This is a story about a building — a very special apartment building at 1895 Linden in Central Gardens. Nancy Willis has been the proud owner of the place since 1979, but the back story is a doozy. The building was designed by George Mahan and J.J. Broadwell, members of a prestigious Memphis architectural firm, in 1915-16 for Memphis banker J. Alma Goodman. For Mr. Goodman, this was an investment property, as he and his wife lived nearby on Snowden Circle — now part of the Annesdale Snowden Historic District. The earliest residents of the rental were doctors who lived in three of the apartments, with the fourth unit housing the staff who cooked in the building’s only kitchen, and otherwise took care of these distinguished gentlemen.
Through the ensuing years of course there were other owners and a variety of tenants, but in 1954 the story gets even more interesting. That’s when 1895 Linden was turned into a unique urban family compound, one that came to be known as the Strong-Fulenwider house. The Memphis Press-Scimitar wrote all about it, describing this unique arrangement by which three sets of cousins (ten people in all and four different generations of relatives) moved in together, with each family having its own apartment. The fourth apartment was a community dining room, kitchen, recreation room, den, and television room. Everyone dressed for dinner and ate together attended to by a host of loyal staff.
The Fulenwider family owned the National Pressed Steel Roofing Company, and they boasted a somewhat complicated family tree (as a Fulenwider married a distant Fulenwider relative along the line), but the heads of the clan were the well-respected Memphians Mr. and Mrs. Julian Fulenwider. The building was especially famous as well for its swimming pool which at the time was the only pool in Midtown and the scene of countless birthday parties through the years.
“I am going to own that building one day.”
I knew a bit about this family’s interesting lifestyle because I had gone to kindergarten with Joan Fulenwider at Miss Hutchison’s School (now The Hutchison School) which was once located at 1925 Union — just up a long driveway across from 1895 Linden. Then by complete coincidence, I recently have gotten to know Joan’s sister, Leslie Fulenwider Key, and, after beginning work on this story, I could not wait to introduce her to the building’s now longtime owner Nancy Willis. And so it was that last spring the three of us had a rollicking lunch together at the University Club with Leslie entertaining us with her incredible recollections of life as a great-granddaughter in the “family commune.”
But first, let’s look at how Nancy Willis came to purchase this storied building some 35 years ago. Trained as a nurse in Virginia, Nancy moved to Memphis on account of our large medical center. She first lived in an apartment on McLean, but when she walked her dogs, she made a point of detouring by 1895 Linden. The place reminded her of New York brownstones and other “big city” dwellings, and she would say to herself, “I am going to own that building one day.”
Interestingly enough, this wasn’t such a stretch because Willis was in the business of buying, fixing up, and selling houses in addition to her blossoming career at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and the Regional Medical Center (now Regional One South), where she spent many years as director of education and later as vice-president.
After purchasing the Linden property in 1979, Willis made extensive renovations, working with outstanding contractor Sam Stephenson Jr. All four units were renovated, and she changed the floor plan for her own apartment as a result of taking in one and a half units.
Originally the fourth apartment was a community dining room. Everyone dressed for dinner and ate together, attended to by a host of loyal staff.
The building’s foyer was transformed with fine moldings, marble flooring, and specialty finishes. Bringing back the swimming pool to its former glory was a major ordeal as, among other things, it had accumulated tons of garbage over the years. Today, the pool is once again the heart of the back courtyard. There are also four garage spaces for tenants, a handy plus in such a busy neighborhood.
Willis describes her taste in furniture as eclectic. For her own apartment, she has used a lot of mirrors to reflect the light and make the space look larger than it is. She loves art and has seven works by Mary Sims, as well as others by local artists including Maysey Craddock, Valerie Berlin, and Nancy Cheairs. Willis points out some favorite important pieces, including a heart-of-pine chest, on top of which are three pieces of porcelain made by Booths of England for Tiffany & Co., New York, as well as an antique tapestry chair beside the chest. Her dining room is designed around a “draw-leaf” table (specially made in England) meaning that its additional leaves can be drawn from underneath for large dinner parties. There is also an early limited-edition breakfront from Henredon made of solid maple, with walnut and yew veneers, boxwood and ebony inlays, and a hand-painted credenza with hand-crafted moldings imported from Italy.
One of Willis’ tenants is the talented actress Carla McDonald, who not long ago played Mama Rose in Playhouse on the Square’s production of Gypsy and starred there in the recent hit, Mary Poppins. The aforementioned Memphis artist Maysey Craddock also lives in the building. The third resident is Kim Smith. In the true historical spirit of the building, they have all become close friends. Willis loves to cook and entertain, and holds sway in her refurbished, original St. Charles Kitchen. There are shelves of cookbooks, and she is known far and wide for her dinner parties. Her second love is gardening, and the garden at 1895 Linden is beautiful once again, with its lush lace-cap hydrangeas and blue and white agapanthus. Believe it or not, even with all this activity, Nancy has made time to serve as the Decorative Arts Trust’s president (three times) and Playhouse on the Square, and has served as president of the Central Gardens Association for two separate terms. She is a powerhouse, a friend to many, and surely the busiest person I know.
While it was once a “family place” during the Fulenwider years, Willis says that to her mind her building “still is just such a place, as her tenants are like her family.” For Nancy, some of the happiest days are “when the windows are open and Carla is rehearsing a new script.”
Nancy Willis believes this is an ideal way to live — privacy if and when desired, and cocktails in the courtyard when the mood dictates. “In essence, it’s more than just a house; it’s a lifestyle.”