Y es, we photographed the Central Gardens home of Elise and Mike Frick on a March day when winter was still with us. Oh, but what a wonderful place to be — so full of natural light and large colorful paintings on the walls to cheer our chilly souls.
The midtown neighborhood of Central Gardens is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is famous for both its range of architectural styles and its unique character. The Fricks’ home was built in 1910 and is a perfect example of the iconic American “four square,” the most prevalent design form in the area.
These block-shaped, two-story houses were built between 1895 and 1915 and are characterized by their being of equal width and depth, with broad window and door openings and large front porches. No wonder Central Gardens has been called a “front-porch neighborhood” where homeowners use their porches as outside living rooms! This is certainly the case for the Fricks, who say they spend many months of the year enjoying their porch, which in this world of ever-expanding backyard loggias, patios, and poolhouses sounds reassuringly old-fashioned and downright neighborly.
It seems to Elise Frick as though she has lived her whole life on this very street, which she has, with the exception of some time spent at Mount Vernon College in Washington, D.C., and as a young married woman on Fenwick Street a bit farther east. She was raised just a half-block away, and she and her husband have lived in their current home since 1996. It’s no wonder that her mother likes to tease that “Elise didn’t get very far in life.”
The Fricks’ four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath stone house boasts many period details including pocket doors, stained-glass windows, and box molding in the entrance hall and living room, which Mike Frick tells me still seep coal dust from long ago coal-burning fires. The burnished original floors in the house are oak from old-growth forests. The original carriage house out back was renovated and expanded using, among other things, old stones from a wall that once stood on the property. Two cars are now “stabled” where once a carriage and horse were housed, and there is ample storage up top for what Elise Frick says are some 20 dozen wreaths that decorate lampposts at the holiday season all around the Central Gardens neighborhood.
What struck me about the Frick house unlike many older homes is how open, bright, and airy it feels. This is due to the large front-facing windows in the living room, generously proportioned rooms, high ceilings, and Elise’s minimalist, uncluttered decorative style. Not surprisingly she is an avid practitioner of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, with its credo of “less is more.” Several of the amazing paintings hanging on the walls were gifts from Mike’s parents, among which are several beautiful flower paintings by the late Pennsylvania artist, Sterling Strauser. Lesley Samuels Marks of the Samuels Furniture family was a great help with the home’s interior design for which the Fricks are very grateful.
On a more idiosyncratic note, Elise Frick confessed to me her special love for monkeys, which in turn led husband Mike, quite the joker, to quip, “That’s why she married me!” And yes, monkeys are jumping (figuratively) everywhere in the house, in lamps, chandeliers, and sculptures.
The Fricks are passionate about their neighborhood and are famous for planning and participating in all kinds of local events and celebrations. The annual Central Gardens 4th of July parade is always a highlight of the year’s festivities, and Elise noted that two of our late, great Memphis citizens had key roles in this beloved parade — famed lawyer and wine connoisseur Walter Armstrong Jr. liked shooting off the cannon, while opera diva Marguerite Piazza would sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Frick home was on the Central Gardens Home Tour in September 2007, and several years later the Fricks held a grand 100th birthday party for their house.
Elise Frick is a wonderful cook and holds sway with her talents in the home’s sleek modern kitchen. With its creamy Corian countertops, magnificent professional chef’s gas stove, and long streamlined space, this workplace was a major renovation that has proven to be a great enhancement to the house. The inclusion of several stained-glass windows (which were originally in the living and dining rooms) lend a pretty period accent to the decor. And as everyone who is privileged to be invited to the family’s famous New Year’s Day brunch can attest, casseroles of cheese grits roll nonstop out of this kitchen to the parents’ delight, as their children bounce away on the jumping machine out front.
You might have gathered that the Fricks are very busy people. Mike Frick is president of Bank of America for Memphis and the bank’s commercial bank market executive for Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi. He has served on numerous boards, is a past president of the Central Gardens Neighborhood Association, and is currently the chairman of the Memphis/Shelby County Redevelopment Agency.
In her own right, Elise was for years a radio marketing consultant for FM104.5/The River, and she’s served on the Memphis Landmarks Commission and has volunteered for the Junior League, the Tuesday Study Club, the Central Gardens home tour, and the Church Health Center to name a few. This dedication to community service is something Elise Frick learned at her mother’s knee — that mother being the one and only Florence Leffler, former principal of Central High School and a well-known thespian who has performed both here and in New York.
(Now an octogenarian, Leffler has been quoted as saying, “I just can’t retire from life.” And believe me she has not! She has been a city councilwoman and member of numerous garden clubs, church groups, arts groups, the English Speaking Union — too many organizations to mention. She is an inspiration to us all!)
Elise Frick is understandably proud of her Memphis history. On her paternal side she is a descendant of the prominent Buntyn family that gave their name to the area around Buntyn station at Southern Avenue and Goodwyn. Frick’s great-great-great-grandfather was Geraldus Buntyn who, as payment for his services in the War of 1812, was granted a parcel of land approximately 10 miles east of the city. With his wife, Eliza, he reared eight children and became a very successful corn and cotton planter. Buntyn prospered, bought additional land, and at the time of his death in 1865 owned 40,000 acres. His antebellum home still stands on Goodwyn Street, now occupied by Allen Morgan and his family.
Among the cherished inherited Buntyn family mementos is the charming painting of a woodland scene, one that features a man, a large dog and a young girl riding the dog. (Now, stay with me on this.) It so happens the little girl is Elise’s grandmother, Euzelia Buntyn Rutland Leffler, and the picture was painted by her mother, who was Geraldus Buntyn’s granddaughter.
Elise kindly provided me with copies of newspaper articles relating to her home’s history. I read that its first resident was Harry Cohn, owner of the Dixie Clothing House and American Savings Bank & Trust, who tragically had a fatal heart attack in 1926 in the basement of his bank after finding out two employees had embezzled a great deal of money. One of his daughters, who grew up in the house, later became Mrs. Abe Plough.
As Elise reminisced about her historic house on her beloved, lifelong street, these very famous lines from Dr. Seuss’ first children’s book kept running through my mind: “And this is a story that no one can beat. . . And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street!” Substitute the word “Carr” for “Mulberry,” and you can understand better just what a treasure this home really is.