Photos by Brandon Dill
Jamie and Leigh Davis relax on the front porch of the old hotel that has served as their home.
I f you’ve ever taken a walk or drive down Pontotoc Avenue downtown, you’ve probably seen the Hotel Pontotoc. Marked by a rusted, aging metal sign out front bearing its name, the towering gray fortress is both conspicuous and not — almost hidden amid development in the stretch between Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken on Front Street and Pearl’s Oyster House on South Main. Built in 1906 and known as one of the city’s most elegant and popular bordellos, the Pontotoc has a colorful history. The former hotel, now private home, has been occupied by Leigh Davis — a downtown pioneer in her own right — for more than 30 years. She recently allowed us a glimpse inside and shared what it’s been like living in one of the city’s more unusual historic buildings.
Sitting on a comfy couch in the quiet, cool Pontotoc basement — underground, dimly lit with white string-lights, a few lamps and candles, and just a sliver of sunlight creeping in through the front-door glass — Leigh tells me how she and her ex-husband, Terry Davis, came to find the Hotel Pontotoc. Fans are humming, creating a constant light breeze, which catches her wavy, brownish-blonde hair. She’s soft-spoken and petite, somehow made smaller in the context of the enormous, 10,000-square-foot hotel in which she and her son Jamie live.
The two floors above us originally had 18 bedrooms and nine bathrooms. Little has been changed with the exception of tearing down a few walls and a section of second-story floor to make way for the open, two-story garden room. Many of the hotel-room doors that remain still have their original brass numbers on them. At some point there must have been 30 rooms total because in the basement, two doors are still adorned with the 26 and the 30.
“Sometimes I have this vision of myself, like a bird’s-eye view, and I am this little woman on this sofa,” Leigh says, “and going over downtown Memphis, there’s all this stuff going on around me. Beale Street’s three blocks that way. During Memphis in May, at the height of it all, I can be in this room — cool, comfortable — all that can be going on outside, and I don’t even hear it. It’s quiet here. It almost doesn’t gel, but that’s what makes it so cool.”
In 1980 when Leigh was just 30, she and Terry decided to make downtown Memphis their home. The area wasn’t what it is today. Before The Peabody hotel and Orpheum Theatre were restored and reopened in 1981 and 1984, respectively, downtown’s streets were much quieter. And apart from being home to a largely deserted Central Station, South Main was an all but abandoned strip of empty, boarded-up buildings. As they searched for a property — one where they could build a recording studio and comfortably live and raise a family — they scoured every downtown street and toured nearly every building on South Main before driving down Pontotoc Avenue from Front to Main.
If these walls could talk
There the Davises found the two-story, raised-basement building, which was then being operated as a nightclub — The Cellar Club — on the lower level. The words “Drinkin’ and Dancin’ Nightly, Open Now 10 a.m. Until” had been not-so-neatly slapped on the building’s front wall with a paintbrush; a rainbow was painted on the west wall near the basement entrance. A sign on the front door read “Under Renovation — For Rent.”
The underground nightclub had been open for about 10 months the first time that they stepped inside in June 1980. The interior was black. “Black-light posters of the zodiac sexual positions were hung on the walls,” Leigh says with a laugh. “And everything that was painted was Day-Glo — bright orange, red, green, and blue.”
In the center of the room was a raised stage and a checkered-tile dance floor (both of which remain today). Red vinyl booths lined the wall. Where a dining table now stands was a bar and a coin-operated Coca-Cola cooler filled with beer. The basement hallway was deep blue, and Leigh recalls how someone must have thrown flecks of glitter onto the paint before it dried. “The ceiling was covered with glitter. It was wild! And that’s what we came into,” she says.
But they came into much more than that, and over the years, they’d uncover bits of the hotel’s history. Though early records list the Pontotoc as a boarding house, it is believed that from 1906 until (at least) the late 1920s, it served as a luxurious bordello, complete with Turkish baths.
