For 24 years, Jose Velázquez and his wife, Jennifer, dreamed of opening a bed and breakfast -- something like the 20-room former governor's mansion where they'd spent their honeymoon in Vermont.
And while it took them nearly a quarter century to find just the right property to do it -- a place with the right amound of space, historic relevance, and a great location -- it took just one year (and one dollar) to see their dream through once they finally did.
Here's a look at how the Velázquezes pulled it off and brought Memphis' historic James Lee House back to life.
Full Name: The James Lee House
Location: 690 Adams Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee
Size: The original structure, which was completed in 1848, consisted of a small farmhouse in what is now the north end of the house. A second house was built adjacent to the original farmhouse in 1852 (just 30 feet south). In 1872, a major expansion took place that incorporated the two existing structures and gave the James Lee House the grand (8,100-square foot) Victorian façade we see today, including 5 guests rooms (one on the first floor, 4 on the second floor) + the owners' private quarters on the third floor.
Fast Fact: Not only was the James Lee House home to respected community leaders throughout its history, it was also the birthplace of the Memphis College of Arts and is listed on the National Historic Register.
You purchased the home from the city for $1, correct? Can you tell us how you found it and what the terms of the purchase were?
My wife and I have been looking for the right place for decades, and many of our friends have assisted us in the search. One such friend, Bob Loeb, found out about the city’s plans for The James Lee House and called me immediately. He and I came to look at the house on March 21, 2011 and things started happening.
As a national historic site, there were many restrictions for the transfer and use of the property. Luckily for us, the city had already designated a bed and breakfast as one of the uses for it. In short, the city launched a national RFP for the historic restoration and adaptive reuse of the property and we were selected after submitting a detailed application that included plans, business pro forma, etc. In order to complete the property transfer, we had to secure all financing, have signed contracts with architects/contractors, provide appropriate construction bonds, and [essentially] ensure that the property would actually be restored and reused in a timely manner. We had 12 months to complete all construction work and be open for business. This was all a very ambitious timetable (considering that the property had been abandoned for over 60 years), but we were determined to do it and do it right ... and we did!
How did the house end up in the hands of the city? What did you have in mind as far as the renovation was concerned when you bought it?
The property was deeded to the city of Memphis by the late Rosa Lee for the purpose of operating the former James Lee Memorial Arts Academy (c.1929). In the deed, Rosa Lee provided for the City to move the school to a comparable or better space as the needs of the school required it. This transfer happened in 1959 when the city built and moved the school to its current campus in Overton Park. At that point, the city held the deed for the property and leased it to a group of preservationists -- the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities -- for 50 years with hopes to restore it and open it as a museum. This never happened, and at the end of the 50-year lease, the city decided to pursue a different course of action ... and that’s where we came in.
Have you uncovered anything particularly interesting in the house since the renovations began?
Although most of the house had been gutted by the time we came into the picture, we were very fortunate to have a number of unique pieces and features still in the property. Of particular note are the stunning pier mirrors in the grand parlor, the fresco in the dining room ceiling and the intricate plaster moldings in the grand parlor and foyer. In addition, there were a number of “messages” left from the College of Art days on the walls -- some beautiful drawings that we catalogued in photographs and will at some time reproduce for an art exhibit.
What has been the biggest challenge in restoring the house?
A full historic restoration of this magnitude is challenging no matter how prepared you are. When you consider that this is our very first attempt at it, the level of intensity goes up exponentially. I suspect that among the many challenges, two that rush immediately to mind are: code compliance issues and plaster restoration. In a city without a tradition of bed and breakfasts, restoring a personal home (we live in the house) for this purpose can be extraordinarily challenging. Finding skilled craftsmen to tackle specific assignments (i.e. plaster restoration) can be a daunting task. We went through three such experts before we found the right fit.
Where were you living while the work was being done?
We rented a house less than a block away from the property which made it extremely convenient to be hands-on through the entire process.
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