The floors creak and the air is still at the Woodruff-Fontaine House Museum. Restored in the early 1960s, and since filled with antique furniture and clothes, the staged 146-year-old home seems frozen in time.
Ms. Rosemary, a volunteer since 1987, gives guided tours of the home. When asked what her favorite room of the three-story house is, she says, “I really like the downstairs.”
Yet, during her hour-and-a-half long tour, she is able to tell visitors the smallest details, from the square nails in the original hardwood floors on the first level, to the purpose of matching chandeliers and the intricacies of a wax lamp on the second floor.
Jennifer Cooper, Executive Director of the Woodruff-Fontaine House Museum, says it’s easy to fall in love with the 14,000-square-foot, three-story French Victorian mansion on 680 Adams Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee.
“I’ve been coming to this house since I was probably 10 years old. I never thought I would run it,” Cooper says. “Being here every day and getting to know the family history, dealing with the textiles and getting to see who donated them, researching about furniture and architecture, being hands-on and dealing with this time period is amazing.”
The Woodruff-Fontaine House is one of what used to be 32 mansions in the neighborhood inhabited by affluent families in the city, contributing to the street’s nickname: Millionaire’s Row.
Though the house is more than a century old, only two families ever lived there. Amos Woodruff, who was from Rahway, New Jersey, brought his carriage making business to Memphis in 1845 to further his business in the South. Business boomed, but his wife Phoebe hated living in the South and decided to go up North to stay for a while. Amos would visit her back and forth until finally, he promised to build her a mansion in Memphis if she would come back.
Phoebe agreed, so in 1870, Amos purchased the land for $12,600 and in 1871 had the house built for $40,000. Completed in a little under a year, the home boasts 16 fireplaces, 24 rooms, a basement that spans the entire length of the house, and a tower, which holds an additional two floors.
“It’s Second Empire French Victorian style architecture, which is the most modern type of architecture in the mid-19th century,” Cooper says. “He wanted to show off his wealth, impress Phoebe, and get her to move back to Memphis. It’s rare to have this style in the South. Usually you see it along the East Coast and areas up North.”
Amos’ lavish taste is evident in the small and grand details of the house. Rosemary pointed to and explained that the foyer moldings have small holes that once held jewels.
When one steps further into the house, past the staircase and looks at the ceiling, one of many large chandeliers hang. The spiral staircase, tall windows, and a door with several signatures that opens to a brick wall, tell some of the many stories of the home.
Four children and 12 years after moving into the home, the Woodruffs sold it to the Fontaines. The yellow fever epidemic that hit the City of Memphis affected Amos’ business. Cooper says there are no remaining Woodruff carriages to her knowledge in Memphis or in the country.
Noland Fontaine came to Memphis in 1861 from Louisville, Kentucky when he was 21 years old. A clever man, he partnered with Napoleon Hill, who was the wealthiest man in Memphis at the time and together they created The High Cotton House of Hill, Fontaine & Co., a wholesale cotton and grocery business.
Virginia, Noland’s wife, was a local. They had nine children, of which seven lived to maturity. When Virginia died in 1928, family heirs didn’t want to keep the house any longer so they planned to sell it to a man that was going to make it an antique store. The deal fell through and it was sold to Rosa Lee, who lived next door.
Rosa Lee ran an art school out of her home. She needed more space so she purchased the house and used it and the carriage house on the property for the James Lee Art Academy, where about 10,000 students attended for free. She died in 1936 and her director and best friend Florence McIntyre continued to run the art school in 1959.
Rosa Lee deeded both of these houses to the City of Memphis under the condition it remain an art school. Once the school, now the Memphis College of Art in Overton Park, moved out of the Woodruff-Fontaine House the City of Memphis planned to tear it and the James-Lee House down until the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities (APTA) stepped in 1959 to save them.
When the home reopened for tours, it was strictly for architectural admiration. However, donations started coming in from generous patrons to help stage the home. About 97 percent of all of the furniture, clothing, and decorations are donations all from the same era that the home was built.
“We say good morning when we come in and good night when we leave,” she says. “I feel like the Woodruffs and the Fontaines are part of my family.”
Carriages, Cotton & Art
A brief history of the historic Woodruff-Fontaine House
Story by Erica Horton | Photos by Casey Hilder