The Victorian Village is a small neighborhood next to Memphis’ Medical District, at the edge of downtown. The area’s most famous characteristic is its collection of 19th-century mansions, which are well-known for their beautiful architecture. If anyone is not familiar with the Victorian architectural styles for which this area was named, it’s really interesting to research, especially if you’re a fan of really pretty buildings like we are. To even brush past all of the Victorian styles that are present in the world, or even in the US, would take a lot of time and much more knowledge than we possess, so we’re just going to point out some of the characteristics of the Woodruff-Fontaine house, since… well, that’s what this episode is about.
Woodruff-Fontaine is considered to be built in Second Empire French-Victorian style, which can be characterized by having elaborate detailing; a heavy cornice (which is decorative trim where the walls meet the roof); a square tower located at the center of the facade; a railing around the top of the roof; hooded or bracketed windows; tall, almost floor-to-ceiling windows on the first floor; and steps leading from the street up to the doorway. If you’ve ever seen the Woodruff-Fontaine house, this should all sound familiar. Symmetry and balance are very important in this style, and there’s a perfect example in the foyer of the house. There are matching doors on either side of the pathway leading through the back of the foyer. One of them functions as a door and the other opens onto a brick wall. It was built there simply to keep the room balanced and symmetrical.
(Fun fact, the fake door, that was put in place to create the symmetry, has the names of the builders, I believe, signed on the back of it)
Most of the amazing homes that still remain in Victorian Village have now been renovated and, like Woodruff-Fontaine, serve as museums that teach visitors about the Victorian era in the US. One of the homes, the James Lee House, has been turned into a beautiful bed & breakfast, and another one is an upscale, retro-chic bar known as Mollie Fontaine’s.
In the mid-19th century, Memphis experienced a period of growth that can be credited to an influx of entrepreneurs, lawyers, and politicians. Some of Memphis’s wealthiest residents built lavish, Victorian-style homes in what was then the outskirts of the city, but is now right in the heart of the city. This area became known as the Victorian Village, and the main street through the neighborhood was nicknamed “Millionaires Row.” As the city expanded, this neighborhood became less appealing and less exclusive, and by the end of World War II, many of the wealthy residents had abandoned their mansions and moved to more affluent areas. Sadly, many of the original homes have since been torn down. All of the remaining houses in the neighborhood are safe from this same fate because they are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Woodruff-Fontaine House also has quite an interesting history…
Amos Woodruff and his brother came to Memphis from Rahway, New Jersey in 1845 to expand their carriage-making business. Although his brother returned home to New Jersey, Amos stayed in Memphis and found great success in multiple business ventures. In addition to his carriage-making business, he was involved in establishing two banks, a railroad company, an insurance company, a hotel, a cotton compress firm, and a lumber company. He also became the President of the City Council and ran for mayor twice.
In 1870, Amos Woodruff purchased land next to the Goyer House, now known as the James Lee House, paid $12,000 for the plot and began construction on the mansion. The house was designed by Edward Culliatt Jones and Matthias H. Baldwin, who owned a local architecture firm, and would end up costing the Woodruffs $40,000 to build. Edward Jones was the architect behind some well-known churches in Memphis – 1st Presbyterian, 2nd Presbyterian (which is now Clayborn Temple), 1st Beale Street Baptist (which was the first church in Memphis built for blacks, and former home to The Memphis Free Speech, the first newspaper for blacks – edited by Ida B Wells, as you might remember from our last episode), Central Baptist Church (which was demolished in 1937), and the first steel-framed skyscraper in Memphis, which is now known as the D.T. Porter Building (it still stands at 10 North Main). Amos Woodruff, his wife Phoebe, and four children – Sallie, Mollie, Frank, and Cora – occupied the mansion beginning in 1871. Shortly after the home was completed, a home wedding was held for Mary Louise Woodruff, known as “Mollie,” and they also held a Christmas open house that year to give their friends and family a chance to admire their magnificent new digs.
Unfortunately, about 12 years later, the yellow fever epidemic, along with the gold panic, forced the Woodruff family to sell the house. Noland Fontaine, an established businessman, purchased the house from the Woodruffs in 1883 for $40,000 and his family lived there until 1929.
When the Fontaine’s purchased the home, the Woodruffs moved into the Fontaines’s old home at 103 Madison Avenue, close to the intersection of Madison and North Main.
When Noland’s daughter Mollie (Molly #2 in the story) was married in 1886, he built a house for the couple as a wedding gift, and that house sits directly across the street at 679 Adams. The house is still there and now operates as a bar and restaurant named “Mollie Fontaine Lounge,” after the daughter for whom the house was built.
The Fontaines were known for throwing lavish parties in the neighborhood, including a 2000-guest lawn party where John Phillip Sousa was a guest conductor. For those who may not know who Sousa was, he was a famously-mustachioed military band leader and composer. He was mostly known for composing a vast number of well-known marches for military band, such as Stars and Stripes Forever (which is a very popular concert closer for bands around the nation, and was even later adapted and set to lyrics for the Berenstain Bears cartoon theme song, The Liberty Bell (which you might know as the theme song for Monty Python’s Flying Circus), and Semper Fideles (which serves as the official march for the US Marines). Sousa was even known as the “American March King.” Even if you’re not familiar with his works, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ve heard many of them hundreds, if not thousands of times in your life. So, all that to say that it was a HUGE deal to have him guest conducting at your lawn party.
