photography by Andrea Zucker
The wrought-iron front gates with the name “Beverly Hall” embedded in scrollwork seem to jump from the pages of a gothic romance novel. They mark the entrance to this magnificent Colonial Revival mansion, a prized Memphis historic landmark owned by oncologist Benton M. Wheeler and his wife, Denise.
Designed by a Kentucky architect, W.J. Dodd, and built in 1905 by the local firm of Jones and Furbringer in what is now the Central Gardens area, this splendid home was initially christened “Greenwood.” If these walls could talk, there are probably enough stories to fill a book, starting with its first owner, C. Hunter Raine, former president of the Mercantile Bank in Memphis, who confessed to embezzlement as a result of some bad cotton deals and wound up in jail.
The home was then purchased in 1913 by Mrs. Lelia Robinson Boyd, who named it “Beverly Hall” in honor of her paternal grandfather, William Beverly Robinson. In 1934 Martha and Lelia Boyd inherited the place from their mother. Down the road, a succession of doctors and others went on to own the home. Dr. and Mrs. W.R. Cramer bought it in 1950, and 20 years later, Ed Wrenn took possession, although he didn’t really live there much, and the house mostly stood vacant. Then came owners Dr. and Mrs. J.W. Bryant in 1973, Dr. Sam and Julia Patterson in 1978, and Gloria Lowengart in 1997.
Beverly Hall’s present incarnation — and transformation — began in 1999 when Dr. Ben Wheeler purchased the home. He was in the process of actively restoring it when he and Denise were married. It was a clear case of “love me, love my home!” and Denise, who grew up in New Orleans, fortunately had a deep appreciation for older homes and enthusiastically came aboard.
In the course of the initial five-year renovation, Ben transformed virtually the whole place, refinishing all the floors, resurfacing all the plaster walls, installing new wiring, plumbing, heating, and air. He installed a new telephone/intercom system (it’s a PBX — you have to dial 9 to get an outside line!), reglazed almost 800 small panes of glass in the two sunrooms, expanded and modernized closets, and stripped the woodwork of countless coats of paint. The kitchen was redone, and many of the old fixtures and cabinets were retained for possible future use. One bedroom was enlarged to become the master suite.
As you can imagine with a project this large, there were many helpers along the way: artist Wayne Edge, architect David Schuermann of Architecture, Incorporated, interior designer Anthony Shaw, painter extraordinaire Richard Cook, and property manager Rex Youmans. Says Ben, “Cook was incredibly meticulous with stripping paint and giving the woodwork the glorious look and shine it has now. He spent three (count ’em, three!) years at Beverly Hall and did everything except the sunrooms.”
Denise Wheeler says that her husband has very definite decorating ideas. “He collects many things,” she diplomatically states (translation: “he likes tons of stuff”) and this doesn’t seem surprising for a Renaissance man with such wide interests. Ben also likes things “on the large side,” and as a result, a new adjective has been coined to describe his taste — “massified.” Anthony Shaw agrees that large-scale furniture and fittings are required for a baronial home such as Beverly Hall with its 8,000 square feet of living space, 11-foot ceilings, seven fireplaces, and its many oversize rooms.
A hundred people can be seated in the home’s foyer, which literally glows from the light shining through the magnificent yellow, “Tiffany-esque” stained-glass window over the circular staircase. Gigantic potted palms abound in urns and jardinières throughout the house, and they fit perfectly with the home’s early twentieth-century ambiance. All of the rooms have been warmed up with elegant draperies, patterned wallpaper, and countless antique oriental rugs. The tapestry on the living room wall is said to have come from Mark Twain’s estate in Hartford, Connecticut.
Ben’s downstairs study is masculine in feel with its oak paneling, red bamboo Chinese Chippendale stools upholstered in a Scalamandre leopard print and, of course, books galore. The first-floor powder room is supremely sumptuous with golden, fabric-covered walls and gilt mirror and sconces. The sunroom overlooks the east garden and is the place where the family most often gathers.
Upstairs is the master suite and four additional bedrooms, two of which belong to the Wheelers’ two teenage sons. One of the guest rooms is decorated in muted purple and dusty gold colors, which suits Denise just fine since it serves as a tribute to her home state and her devout support of the LSU football Tigers. In contrast, Ben is a University of Kentucky fan, having spent most of his first decade of medical practice in Lexington.
The couple owns three James Hoyle paintings of Hawaii; these have sentimental value because this was where the couple became engaged. Plenty of eclectic touches adorn the spacious home including three sizes of camel bells and guitars propped in a corner, alongside more traditional antiques such as 1820s Baccarat crystal and Chinese rose medallion pieces.
Ben Wheeler is a well-known oenophile in Memphis, so it stands to reason he would have a great wine cellar. And that he does — at least 8,000 bottles of bordeaux and other wines in three specially designed, climate-controlled wooden cabinets.
The Wheelers are supremely generous in lending their home to many groups for a variety of functions, which Denise says “run the gamut from grand events to less grand — from wine tastings to crawfish boils.” Ben is the current president of the Memphis Chamber Music Society and, as a matter of fact, on the afternoon we were photographing the exterior of Beverly Hall, the Wheelers were hosting a concert, with that group playing piano and cello music by Beethoven, Chopin, and Grieg to an appreciative audience.
As for day jobs, Ben Wheeler is a senior partner with the West Clinic, while Denise is a speech therapist attached to Baptist Hospital, as well as a consultant for Arbonne International skincare. But they never seem to be too busy to lend a helping hand to a long list of philanthropies. They are both on this year’s wine committee for the “Memphis Wine and Food Series,” which is the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art’s premier fundraiser, for which this magazine is a participating sponsor. Denise is also a member of the Brooks’ Board of Directors.
In a house of this age and magnitude, there is always work to be done. The Wheelers’ latest project has been a major redo of the hardscape at the rear of the house, which has included building a new pool in the courtyard area and a new brick terrace on the east side. Scott Carr’s company, the Green Group, is doing this work.
Carr is completely in step with the Wheelers’ vision for their property, and his painstaking aim is always to use “2012 technology to create the look and feel of 1905.” He notes that both the brick and limestone used in the new terrace have been reclaimed from elsewhere on the property, and new wrought-iron gates leading to the pool area were built to an old design. The pergola in the pool area was designed to curve to echo the curved wall of the home. Going forward, Carr says the next stage will center on the circular drive in the back, which, among other things, entails removing the central fountain and remounting it on a specially designed limestone base.
Beverly Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places and is unquestionably one of our city’s greatest residential-architecture treasures. But even with all the time, effort, and expense involved in transforming and maintaining it, Ben Wheeler modestly characterizes himself as merely its “caretaker.”
Says Wheeler: “What I’ve really tried to do was ‘refinish’ the house. I’ve always felt that it was wonderful the way it was originally envisioned, and have tried as much as possible to preserve everything that’s there. That’s why we still have light switches instead of sliders for the dimmers as sliders would bring it too much into the present. They were originally push-button switches, but we also don’t have knob-and-tube wiring anymore — one can’t carry on to extremes!”
To this, Denise proudly adds that “so many people” have thanked her husband for his amazing restoration efforts and for breathing new life into the home. Amen to that, and perhaps it’s best that we let her husband have the last word:
“I feel like I’ve inherited a responsibility for Beverly Hall, to do things that maintain the beauty and integrity of the house in a way that lives up to its beginnings. That’s why I’m the caretaker. My philosophy is that while I’m privileged to live there, the house will be here long after I’m gone if it’s taken care of, so it needs to be done right.
“Of course, they’ll be carrying me out in a box at age 96 because I won’t get my money out of it until then, but that’s another story ….”