This year marks Central Garden’s twenty-fifth year as a Historic Overlay District under the jurisdictional protections of the Memphis Landmarks Commission. For this two-part installment, we explore the house demolition that prompted the neighborhood to apply for historic designation, and the controversies that surrounded its application as the final decision was left in the hands of the 1992-93 Memphis City Council.
A House And A City Council At Odds With History, Part I
“If the weather cooperates, it will be gone within the next few days.”
Steven Williamson, owner of Memphis Wrecking Co., was speaking to reporter William Thomas of The Commercial Appeal, on cloudy day in mid-December, 1990, as he watched a bulldozer claw and ram the facade of the three-story, stucco mansion at 1585 Central Avenue.
Just eight years after becoming a landmark district on the National Register of Historic Places, the demolition of the Central Ave mansion was a sobering reminder of the limitations of the National listing, which offered no real local protections against the demolition of individual properties within a historic district.
Jena Gallow, a jogger with tears in her eyes, watched the wrecking crew bring down the 79-year-old landmark. “I don’t understand it. I know an artist who painted a picture of this place. It was beautiful.”
1990 Central Gardens Neighborhood Association president Barbara Vandemark, summed up the neighborhood’s position. “This is a classic example of Memphis losing its history,” she said that day. “That house was a treasure – and if we keep allowing our treasures to be lost, Midtown is going to be nothing more than a skeleton.”
As neighbor after neighbor stopped to watch the methodical, painful destruction, the loss of the historic mansion would become the catalyst for the neighborhood, providing all the reasons they needed in applying for additional zoning and demolition protections under the Memphis Landmarks Commission.
Anne Beaty stopped to watch the demolition as she was taking her morning walk on Central. “It’s the saddest thing. I can’t even look.”
Lawyer Robert Sharpe just watched in disgust. “This is a loss not just to the neighborhood but to the City of Memphis.”
The three-story Mission style mansion at 1585 Central Avenue, known alternately as the J.C. Norfleet, or Norfleet-Fuller House, is listed on the 1981 National Register catalog this way (year in the listing is in error):
It stood in a grove of tall trees on almost three acres. To many, it was a symbol of a bygone era in Memphis. In its heyday, 1585 Central was a showplace.
Johnson and Russell in their Memphis An Architectural Guide described it as “one of the most original and imposing of the houses on Central. The scrolled gables on the top … the narrow arches in the porches… and a central porch dominated by Tuscan columns was out of the architectural vocabulary of ancient Rome. (Of particular strength was) the big third story, with a ballroom inside, that dominate(d) all the architectural activity below.” It sat on almost three acres of land at the southwest corner of Central and Roland, and the house was approached by a sweeping driveway.
“The place was huge,” said Desi Franklin, a local resident. “The dining room walls were lined with very ornate carved wood under a very high ‘chair rail,’ and with built-in wooden glass-fronted cabinetry.” For decades it entertained guests and dignitaries from all over Memphis, and in 1982, it was the Decorator’s Show House. In the late 1980s, it had become a popular venue for parties, weddings, and even as a bed-and-breakfast.
Finally, the owner claimed, the house was not deteriorating; in fact, it was in excellent condition.
Why on earth, then, was it coming down?
One House, One Son
There were once two Norfleet mansions in Midtown. The first, built before the turn of the century, was a Victorian style house at 1164 Union Avenue, on the north side of the avenue at around Waldran Street. That Norfleet house was torn down by the early 1950s as Union Ave was fully transforming into a commercial and commuter corridor. The Union Ave house was built by Frank Marmaduke Norfleet (1846-1921). The second house, at 1585 Central, was built in 1910 (or 1911 according to various records), by Jesse Chambless Norfleet (1854-1927), the younger brother of Frank.
The Norfleets were a wealthy family, having built their fortunes on the cotton trade. The family owned houses on Carr, Cowden and Vinton in addition to the Victorian on Union. Records indicate that Jesse Norfleet was a “commercial traveler” and “traveling salesman” for Hill, Fontain & Co. in Memphis in the 1890s, and after the turn of the century he worked for his brother as a cotton broker for a firm in downtown Memphis.