The Fontaines were also responsible with introducing electricity to the house, after it was established in Memphis in 1882, and this replaced the gas-powered light with electric light.
Noland Fontaine passed away in the house in 1912, and his wife Virginia stayed in the home until her own death, also in the home, in 1928. Their children attempted to sell the house to an antique dealer the following year for only $25,000, shortly after the great stock market crash of 1929. Due to the financial situation in the US at the time, the buyer was forced to back out.
In 1930, the house was sold to Rosa Lee, the eldest child of James Lee Jr.. James was the owner of Memphis’s Lee Line Steamboats, and had a residence next door to the Woodruff-Fontaine House. Rosa Lee used the house to expand her art school, Lee Memorial Art Academy, which was originally housed in the James Lee House. The school moved to Overton Park in 1959, and established themselves as Memphis Art Academy, later becoming the Memphis College of Art.
The house had fallen into disrepair during the next two years, and was unfortunately overrun by squatters, thieves, and vandals. It stood vacant, aside from those squatters, from the time the art academy moved until 1961, when the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities saved the house from demolition, restored the mansion using money from a public funds drive, and then opened its doors as a historic house museum. When the museum opened in 1962, there were no furnishings at all, nor were there any textiles. All of the beautiful pieces that the house is now furnished with have been donated by individuals between the museum opening and present day. Woodruff-Fontaine House has now been a museum for more than 50 years.
Woodruff-Fontaine House has become one of our favorite places to visit in Memphis. Throughout the year, they host all types of interesting and fun events on the property… They host historical tours focusing on seasonal, victorian garb and furnishings from the Victorian era… There is a 1920s period-themed party called the “Speakeasy Parlor” that’s a great time… They have a murder mystery party called “Murder on Millionaire’s Row” that we haven’t been to, but we hope they’ll host again once they reopen after the pandemic… There are regular ghost tours and spooky lights-out investigations throughout the year because that place is apparently very haunted… and they have a fantastic, costume-encouraged Halloween event called “Haunted Happenings,” with food trucks, drinks, illusionists, embalming demonstrations in the basement, ghost tours, live music, and more, all at the same time! We have loved their events since we attended our first tour a few years back, and we go every chance we get.
And speaking of haunted happenings… let’s talk about some spooky stuff! It is Halloween month, afterall.
Mollie Woodruff , daughter of Amos Woodruff, was married in 1871 to Egbert Wooldridge. Their wedding was the first event that was held at the house, shortly after they finished construction. Mollie and Egbert moved into the house following the wedding, and four years later, Mollie gave birth to a child. Sadly, the infant died three days later, presumably of yellow fever, in the Rose Bedroom that Mollie and Egbert shared. Three months after the baby’s death, Egbert fell out of a boat while on a fishing trip and died shortly thereafter of either pneumonia or a staph infection with similar symptoms. Mollie eventually remarried and moved away from the house, but lost yet another child to illness in that marriage. Mollie herself died in 1917, but not in the family home.
Apparently, after her death in 1917, Mollie did actually return to the Woodruff-Fontaine House, just not necessarily in the same form. Spirits are said to inhabit the places where they felt the strongest emotional tie, or had the most emotional experiences, so when you think about how impactful her life experiences were in the house, it makes sense. She came from a seemingly happy, well-adjusted, affluent family… her father was a very successful businessman, and he built the beautiful, 3-story mansion for them to live in… she was able to get married, surrounded by her family and friends, inside the house… she lived happily with her husband in that house, with the security of having her family close by… and she also experienced the joy of bringing a child into the world. On the other side of the spectrum, she experienced the loss of her first child, only days into its life, and the tragic death of her husband only a few months later. It makes sense that the weight of those emotions might keep someone tied to the location where those experiences took place.
Mollie is reported to make appearances, some say mainly to children, on the second floor of the house, especially in the Rose Bedroom that she shared with her husband, Egbert. According to the museum staff, she has not been a fan of any rearranging of the furniture in her bedroom. She reportedly was heard expressing her displeasure about them moving things around in her room, saying, “My bed doesn’t go there.” Many people that go into the Rose Bedroom claim that they can either feel Mollie’s presence, or that they are overcome with sadness, despair that lifts once they leave that room.
The Rose Bedroom is also home to a phenomenon that many people have claimed to see over the years. Witnesses have reported seeing depressions form on the bed as if someone is resting, sitting, or maybe kneeling to pray. Mollie is also known to move things around in the room, rock the rocking chair, or knock items over – maybe things that don’t suit her taste?
Another spirit is known to inhabit Woodruff-Fontaine House, that is said to be male. He is known to touch people to let them know that he’s there, and people have said that this is accompanied by the smell of cigar smoke. He was also reported to have snatched a necklace from a woman’s neck during one of the house tours. One tour guide claims to have seen a male apparition sitting at the base of the 4th floor tower steps, which she said bore a striking resemblance to Elliot Fontaine, one of Noland and Viriginia Fontaine’s children. Maybe he is the male presence that is felt in the house?
There are other accounts as well, in the basement and on the lower floors, about male voices that can be heard by way of EVP. For those of you that aren’t familiar with paranormal investigations, EVP stands for Electronic Voice Phenomenon, which occurs when an audio recording picks up voices that aren’t heard during the recording. There are many of these that were recorded in Woodruff-Fontaine that can be found by a quick internet search.
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