October 1st, 2009
(Author’s note: I wrote this a few years ago, a few years before the heirs lost their minds and let this all go. To truly appreciate what we’ve all lost when places like this become yet another overpriced restaurant, please read and reflect.)
THE HUNT-PHELAN HOME
Beale Street at Lauderdale, just east of Danny Thomas Boulevard.
The same architect that designed the Washington Monument designed it. The artist that worked on the elaborate border design we still see on our currency worked on the decorative scrollwork. It dates from the 1830’s and cleverly combines both Georgian and Federal styles. And Ghosts live here. Not some smoky apparition, some mysterious sound you can’t identify, some movement or occurrence you can’t explain. These ghosts are real, three-dimensional and — if your docent would let you — touchable. These are the furnishings, the artwork, the thousands of books and whatnots and this and that of one single family over 160 years. That family still lives for us in the stuff ... lots and fascinating lots of stuff ... all around you. What makes the Hunt-Phelan Home so deliciously different than the other columned ante-bellum testimonies to times gone with the wind is that this one never changed hands. Everything stayed in the house. The table where Grant planned the Vicksburg assault. Still there. The library so appreciated by family friend Jefferson Davis, the furniture of the bedroom where he and his wife were frequent guests, the bedroom room furniture and boots of the home’s head slave who served them. All still there. All the furniture and family treasures that the mistress of the house loaded on a freight car and fled with just prior to the Union takeover of Memphis, and then returned with after a four-year wartime odyssey. All still there. The papers and photographs, the awards and memorabilia, the important and trivial evidence that traces the family’s journey from brilliant prominence to mysterious obscurity. Still there. The last Phelan to live there was a recluse, never married, alone in the home for decades and rarely seen as the paint chipped, boards rotted, outbuildings collapsed, and the vines and weeds overtook the once magnificent formal garden. Upon his death just a few years ago, the family formed a board to restore home, contents and grounds and we are all the grateful beneficiaries of that on-going restoration.
Gone with the wind to be sure, but the wind here stirs up more intriguing reality than romantic fantasy. These are ghosts worth visiting.
DAN CONAWAY, Memphis Mojo