June West remembers the day she took a call she could hardly believe. As executive director of Memphis Heritage, West was then operating the preservation society out of a South Main art gallery. The caller first asked her to tell him about her organization, and they chatted awhile about mutual Memphis acquaintances. "Then he said, 'I have this house I'm thinking of donating [to Memphis Heritage] as your headquarters,'" recalls West. "We hung up and I thought, could this be for real?" Later, when she drove by the house expecting to find a fixer-upper, she could only say, "This can't be true."
But it was true. The beautiful Italianate-style house at 2282 Madison, which was appraised at $1.3 million after extensive renovations, became the organization's headquarters — for free — in August 2006. Though getting settled is still a work in progress, West says, "It is absolutely perfect for us." An added bonus, she says, was meeting the donor, Hal B. Howard Jr. The only strings attached to his gift were that the house be named Howard Hall in memory of his family and that a couple of rooms be named after other beloved relatives.
The 7,200-square-foot mansion was built in 1912 for local attorney Caruthers Ewing. Howard grew up nearby in a stately home on East Parkway owned by his grandfather, who was good friends with Ewing. In the 1960s, Howard moved away to serve as chairman of T. Rowe Price's New York office, but visited Memphis often. In 1997, he was driving down Madison and noticed the home was for sale — and badly deteriorated. He purchased it, and soon a restoration project began. Though he considered using it as a residence, he still owns the carriage house adjacent to his grandfather's former home and stays there when he returns to his native city four or five times a year. "I decided to donate it," he adds, "because I believe in Memphis Heritage's focus, keeping history intact."
As the organization's headquarters, Howard Hall's original rooms now serve as offices, meeting rooms, a lecture center, board room, and an archive room for the Don Newman photography collection. The house also features a library named after Nash Buckingham, the late outdoorsman and writer who was also Howard's godfather, and a guest suite named after Howard's maternal grandfather, West Crawford.
Though modern conveniences have been added, many lovely details remain: marble fireplaces, acanthus-leaf molding in what was once the living room, subtly hued stained-glass windows. More recent touches to the interior came during the 2006 Design Showcase, when some furniture, wallcoverings, window treatments, and lighting fixtures were donated or loaned. On the home's third floor is a large space that West hopes to use as living quarters for interns.
While the house is well-suited to Memphis Heritage's needs and mission, West says getting to know Howard was the "true gift." She smiles about a phone call she made shortly after he offered her the house. She'd sent a package of information to his New York home and wanted to know if he'd received it. A male voice told her Mr. Howard wasn't in. When she identified herself, the voice said, "Oh, June, this is Hal."
"He'd disguised his voice," she laughs. "Anybody who'd 'fess up after doing that is on my good list."
Howard, who splits his time between New York, Palm Beach, and his birthplace, says: "Memphis is always uppermost in my sentiments."