Photography by Rick Bostick
Add one more innovation to Memphis' illustrious list of firsts. We can claim the first self-service grocery store (Piggly Wiggly), the first family-friendly hotel chain (Holiday Inn), the first international overnight delivery service (FedEx), and, although arguably, rock-and-roll music. But in the early 1900s, long before Elvis recorded the famous song about a stuffed animal, Memphis played a role in the creation of the first "Teddy Bear."
In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt came to Memphis to visit his good friend Luke Edward Wright — a decorated Confederate Civil War soldier, Tennessee Attorney General, first Civil Governor of the Philippines (yet another first for Memphis), 43rd United States Secretary of War, and the first (yet another) United States Ambassador to Japan. Wright and his wife, Katherine Middleton Semmes Wright, who was partly responsible for the planting of the Japanese cherry trees in Washington, D.C., following the year she lived with her husband in Tokyo, entertained the president at their grand Italianate mansion at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Orleans Street. At the time, the neighborhood — Memphis' first suburb — that we know as Victorian Village was previously dubbed "Millionaire's Row." And not without reason: The streets were lined with large, beautiful homes owned by bankers, politicians, cotton merchants, shipping and railroad tycoons, and other people of great wealth. According to Luke Edward Wright's great-grandson Eldridge Wright, a semi-retired interior designer who still lives in the neighborhood, "There was a great to-do over President Roosevelt's visit to the house for dinner. They took all of the flat silver and had it gold-plated for him," he chuckles. "It was all a big fuss."
Part of the publicity surrounding Roosevelt's trip came about when he, Wright, and other gentlemen went bear hunting in Mississippi. As the story goes, they were having no luck finding any animals, so someone trapped an old bear and tied it to a tree, but Roosevelt refused to shoot the captive animal. When the tale got out, a shopkeeper put two toy stuffed bears in his shop window and advertised them as "Teddy's Bears." The rest, as they say, is history.
A half century later, urban renewal claimed Wright's storied mansion (President William Howard Taft, Admiral George Dewey, and other notable figures had also stayed there), when it was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the widening of Jefferson Avenue. However, much as the memories are still alive, so is one last vestige of the home: the Wright Carriage House, which formerly stood behind the original home. Built sometime in the 1840s as a farmhouse (no one remembers the exact date or the names of the original owners), the structure was converted by Luke Edward Wright to his mansion's carriage house. Years later, before the mansion's demolition, his descendant, Eldridge Wright purchased both buildings and began restoration.
"Someone of not much interest had owned the homes and the large house had been chopped up into tiny apartments," the 83-year-old Wright explains, sitting in his handsome Victorian Village residence surrounded by beautiful antiques, paintings, and other elegant furnishings, including a large Japanese Satsuma urn that was given to his great-grandfather by the emperor of Japan more than 100 years ago. Over the years, Luke E. Wright's once-stunning mansion had deteriorated so badly that in 1965, the Memphis Housing Authority purchased it for $46,296, classing it substandard and planning to tear it down. But when Eldridge Wright learned about that, he talked MHA into selling it to him to restore as a Memphis landmark.
"I'd rather be tarred and feathered than to make a speech," Wright says, "but I was watching all of the demolition of those beautiful houses when Memphis was ruining everything for urban renewal, so I got a group together and went to the Memphis City Council and we made a strong statement. That was the impetus for eventually saving much of Victorian Village."
But for all Wright's wrangling with the city, the house was demolished anyway. "It was all mixed up in government, and you know how that goes," he says.
He was, however, able to save the carriage house. When the original home was razed, he took the bricks from it and built a thick wall around it that stands between 10 and 12 feet tall. He restored the rustic carriage house and landscaped the walled-in lawn "with my own two hands," he says. "It was a very laborious task." Wright lived in the house for about a year, until purchasing the home whe
re he lives today, which he says was a tenement house at the time, crowded with families living in each room "with stoves and ice boxes."
After a succession of owners, including, most recently, attorney Richard Fields, the Wright Carriage House became available for sale and realtor Dave Lorrison, of Sowell & Company, perked right up. "I had been looking for a unique, historic property for a client," says Lorrison, "and when I saw this I knew it was absolutely perfect for him."
That client — Nashville native but 20-year Memphis resident Carl Tisdal, 40, who sells medical devices when not hunting for old houses — bought the carriage house in December last year before it was actually listed.
