John Gaston's

... Restaurant, Hotel, Park, and Hospital  

 
 

 

Ever hear of Gaston's Restaurant or Hotel?  Most Memphians remember the John Gaston Hospital, but Gaston's Restaurant?  John Gaston opened his restaurant in 1871 and it closed about 1916.  It was a highly rated and popular restaurant-hotel and by 1883 had such amenities as a bar, barber shop and billiard parlor, in addition to 100 rooms for guests.  Gaston's establishment became the place to be for movers and shakers who often met at the hotel to discuss business arrangements.  And then there were the celebrities, such as Oscar Wilde, who were a common sight here.  The hotel actually grew out of the more famous Restaurant which originally opened at 31 Court Avenue . 

 

Click on small photos to see an enlargement



 

Jean Gaston . June 4, 1828 - March 1, 1912

Jean Gaston was born near Bordeaux, France in 1828. By the age of 6 he had already begun working in his uncle's (or grandfather's) small cafe in Paris.  while in his teens Gaston found employment as a steward on a steamer going between Le Havre and New York city.  He made this voyage many times.  Between the restaurant and steamer work he completely absorbed the "food and hospitality business".  

Bordeaux France

Bordeaux Harbor

 

 In the late 1850s he decided to stay in New York City and found work as  a waiter at the world famous restaurant Delconico's and worked his way up from waiter to chef.  Delmonico's was not just "a restaurant".  It was THE restaurant that introduced fine dining to America along with the "perfect steak", Eggs Benedict, Baked Alaska, Lobster Newburg, and Chicken A la Keene.  It was here that young Jean Gaston perfected his culinary skills.

Le Havre port 1850s Le Havre Steamer Delconico's NYC Delmonico's NYC   1914 menu
 

 

    
Commercial Restaurant . Gaston's first restaurant at Adams and Main
   

Shortly before the Civil War, Gaston had traveled to California as a steward and then to Georgia with the same occupation.  When the war began he accepted employment with the Confederacy as a steward, landing in Memphis, almost penniless, after the war.  But Jean Gaston had a penchant for making money.  Once again he quickly found employment at a waiter and saved his money until in 1866, he opened the "Commercial Restaurant" in downtown Memphis at Adams and Main.  Within weeks, because of his keen knowledge of the business, he had begun amassing a small fortune.  The newspapers of the day call  him "that prince of caterers."

 

Adams & Main

1877 "Commercial"

1868 Directory

JEAN Gaston

"Commercial"

1867"Commercial"...

"Prince of Caterers"

 

 

Gaston's Restaurant and Hotel . 31-33 Court Street at Main

By 1871 his growing reputation allowed him to open a much larger restaurant called Gaston's complete with a first-class hotel overlooking Court Square.  His hotel grew to 100 rooms and his restaurant was termed by connoisseur's as "Delmonico's of the South".  And Jean Gaston quietly became one of the wealthiest citizens of Memphis.  He also dropped his French name of "Jean" and became "John"..  The only Memphis establishment on a par with Gaston's was Luehrmann's Hotel-Restaurant, nearby on Main Street.   (The Gaston address changed to 107-111 Court Avenue during renumbering in 1905)

 

Gaston's Restaurant  - Hotel

Overlooking Court Square

Rare photo of Gaston's

Taxi's waiting...

1877 Review

1878 Ad

John Gaston became very, very rich.  Prominent Memphis and famous celebrities who visited Memphis, all dined at his restaurant, and many stayed at his hotel.  During his first tour to the U.S. in 1882, Oscar Wilde chose Memphis as one of his stops, and Gaston's as his hotel.  Wilde presented a lecture on "Decorative Art" at Leubrie's Theatre.  The US press and the local press were not too kind to Mr. Wilde.  For many months before and after his visit,  there were almost daily articles about him.  Most of the attention seemed to focus on his dress - wearing knickers and silk stockings.  The articles below are only a few of the hundreds we came across in our research. 

Oscar Wilde  

Wilde Ad -1882

1882 Review

Leubries Theatre

Article 1882

Article 1882

Article 1882

 

 

Gaston's Restaurant - Hotel . Articles and Memorabilia

The 1883 "Commercial and Statistical Review of Memphis" describes Gaston's:

"This is one of the leading hotels in Tennessee in all that pertains to a first-class house.  Founded in 1877 by its present proprietor, and twice enlarged since that time, it has attained a position in the estimation of the public that ranks it equal to any similar establishment in the United States, reflecting credit upon the enterprise that designed it and the ability with which it is conducted".

1895 Envelope

1902 Envelope

1902 Letter

1908 Envelope

"Ever since its opening it has been universally regarded, not only as the most pleasant and convenient resort of the traveling public, but as one of the most home-like and comfortable hotels in the South.  In every thing that pertains to the comfort and well-being of its guests it stands unrivaled.  In the matter of elegant and sumptuous furniture, heating and ventilating apparatuses, airy hallways, prompt and polite attention, and a menu unsurpassed in this section, the reputation and popularity of Gaston's Hotel, in the light of these advantages, is not surprising". 