Jesse married Willie Thompson and the couple had their only child, daughter Ada Thompson, in 1893. Around 1910-11, Jesse had the house at 1585 Central built. But by 1918, with the death of his wife Willie, Mr. Norfleet was a widower.
In 1920 his daughter Ada met a man from Chicago – William Alden Fuller – and the two were married in Virginia. The couple settled back in Chicago and had their only child, son William Thompson Fuller, in 1922. The marriage however, did not last long.
By the time young William was two years old, Ada had taken the toddler to England and Europe and back, arriving back in the United States on the passenger liner Majestic in October, 1924.
Back in Memphis, Ada and young William moved into the mansion at 1585 Central, where Ada took care of her ailing father Jesse, until his death in 1927.
Ada divorced William’s father in the 1920s, but with the family wealth and her status in Memphis’ high society circles she listed herself on the 1930 U.S. Census as a widow. Her insistence on being listed as a widow was somewhat prophetic; William Alden Fuller would pass away in 1934, in Chicago, when young William was only twelve years old.
Through William’s early years and teens, he and his mother Ada spent their summers traveling the world. Records show that he was on the last ship out of Shanghai in 1937 when the Japanese invaded and was touring France in 1939 when the French declared war on Germany.
William went on to spend a 20-year career in the Navy as a pilot and as a member of the admiral’s staff aboard three different U.S. aircraft carriers. He retired in 1964 and spent the rest of his career as the pilot of his own plane, and spent time as a yachtsman.
During these years Ada maintained her role in Memphis society. By all accounts, she was quite a philanthropist. Records indicate that in her 20s she was responsible for founding Memphis’ Crippled Children’s Hospital, and was later listed as president and director of the Memphis Symphony Society. And in 1961, when Luke Eldridge Wright was feverishly raising money to save the Victorian Village from being bulldozed, Ada stepped in and wrote a check for the final $10,000 needed to keep the historic block from being demolished, helping Memphis to one of its first efforts at historic preservation.
From her home at 1585 Central, one of the most “original and imposing of the houses on Central,” Ada employed a maid, four white-gloved servants, and a chauffeur during the house’s heyday. She entertained congressman and mayors and leaders in finance and industry in the house, where from the sweeping driveway off Central, “guests arriving for balls were accommodated two carriages at a time at the entrance porch. Each end of the porch had built-in stone steps at proper height” to meet the feet of the disembarking carriage passengers.
In March of 1979, Ada Thompson Norfleet Fuller passed away, leaving William Fuller as her only surviving heir, and leaving the house on Central Avenue without an occupant for the first time in its history.
Before she died, Ada had asked William to make her a promise.
Having witnessed the struggles to save the mansions in Victorian Village, and during a late-’70s era when the preservationist movement in Memphis was still developing, she knew what might happen to a house the size of hers without the adequate financial resources. She feared it might become another story of a house lost to history. She asked her only son to promise he would never allow the house to fall into disrepair.
William did his best to fulfill that promise. It would prove to be a challenge, however, as he and his wife lived in East Memphis. And the large Central Ave house, sitting on 2.8 acres of land in Central Gardens, was expensive to maintain.
“There’s nothing historic about the house”
Through the 1980s the now-retired William T. Fuller, in order to help compensate for the maintenance of the house, began renting it out for parties and weddings. As a wedding and reception venue in particular it proved to be a success, and many Midtown residents have fond memories of witnessing wedding vows or attending receptions on the grounds of and inside the landmark mansion.
Tina Williams, another Central Gardens resident who watched part of its demolition, said “I went to a wedding reception here once; I knew Mrs. Fuller’s granddaughter.”
But with over two acres of landscaping and three stories of ornate decor, keeping the house maintained as an event venue alone proved to be too much of an expense. In the late ‘80s the Fullers began renting it out as a bed-and-breakfast inn.
And that, as reported by William Thomas and his articles in 1990 for The Commercial Appeal, is how the trouble started.
