talented landscape architect here in town, has helped Ken Robison bring the Annesdale garden back to its original glory, as reflected in this particular book. The home’s double balconies of delicate ironwork overlook the home’s rear garden and the scent of its flowers perfume the air.
Hardy Todd, a Snowden heir and son of May Snowden Todd and her husband Tom, had the great good fortune to grow up in Annesdale. Naturally he has a deep and abiding passion for the place and, not surprisingly, has many tales to tell of life at Annesdale and parties past that were held there. A few years back, I had the pleasure of attending a spectacular event hosted by Hardy and his wife Ainslie Pryor, when Ainslie was Queen of Memphi, a Carnival Memphis grand krewe. And yes, there were real sheep grazing on Annesdale’s lawn!
I spoke recently with Ainslie who told me that she and her husband were both well pleased with the direction that Robison had taken the house, both in his restoration efforts and his successful events business.
The city of Memphis and all who love its architectural heritage owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Snowden family for lovingly maintaining Annesdale for over a century and a half. And more recently, three cheers to Ken Robison, who stepped in when developers were circling the wagons, for his love of the property, which gave rise to this outstanding example of civic philanthropy, preserving for future generations the treasure that is Annesdale. Thank you, Ken Robison!
For more information and to view additional photos and keep up with the developmental progress, please go to annesdalemansion.com.