Saturday, February 28, 2009

Hidden Memphis

I visited the Woodruff Fontaine house the other day. It's one of those gorgeous mansions in "Victorian Village," a name that first seems like a misnomer but then seems sadly, strangely fitting; Dickensian clusters of children in breeches have been replaced by the cracked out residents of the projects across the street. Victorian Village was once known as Millionaire's Row, a collection of weekend retreat homes for the cotton and carriage entreprenuers who worked downtown. With little room for their kids to roam, these captains of industry and their families would load up their carriages and trek from Front Street to the edge of the city - Adams - so their kids could play in a yard and the women could ratchet themselves into gowns with 18 inch waists to throw elegant dinner parties. Few of these mansions have survived, and it is jarring to see all the apartment buildings and projects and businesses that hover on either side.

But then you step inside.

woodruff-fontaine house

I'll confess. I had ghosts on the brain. The last time I visited the W-F house I was a girl scout on the requisite history excursion (do you get a badge for that?), and while I was impressed by the house's grandeur, what had stuck with me all those years since was the story of their ghost, Mollie. Mollie was the daughter of the Fontaines who bought the home from the Woodruffs. She had a rough go of it. Just two years after she married and moved into the home across the street that was built as her wedding present (now known as the Mollie Fontaine Lounge), her husband died. If I have my history right, it was her son that was thrown overboard on a paddleboat excursion by a newly hired nanny. (Fortunately the baby had a mouth full of birthday cake and diaper that turned into a flotation device. He was safely retrieved from the Mississippi. Not sure what happened to the satanic nanny.) It is said that it is the sound of Mollie's weeping that can be heard in the bedrooms upstairs, that it is Mollie who sits down on the freshly made bed and leaves a clear impression behind. This is what I was thinking about as I went to knock on the door.

And it opened by itself.

I must have gone white as the two old ladies on the other side of the door apologized profusely for startling me. They thought I was the lady who was coming to deliver wallpaper samples.

That was about as ghostly as my tour would be. I was a little concerned about the health of my 90 year old tour guide, but she was game to take me all the way up to the third floor. The tower room was closed off as the fire department declared it a safety hazard, but she explained that it allowed Mr. Fontaine to climb up to the highest point of the house and see if the ships delivering supplies had docked, meaning it was time to go into work. I want to get me one of those.

The house is beautifully preserved as are the myriad quilts and the over 1000!! evening gowns potentially rotated on the display mannequins. There was a gold number in one of the upstairs bedrooms that easily would cause a sensation on the red carpet. I briefly considered tucking the mannequin under my arm and making a run for it, but my guide was so sweet that I dismissed the thought, instead curtseying in front of the petticoat mirror.

woodruff-fontaine house

Next time you think there's nothing to do in Memphis, head over to the Fontaine house for a tour. Nothing like exploring air conditioned luxury built for people who really had nothing to do.

1 comment:

divinitygirl said...

sounds fascinating! if you ever go back, i want in.