“In 1988, city officials acting on complaints from neighborhood residents barred the Fullers from using the house for commercial purposes. The area is zoned residential – not commercial – and the Fullers didn’t have business licenses.”
After the city refused to grant him permission to run it as a B&B, William Fuller said he couldn’t afford to maintain it. He reflected on the promise he had made to his mother. He said he feared subsequent owners would let the house deteriorate slowly over the years.
With that, in August of 1990, he decided to have it demolished.
Later Mr. Fuller said that the decision had not been made to spite Central Gardens and their fight with him over the use of the house. But there was bitterness in his comments to The CA that summer, as he reflected on the life of the house and as he began to salvage its contents:
“The doors, windows and parts of the roof have already been sold,” he said that August. “There’s nothing historic about the house. There’s nothing historic about the district, either. If you stand in the front yard, all you can see are townhouses.”
Neighbors wanted to see the house preserved as a one-family dwelling. But Fuller said he didn’t know what would be built in its place. “That’s up to the bank and my children to figure out.”
Months later, watching the destruction on that December morning, lawyer Robert Sharpe had gone from disgusted to angry. “Personally, I think this whole thing is about money, which is what most things are about these days.”
Other neighbors who walked by that morning shared some of the same sentiments. Some shook their heads. Some wept.
“We need to prevent something like this from happening again…”
In lamenting the loss of the historic house, Central Gardens board members went on to seek historic zoning laws to prevent the kind of destruction they had witnessed.
Barbara Vandemark, 1990 president of the Central Gardens Area Association, said “We never considered that anyone would tear down a home in a neighborhood like this. … we need to take a look at what we can do to prevent something like this from happening again. It’s a tragedy each time we lose another irreplaceable house because they are gone forever.”
A little over a year later, in the winter of 1991-92, neighborhood leaders filed the application to become a historic conservation district under the Memphis Landmarks Commission.
The application, as required by the city’s ordinance governing landmarks, would go before the Landmarks Commission and, if approved, to the Land Use Control Board and then on to City Council for the final, decisive vote that would put historic zoning into legislation.
In the spring of 1992, the application was approved by both the Landmarks and Land Use commissions. But when it reached City Council for the decisive vote, in August of that year, it was voted down.
Residents were stunned. In the middle of a three-year dispute pitting the Landmarks Commission against a City Council that felt the commission was dominated by historic preservation purists who were impeding redevelopment of historic districts, the council used the Central Gardens vote to draw a line in the sand.
The vote raised many concerns, and put into question the future status of the neighborhood as historic district. “We’ve really got a fight on our hands now,” said one Midtown neighborhood representative. It would be another eight months before any of those questions or concerns would be addressed. Two and a half years after watching the demolition of the house at 1585 Central, the neighborhood was facing yet another hurdle in the battle for historic preservation.
Back in December of 1990, William T. Fuller returned to 1585 Central, looking over the rubble of the house that been in his family for 80 years, perhaps with questions of his own.
“The house was like a loyal old dog that you love but have to put to sleep,” he said to The Commercial Appeal. “You don’t want to see it go, but you can’t stand to see it suffer.”
Fuller and his wife Mary paused to reflect on the good times. “She brought our baby home there, we celebrated many Christmases there and sang Jingle Bells every year. My daughter’s wedding reception was there.
“Before we left, we said a little prayer in our old bedroom and thanked the house for all the good times we shared there,” he said. “This whole experience has been quite depressing.”
The house gone, Mr. Fuller’s battle with the neighborhood was now over. The neighborhood’s battle with the City Council was just beginning.
Visit StoryBoard Memphis next month for Part II.
A version of this story also appears in The Central Gardens Newsletter.
William T. Fuller and his wife Mary moved to Boca Raton, FL in 2006. Mr. Fuller passed away in 2009.
Dave Hirschman’s and William Thomas’ reporting for The Commercial Appeal in 1990 were referenced in this article.
Information for the Norfleet family were gathered from Ancestry.com and other sources.