In 1929, Dionysos (Dan) Touliatos bought the property and turned it into a family hotel. He, his wife, and their two children (one of whom was born inside the Hotel Pontotoc) lived there. Leigh recounts stories told to her by a man she called “Mr. Melos,” a Greek who owned the old Melos Taverna in Overton Square and a Touliatos family friend.
“He said this was the social gathering place for Greeks in Memphis. They came to visit the Touliatoses and would sit and drink ouzo,” she says. “They loved the Hotel Pontotoc, so it was established early on as a fun place, as a place where you could relax.”
While the Touliatos family occupied the Pontotoc, it also became a place where actors and vaudeville players performing at the nearby Orpheum and other local theatres would stay. The eldest Touliatos son — George, an actor and director — became a pioneer in the regional theatre movement and founded the Front Street Theatre in 1958, which hosted actors the likes of George Hearn, Macon McCalman, Carrie Nye, Barbara Cason, Dixie Carter, Rita Gam, and Dana Ivey. Whether any of them stayed at the Pontotoc is unknown.
The Pontotoc was also a temporary home to Mexican artist Dionicio Rodriguez, who came to Memphis in the early 1930s to beautify Memorial Park Cemetery. During the eight or so years he worked at Memorial Park creating the Crystal Shrine Grotto — a handmade cavern constructed of rock quartz crystal and semiprecious stones — and several on-site sculptures, Rodriguez lived at the Hotel Pontotoc.
“The Smythe family brought Dionicio here from Mexico,” Leigh says. “I once ran into Ham Smythe in Midtown. He remembered some of the stories with Dionicio and the Pontotoc. I suppose this was the odd sort of place where they could put up a longtime resident.”
Leigh laughs as she tells me she’s yet to find one of Rodriguez’s precious stones. “Any time I was uncovering something,” she says, “I’ve always wondered, are crystals going to fall out?”
As for Pontotoc tall tales, there are many, some perhaps even true. One involves Elvis Presley. In a mid-Nineties clip of the CBS Evening News celebrating Elvis Week, Dan Rather referred to the Pontotoc as “the place where Elvis allegedly first made love.” Leigh has seen that story mentioned elsewhere, in various print articles through the years. Seeing as how the hotel was purportedly a bordello in its heyday, this very well could be true. Just in case, she has kept one of the hotel’s original iron beds.
The Davises, of course, made their own imprint on the Pontotoc. Leigh and Terry got married there, in what was then a recording studio in the basement, in front of 100 guests on July 4, 1981. The Randy Band performed. It also happened to be the day of the first-ever July 4th celebration in Tom Lee Park. Because of that, the street was busier than usual, and Leigh remembers the strange looks her wedding crowd got from passersby. “It was fun to look at the crowd looking up at us going, ‘What is this place, and who are those people?’ But I still get much of the same,” she says.
In the 1980s, the Davises hosted some of the city’s biggest, wildest Halloween parties. So big that Memphis magazine observed (in our October 1984 issue) how difficult it was to get an invite to one. “I still run into people today who say, ‘I was at your Halloween party!’ They were fabulous,” she says. “We always had the best bands, and [the place] was always packed like sardines.”
South Main pioneers
The Davises moved to 69 Pontotoc at a time when, for many people, “south of Beale Street wasn’t even considered” livable, Leigh says. “But The Peabody was getting ready to reopen, and we just had faith in downtown. Terry jumped right on board, which was part of what attracted us to each other. We were adventurers.”
Leigh and Terry became the first non-business residents in the South Main Street Historic District. But it wasn’t until a year or two later, after Annie Mahaffey and Robert McGowan moved into a property on South Main, that the district would be established as such. (Among other urban pioneers of the period, Memphis magazine moved its offices to the South Main district in December 1982.)
To attract more people to the area, Mahaffey, McGowan, Leigh, and a handful of others formed what is known today as the South Main Street Historic District. “Annie was the first president, and I was the first vice president,” Leigh says. “Then we started having tours.”
