Parlor_2 James Lee House
Preservation Magazine, Winter 2020

A Memphis Couple Turns a Quirky Building Into a Home and B&B

With the restoration of the James Lee House, José and Jennifer Velázquez realized their longtime dream

From our interview with Jose Velázquez:

The summer after Jennifer and I got married in 1990, we stayed at the Swift House Inn, a fabulous historic bed-and-breakfast in Middlebury, Vermont. We looked at each other and said, “When we grow up, we’re going to do this.” Over the following years, wherever we landed for work, we would seek an old home that might fit the bill.

We moved to Memphis in 1998 for Jennifer’s work and started looking for old houses. There were many times when we thought, “This is never going to happen.”

But in 2011, a friend of ours contacted me and said, “José, I’m not sure if you’re still wanting to do that B&B thing, but if you are, I think I’ve found you the place.” And it turned out that it was.

The house had been deeded to the city in 1929 by its owners, the James Lee family. It held an art school, which later became the Memphis College of Art, from 1929 to 1959. When the school moved out, the building was leased to a nonprofit, the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities (APTA). APTA leased our house and the one next door, the Woodruff-Fontaine House, which it restored and opened as a museum.

Unfortunately, it was never able to do the same with this one. But at least once a year volunteers would come in here and clean it out. They kept any architectural features that had fallen off, in the hope that the house would be restored.

When the lease came up in 2011, the city decided it was going to try something else. It put out a national request for proposals for developers to submit their vision for the rehabilitation of the house, which is also on the National Register. I’m pretty sure we were the only crazy people proposing to restore the house to its original grandeur as a single-family residence and to have five guest rooms to use as a traditional B&B. We got approval from the city to move forward with that.

James Lee House, Memphis, Owners

José (interviewed) and Jennifer Velázquez co-own and operate the James Lee House bed-and-breakfast, which is also their full-time residence.

It was a long, two-and-a-half-year process to get to the point of purchasing the house from the city. There was great support generally for what we were doing. We had to go through all kinds of different committees and the city council and changes in leadership—so it took a while. We were jumping through many hoops on one track, and the other track was quite frankly getting the finances to do this. We had to get partners and make a case for a bank to lend us the money.

The upside was that by the time we got to the point of signing on the dotted line, all the planning and development had been done. We had chosen the contractor, the architect; we had worked with them, we had everything in mind. The very next day, we started construction. We had an army working here six days a week.

James Lee House Exterior

Victorian-era architect Matthias H. Baldwin designed the house’s Italianate front facade.

The house is 8,100 square feet. The original two-story brick farmhouse was built in 1848 by William Harsson on what was then farmland outside the small city of Memphis. Charles Wesley Goyer married into the family and purchased the property from his father-in-law, building another two-story brick farmhouse 30 feet south of the original in 1852.

We speculate that sometime in the 1860s, they got tired of going back and forth from one house to the other, and the family grew. So they joined the two structures. Then the Woodruff-Fontaine House next door started construction in 1870. While that was being built, someone here must have decided that they needed to keep up with the Joneses. They hired the same architect who was building the house next door, Matthias H. Baldwin—but [on the condition that] he could not tear down or significantly alter the two houses that had already been joined.

So there were some practical issues that make for a unique structure. When you look at a picture of the front of the house, you see the “new” three-story addition from 1872.

The restoration was beyond what we could do [ourselves]. I quit my job, and I managed the project. We had a contractor who was very helpful in finding the subcontractors that we needed for this kind of specialty work.

On the outside, there was a lot of physical work to be done, from repointing to cleaning brick and sandstone to repairing woodwork. The hope was to use everything that was there and to replace as little as possible. Inside, as you can imagine with a house that was a school for 30 years and then empty for 54, there was some significant deterioration. For example, anywhere there had been a radiator, all the wood around the floor and everything had rotted—it was gone. So on the first floor, the only room where we were able to save all the hardwood was the parlor. The rest of the wood floors were too far gone.

Parlor into DR, James Lee House

The couple's parlor, which they and their B&B guests use as a living room, opens into the dining room.

The parlor looks very close to what it looked like in 1872. We were very blessed to have that room’s original mirrors and cornices in place. All the fireplaces are original. In what now is our dining room, there was also a fresco that was introduced in the renovation of 1872. It had been painted over at least seven times, and we were able to restore it. We also restored the main staircase. You won’t believe this, but not even a single spindle was missing.

In the foyer, we were able to save five pieces of plaster molding that were intact. And then we replaced everything else—we’re talking about 90 percent. In the parlor, about 75 percent of the molding was intact, so we just had to replace 25 percent. Finding someone who could do all that beautiful, intricate molding was probably one of the most challenging pieces of this project.

The rest of the house had been stripped to the studs. We have no clue what the crown molding would have looked like in each of the other rooms. We replaced it with period-appropriate molding.

The front doors of the house are the original doors. They’re carved mahogany. I foolishly thought that restoring them would be an easy thing to do. It took longer to restore the front doors than it did to restore the whole rest of the house. That was a major, major headache. But it was worth it.

We opened the James Lee House to B&B guests on April 17, 2014. It has been a good balance so far. It’s amazing to sit in our parlor and just wonder what life would have been like when it was finished in 1872. I’m so grateful that we can live there now with air-conditioning and all the modern amenities and still get the splendor of a house of that era. Our guests are fantastic.

Having a B&B is really rewarding, and it’s also a lot of work. I won’t lie to you: Sometimes we do just close the place down and have time to ourselves. But five and a half years into it, we’re still thoroughly enjoying it. And we get to share our house with people from all over the world.

Meghan Drueding

Meghan Drueding is the executive editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee-table books about architecture and design.

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