1876 1877 1879 1880 Ad Gaston's

"The building is one of the most elegant structures in the city, four stories high and 185 x 100 feet in size, and contains 100 sleeping rooms, with two spacious and elegant parlors, a large dining-room with a capacity for seating 100 guests, all furnished in the most tasteful and appropriate manner.  Each floor is supplied with gas, water-closets, bath-rooms and other conveniences, while ample precautions are taken against fire.  Hydraulic passenger and baggage elevators are in use, as well as an improved system of electric bells.  The front of the building is lighted by electric lights.  An elegant billiard parlor and a first-class bar are connected with the house, along with a barber shop".  (The address changed to 107-111 Court Avenue during renumbering in 1905)

        

1871 Directory

1891 Scimitar 1900 Directory 1885 Ad 1900 Ad
 

 

       


John Gaston's first wife was Julia T. Meier who had 3 children by a previous husband.  Julia died young and after her death John  married her daughter Theresa.  Gaston built a large and beautiful mansion on Third Street (Sadly no photos have surfaced). 
By 1900, John Gaston had partially retired to his beautiful home.  He died in 1912 at the age of 84 and is buried at Forest Hill Cemetery.  His restaurant and hotel closed, but the buildings have
(amazingly) survived.

 

John Gaston

Julia T. Meier

Theresa Gaston

Gaston Mausoleum

Gaston Buildings today...

Gaston Marker



Theresa was the benefactor of Gaston's wealth.  After John's death, she remarried becoming Teresa Gaston Mann.  When she died in 1929, she honored John's request that their home become a hospital.  The land and the mansion were bequeathed to the city along with $150,000 to build a community center.  The bulk of the rest of  his fortune was left to the city for construction of a new city hospital on Madison.

 

1905 Article

Gaston's

 

 

        
Gaston Park . S. Third Street

The original Park was designed by master designer George Kessler in 1902.  John Gaston donated the land for the park in 1912 but it was not built until after his wife's death.   When she died in 1929, she left the Gaston Mansion and the land to the city, who demolished the Gaston mansion and converted the land to Gaston Park, complete with a great community center.   In 1978, the center was refurbished and a library was added.  Today, the facilities include the Gaston Community Center, a pavilion, play equipment, ball field, basketball court, and fitness trail.   The Community Center is the oldest active center in Memphis.

   

Gaston Park location

Gaston Park today...

Gaston Park postcard

Community Center

      

 

 

John Gaston Hospital . Madison Avenue

Before he died in 1912, John Gaston had always told his friends that he wanted his mansion converted into a public hospital.  That didn't happen until the death of his wife in 1929.  Then the mansion was deemed too small for a decent hospital and it was demolished and the property was converted into Gaston Park.  Then the bulk of Gaston's fortune, supplemented by funds from the Public Works Administration, was used to build a brand new city hospital in the Madison Avenue Medical District.  The John Gaston Hospital opened in 1936 and remained one of the city's busiest hospitals until it was demolished in 1990 to make way for the growth of "The Med".

Theresa's bequest supported charity care but a crucial stipulation was that the hospital would be open to Memphians, as well as citizens of Arkansas and Mississippi.  City officials felt this would be an open invitation to the area's poor and vagrants, so they let the bequest "cool off".  The decaying Memphis General Hospital was so "over-burdened" that the Gaston bequest soon became big news again.  The city fought the will's stipulation of allowing citizens of Arkansas and Mississippi in court, and won, so the building of the John Gaston Hospital began that year - opening in 1936.

         

1937 Flood Refugees

1948 Residentsf

1936 New Hospital

1947 Postcard

1990 Demo

 

 

Billie Nicole Lovett writes . 6-21-2013:

My grandparents, William and Mary Webb, were caretakers of the Gaston Mansion after Theresa Gaston Mann died.  ...  My Uncle was actually born there.  I have a desk-wash basin from the mansion that actually was used in the hotel.  I have a print "Widgeons and Partridges" that hung in the dining room ... and a piano stool.  We recently found an 1867 check from the German National Bank of Memphis made out to John Gaston and endorsed by him on the back.  My Mother told me that Mr. Mann (Theresa Gaston Mann's 2nd husband) gave them several items from the mansion .  They were later sold because they were just too large to fit into their small home. 

 

I know that local neighborhood dances were held in the mansion ballroom on a routine basis on weekends.  Gaston Park had many activities for the neighborhood children.  They even held contests with other parks.  My parents actually met each other at one of  these contests when they were children .  My uncle Billy (whom I was named after) was born in the mansion in 1932.  The picture, below, is the family before he was born.  It was taken about the time they moved into the mansion.  The picture with the two girls, below, is my Aunt Lillian and my Mother.  It may have been taken at Gaston Park during a parade or one of the contests.

This desk-wash basin from the Gaston Mansion was originally from the Gaston Hotel

Piano Stool

Dining Rm Print

1867 Check to John Gaston and endorsed by him.

Webb Family

Aunt - Mother

Very Rare 1888 Mardi Gras invitation to John Gaston

Thank you Billie Nicole Lovett, for allowing us to publish your collection on the Historic-Memphis.com website

  
 
 
 
 

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