The first South Main tours were held in the Pontotoc’s basement. They had worked with a videographer to produce a short film, It’s Still Main Street, which consisted of shots of some of the area’s beautiful, unused buildings, accompanied by Memphis-centric music. It played on a loop for the tourists and locals who stopped in. Often, elderly men who had “patronized” the Pontotoc in their youth came by, curious to see what had become of the building.
“This is where I learned some of the history of the Pontotoc. From the old-timers,” says Leigh. “One came in and said, ‘This was a fine bordello. They had pretty, pretty girls, but I only know because . . . and his wife said, ‘He delivered papers here.’ And he said, ‘Yep, I only know because I delivered papers here.’”
With the tours, they hoped to attract more owner-occupants to South Main. Properties were affordable and perfect for owner-occupancy since many of the buildings were two-story and ideal for operating a business on the lower level and living upstairs. “The problem was that the banks weren’t lending a penny on anything down here,” says Leigh. “That lasted for more than a decade. It was in the Nineties before it started loosening up, and by that time, developers had really gotten a sniff of it.”
Upstairs is the sun-lit, two-story garden room — Leigh calls it "bohemian" — filled with the family's art and antique treasures. The large painted panels originally came from The Peabody.
Growing up with the neighborhood
The Hotel Pontotoc, with its many rooms and rich history, is the only home Jamie Davis has ever known. Leigh and Terry brought him there from the hospital as a newborn in 1983, and he’s lived there since. Jamie, like his father, is a musician. Today, he plays bass with local bands Zigadoo Moneyclips and Hi-Way Hi-Fi, and drums with Blue Chips, Goldstar Kindergarten, and Moses Crouch.
He attributes much of his love for music to having lived in the Pontotoc’s creative and musical environment. “Growing up in this place, having the studio downstairs and constantly being around music, that was definitely a shaping factor,” he says. In more recent years, Jamie has taken over the Pontotoc’s party reins, hosting Halloween and New Year’s shindigs for a new generation.
As one could imagine, growing up in an expansive old hotel has been a unique experience.“It’s definitely big, and it seemed even bigger when I was a kid,” Jamie says. Regarding what must have been an ideal place for hide-and-seek, he says, “I remember exploring and playing games with my friends, and it was like a giant playground.”
Much of downtown became his playground, too. When he was just 4 years old, he’d ride his tricycle beside his mother as she walked down to Beale Street to meet friends for lunch at Ronnie Grisanti’s. As a teenager, you’d find him biking South Main or sneaking into and investigating some of the street’s abandoned buildings. “I used to go through old buildings a lot when I was younger, especially with my friends,” Jamie says. “We’d find which ones we could get into and look around, see if we could get up to the roof and see what the view was like.”
As for views, not much beats a sunset on the Mississippi River, and with the bluff just two blocks west of home, Jamie’s seen many. He’s also watched the neighborhood change and grow alongside him. The emergence of the trolley cars in 1993 and new area restaurants, bars, and retail shops opening over the years have drawn more and more people downtown.
But Jamie recalls a time when the Pontotoc was much more isolated. “I remember playing soccer with my friends on Pontotoc Avenue,” he says, “and if the ball would roll out into Main Street, you’d hardly think to look both ways because there just wasn’t going to be a car coming.”
Much has changed in the neighborhood, but the Pontotoc still stands strong, a true piece of Memphis history. And Jamie is proud to have been a part of it. “It has definitely been unique, and I wouldn’t want to trade it for anything else.”
The secret garden
Standing in front of the Pontotoc, it’s not uncommon to see passersby stop and take photos of the building, sometimes even trying to climb the broken staircase in front — it’s covered with honeysuckle and layers of green leaves and purple vinca in the spring — to get a picture on the porch of this seemingly empty, almost spooky-looking historic landmark. But if one were to pay closer attention, there are tell-tale signs that someone lives there: cars in the driveway and what Leigh calls her “secret garden” on the building’s west side.