"I am a vintage junkie," he laughs, "but I never thought I would own something like this. I've always loved historic properties, say from the 1920s and 1930s, but this was just unbelievable to me. I wanted a 'bachelor retreat' and this fits all of the criteria I was looking for. It's not too big, just under 2,000 square feet, it has beautiful, private grounds, and I can watch the sunset over Downtown from the rooftop patio. It's just surreal to me."
For Lorrison, matching Tisdal with the Wright Carriage House was something of an emotional experience. "It's very rare," he says, "to find someone with such passion about architecture and history and to be looking for something so special and to actually make that happen. Some people buy homes just for function or location and it can be a cold transaction. But to see someone fall so in love with a home like this and be able to help him acquire it is something I don't think either of us will ever forget."
While the structure is, as Tisdal puts it, "a high-end property like you don't find anywhere else," the carriage house is not what you would call fancy. Because it was a farmhouse and then carriage house and because of its age, it doesn't feature the frills and gilding of many of the surrounding Victorian mansions. The downstairs consists of a large living room, small dining room, one bathroom, and a galley-style kitchen, which Eldridge Wright added when he restored the house. The floors are oak planks that Wright had installed and the woodwork is cypress.
The upstairs includes a master bedroom, den, and a bathroom with a marble column sink stand and copper sink with a faucet and handles in the shape of tiny swans. The downstairs living room and dining room and the upstairs bedroom and den all have fireplaces. Throughout, the house has octagonal, decorative windows, built-in bookcases and closets, and other distinctive features, some of which are original and some of which Eldridge Wright and other owners added over the years. Just off the upstairs den is an accessible extension of the roof, which Tisdal plans to either fence or wall in to make his rooftop patio and official place to relax and entertain.
But when you enter the premises through a large brown and copper door the same height as the ivy-covered wall that seems to separate the house from the rest of the world, the grounds themselves transport you to another place and time.
Stacked-stone flowerbed borders and winding stone and gravel pathways swirl like secret alleys among the beautiful Southern jungle of huge azalea bushes, magnolia trees, hydrangeas, tulips, irises, peonies, American holly bushes, English boxwoods, fern gardens, evergreens, more climbing ivy and other vines, Japanese maple trees, ash trees, wisteria, dogwood trees — the list goes on and on. The grounds are lavish — not in the over-the-top and expensive way as with large new homes. They are simply the matured version of Wright's vision, a breathtaking labor of love that he is happy Tisdal will keep intact and take care of from now on.
At the rear of the la
wn sits one other structure: a gazebo with a 20-foot inlaid cypress and hand-forged copper roof designed to match the 15-foot copper cupola that rises from the roof of the carriage house. Eldridge Wright also had this designed and added to the grounds during his restoration of the property. And adjacent to the house is a large, inlaid brick patio covered by a canopy. Everything here is designed for privacy, comfort, peace, and calm — and it works.
Tisdal says he also plans to incorporate his Wright Carriage House as a Limited Liability Company (LLC) within the guidelines of the National Register of Historic Places, making it available for fund-raisers, weddings, parties, and other events. "We've already had one fund-raiser here, something for the Pinch District," he says, "with poetry readings and an art exhibit, and it worked out really well."
Eventually, Tisdal plans to add a small kink to this utopian lifestyle and become more of a Victorian Village activist and developer. He and Eldridge Wright share the vision that some of the lower-end apartment complexes that replaced the old mansions along Adams and Jefferson — courtesy of 1960s urban renewal — should be scrapped and replaced with garden-style row houses or other single-family dwellings that blend with the rest of the otherwise stately neighborhood. "I love the fact that they call these things 'garden apartments,'" Wright quips. "I think we could do better than that." He adds that he is very happy with the work being done by Scott Blake, who also lives in Victorian Village and serves as executive director of the Victorian Village, Inc. Community Development Corporation.
Tisdal, too, appreciates Blake's work and his vision for the area. "Scott and I think these new homes that fit with the neighborhood might be attractive to our neighbors who work in the nearby medical center," says Tisdal. "But we don't want anything that looks modern and I'll be curious to see how Victorian Village can stay true. All of this feels very much like New Orleans to me, but it is Memphis and we want Memphians to know why we are here. In the meantime, I just want to entertain my friends here at the carriage house and hope they enjoy it as much as I do."