Memphis Commercial Appeal  .  Posted August 8, 2012 at midnight

Developer has B&B plans for the historic James Lee House in Memphis

By Sherri Drake Silence, Linda A. Moore


Jose Velazquez unbars the door at the James Lee House. The president of the Memphis Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities said the venture could adversely affect the Woodruff-Fontaine House next door, but Velazquez is confident: “Their success is our success and vice versa.”

Jose Velazquez views a trove of old molding and fixtures at the James Lee House, where he hopes to open a bed and breakfast with five luxury suites. He said he expects to invest $2 million in the project, which could be complete by next summer.

The City Council gave initial approval to sell the James Lee House at 690 Adams in Victorian Village to a private developer for $1.

Unemployment. Interact with the latest unemployment numbers Search employment trends. Search our databases. A Memphis City Council committee gave initial approval to the transfer of the James Lee House in Victorian Village to a private developer for $1, but the project is still being scrutinized to ensure the city can legally part with the mansion.

Developer Jose Velazquez, former executive director of Latino Memphis, expects to invest $2.1 million in the historic site on Adams Avenue west of the medical center to open a bed-and-breakfast with five luxury suites and rates from $170 to $320 per night.

However, the plan was criticized during the council discussion by Jane Work, board president of the Memphis chapter of the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities. Work said a B&B at the Lee House could jeopardize the Woodruff-Fontaine House, a restored historic home next door.

The city also owns the Woodruff-Fontaine House, built in 1870, but the site is operated by the local APTA, which gets no money from the city or the state, said Work, who herself is a volunteer.

The proposed city transfer of the now empty Lee House includes a fountain and parking lot on the shared property, both of which are crucial to the wedding-party business that funds the Woodruff-Fontaine House, Work said.

She told the council committee that if Velazquez changes his business plan or sells the property, the Woodruff-Fontaine House could be forced to shut down.

"I think we could become the next empty hulk on Adams Avenue if something isn't done," said Work, who was not notified about the project and learned about Tuesday's meeting on Facebook.


Velazquez did not get a chance to speak at Tuesday's council meeting, but said afterward he's spent 14 months preparing for the Lee House project and intends to work closely with Woodruff-Fontaine volunteers

"Their success is our success and vice versa," said Velazquez as he gave a visitor a tour of the mansion. "I think that we have been extremely careful to cross all the T's and dot all the I's." The 8,100-square-foot Lee mansion at 690 Adams, was originally built as a two-story brick farmhouse in 1848, but was refashioned into an elaborate mansion.

In 1890, riverboat tycoon James Lee bought the house. His daughter, Rosa Lee lived there for decades. She purchased the Woodruff-Fontaine House next door and established an art academy on the property.

Rosa Lee died in 1936, leaving the houses to the city for use as an art school. The Memphis Academy of Art (now the Memphis College of Art) operated there until 1959.

Despite grass-roots efforts to restore it, the house has remained vacant.

When the Center City Commission, now the Downtown Memphis Commission, began efforts to market the historic property, Velazquez came forward with a plan. But the project needs APTA's support to be successful, said Paul Morris, president of the Downtown Commission.

"Now we've got to go back and solve the APTA issue, and we have to have another presentation to City Council," Morris said.

Velazquez and his wife Jennifer have wanted to open a bed-and-breakfast since they stayed in B&Bs on their honeymoon 23 years ago. They plan to live on the third floor of the Lee House when the restoration is complete.

"We are taking our family's resources and passion and pouring it into this place, something that hasn't happened for 60 years," said the developer, standing in the mansion's parlor, which has 12-foot-plus ceilings and marble Victorian fireplaces.

Velazquez said he's already getting calls from people who want to book rooms at the future business, though he doesn't expect to complete the restoration until spring or summer of 2013.

Peggy Lovell, past president of the Memphis chapter of APTA and current chairman of Victorian Village Inc., said the project is good for Victorian Village. "This is going to be the catalyst to make things happen around here."

Another historic mansion in Memphis, the Hunt-Phelan Home on Beale Street, went up for sale last month for $2.865 million. It was last open to the public as a bed-and-breakfast and four-star restaurant, but those operations are now closed.