Loki, the Davis family dog, peeks through an upstairs window of the historic Hotel Pontotoc.
A gravel lot when they moved in, apart from a fig tree likely planted by one of the Pontotoc’s previous Greek owners, Leigh has transformed the side yard into a little garden oasis. She had topsoil and manure brought over in trucks to get started many years ago. Today, 13 trees — oak, cedar, catalpa, holly, redbud, tulip poplar — stand tall, their sprawled branches and hanging leaves providing a canopy of greenery and shade. Rose of Sharon, columbine, wild Louisiana iris, wisteria, hydrangeas, hostas, ferns, jasmine, and roses bloom with the seasons.
“I’ve had many different varieties in the garden, but as the trees grew and things changed with nearby development, I don’t have much sun back here anymore,” says Leigh. “Still, it has morphed into a small forest.”
Standing on the raised deck overlooking the garden, Leigh says, “Sometimes it’s like being in Eads. All you hear are birds singing. It’s an incredibly private little place right in the center of downtown.”
Ghosts of the past
No story about the Pontotoc is complete without mention of ghosts. If you Google “Hotel Pontotoc,” much of what comes up are haunted Memphis ghost tour webpages and alleged ghost stories. The hotel was a stop on local ghost tours for a while before Leigh heard them talking about demons pestering the woman who lived there, and she had to set the record straight.
In the early years, she admits to feeling “a little creepy” in the dark and maybe seeing a shadowy figure out of the corner of her eye a time or two, but nothing has ever made her feel afraid. “There’s so much that went on here, I don’t discount that there could be some spirits here,” says Leigh. “But the feeling I have is that I’m protected by them in a way. I’ve been here 30 years. They’re cool with me, and they know that, I guess, if it wasn’t for me, this place would have probably been torn down and turned into condos like next door. The energy is positive. But the spirits just don’t find any way to give me any money,” she laughs.
As for ghost stories, only one may have real merit. As the story goes, a man named Sidney, who lived next door to the Pontotoc, had been the hotel’s caretaker, “bringing in the coal,” Leigh says. It is believed that he died in a fire in the boiler room. According to a 2008 blurb in Memphis Downtowner, a 1947 death certificate lists a man named Sidney who lived at 305 S. Front and died “about home” as the result of an accident in which his “clothes caught fire.”
Leigh says, though, “There’s no smell of burning flesh as some of the tour guides have said. And there’s no crying girl.” She’s also heard that the reason the top floor hasn’t been renovated is because the haunting spirits up there will not allow them to touch it. “Where do they get these stories?” she asks. “There may be spirits here, but they’re all very kind.”
If ghosts occupy the hotel (as some say), perhaps they have strolled along this long hallway, which leads toward the former lobby.
The future of the Pontotoc
Looking forward, Leigh’s dream for the Pontotoc’s future isn’t far from the one she and her husband had when they bought the place in 1980. Back then, Terry was a musician and an audio/video technician, and they set up a recording studio where several local artists recorded during the Eighties. Tons of bands played their Halloween and New Year’s parties. “It was always about home and music,” Leigh says.
They had big plans to renovate the second floor and replace all of the old windows, and as they were working, Leigh says, “We thought, ‘Oh, we’ll be through with this in a year!’ When you’re young and inspired, you have a lot of ambition and think you can do anything. But it’s a big place, and it’s expensive.”
The old building definitely needs some love. And Leigh would like to be able to open it to the public. She isn’t interested in selling, but wouldn’t mind someone helping to show her the way. She envisions opening the basement floor as an intimate live music venue, maybe even live streaming shows to a larger audience online. She wants to redo the rooms on the upper level and open it as an Airbnb. “I’d like to be able to rent those rooms out,” Leigh says. “It’s a great place to stay, and I think it’d be pretty well booked.
“It has always been a very creative place. It has great karma,” she says, “and I’d like to share it.”