Rowland J. Darnell

  ... and the Nineteenth Century Club



With a name that seems to belong on a theatre marquee, it seems only natural that Rowland J. Darnell would also have movie star good looks.  And he certainly had the personality to go with them.  Everyone liked him and he was immensely popular.  He was a Memphis lumber dealer who became one of the most prominent lumbermen in the south. 


In 1909 Darnell built one of the grandest mansions in Memphis for his wife and their 6 children.  In 1926 that mansion was acquired by the Nineteenth Century Club and it remained their domain for over 80 years.  When they recently sold it because they could no longer afford to maintain it, battle lines were drawn with both sides eventually declaring "a win".  The real "win" in the case is this is one Memphis mansion that will not be demolished.



Click on small photos to see an enlargement


Rowland J. Darnell was born in Freedom, Indiana December 9, 1854.  He began his career as an employee of J. T. Williams of New York City and remained with that house for 3 years.  He then moved on to Bell Bros Lumber of Indianapolis.  In 1877 he went to St. Louis with this firm and in 1880 he had become a partner and moved with them to Memphis.  A year later he sold his interest and formed a partnership with his father under the name of I. M. Darnell & Son.  The principal officers were located in Memphis.  In 1896, Roland withdrew from the firm and established his own firm of R. J. Darnell Inc. which continued until his death.  He became one of the most prominent lumbermen in the south. 

R. J. Darnell  

For a number of years his principal plant was located at Memphis but when the mill burned it was rebuilt at Batesville, Mississippi, with a view to having it as close as possible to the large supply of timber that he controlled in that section.  It was one of the largest and most modern hardwood plants in the south.    He was also president of the Darnell-Love Co which had it's mill at Leland, Mississippi. 

Southern Lumber Mill

  Southern Lumber Mill

By 1890 Memphis was recognized as the “hardwood capital of the world.” A railroad bridge which spanned the Mississippi was built for the sole purpose of transporting Arkansas lumber to Memphis mills in 1892. Each day orders from around the world would pour into Memphis including Hickory for London, Walnut for Munich and Oak for Tokyo. In 1898 a group of lumbermen met at the Gayoso Hotel to form the Lumbermen’s Club of Memphis (LCM).  Darnell was a charter member. 

  Lumbermen's Club

Darnell married Matilda Johanna Louise Taenzer and they had 6 children.  He built a grand house for them in 1906 with almost 16,000 square feet.  As a lumberman one would expect the house to contain fine American woods, as well as arched windows, double front doors, exposed beams and a grand entry hall, with a dramatic, double cantilever staircase.   The house was probably designed by Hanker & Cairns, but this can't be confirmed.  Other architects working in the city at time included Neander M. Woods, Augustine Chighizola, and B. C. Alsup - all of whom would have been capable of building such a grand structure.

The Darnell Home - 1912          

    Darnell Home

1433 Entrance Aerial View

Darnell Home from Side

Union Avenue was a desirable place to live in Memphis of the early 1900s.  It was lined with large homes and grand mansions.  Rowland Darnell had chosen to build his 15,813 Square Foot Beaux-Arts-Colonial Revival Mansion at 1433 Union Avenue.

Today it’s the last mansion standing.  Next door is Taco Bell and now the whole Union Avenue strip is home to fast food joints and strip shopping centers.  Nothing grand about that ...

Vintage Union Ave       

Vintage Union Ave

1906  Union Ave

Vintage Union Ave

1908  Union Ave

The 1910 Census shows that the entire Darnell family lived at the 1433 Union Avenue house:  Roland. his wife Matilda, sons Rowland H,  Fred M,  Harry A and Rezneat M,  Daughters Beatrice and Pauline.  In addition the family had 4 live-in servants.  Rowland was pleasant company and was very popular.   He belonged to Social Clubs but preferred quiet home life with his family.   On occasion he did open his home to friends and extended cordial welcomes and great hospitality.  He also was considered "big-hearted".   When the war broke in Europe, he made an offer to one of his friends in Belgium to take care of his wife and two children until such time as the war ended, paying all expenses himself. 


1910 Census

Rowland Matilda Beatrice Rowland H. Fred M. Harry A. Pauline

Rezneat M.

Tragedy struck the Darnell family in 1911.  Mrs. Darnell, Bernice, and Pauline were visiting Freeport, Long Island.  They and a family friend were in a taxicab crossing the railroad tracks when the cab was struck by the train, instantly killing Mrs. Darnell and Bernice and seriously injuring the other two occupants.   After a lengthy recuperation, Pauline did recover from the accident.  Rowland's father had died the year before in 1910.  Five years later when he himself was "in the best of health" and "...never felt better", he had a massive heart attack and died.

  1911 Accident  Obit

Father Obit

R. J. Obit Forest Hill Family Monument R. J. Marker

Matilda's Marker


Roland's will left the home, valued at $100,000, to the four younger children, and $20,000 in cash to his oldest son, Rowland - "... this solution was made with a view to keeping the younger children together in the home as long as they desired to remain there".  Apparently the family remained in the house until 1916 when it was sold to the Nineteenth Century Club.  Rowland H. Darnell continued in the lumber business. 


1916 Will

1922 Business

Darnell memorabilia doesn't often come up on the internet.  This 1906 envelope recently was available on Ebay.

1906 Envelope  


     Nineteenth Century Club


Gayoso Hotel

In 1890, a group of elite white women, led by Mrs. Clarence Selden, met at the Gayoso Hotel and founded what was soon to become the largest and most influential philanthropic women's club in Memphis.  Its stated objectives were "to promote the female intellect by encouraging a spirit of research in literary fields and provide an intellectual center for the women of Memphis."  Although men feared the club would interfere with their wife's duties, it was a success from the start.   For the first 4 years, the club had rooms in various downtown buildings and in 1895 they took a luxury suite or rooms on the 3rd floor of the Lyceum Theatre at 2nd and Jefferson.  By 1901 they had their first building at 174 3rd Street. (The number changed to 178 N. 3rd in 1905).

Lyceum Theatre


Reading Room First  Building ?

First  Building  ?  

Membership continued to rise and peaked in 1926 with approximately 1400 members.  The membership focused on the needs of women and children and they addressed problems in areas such as sanitation, health, education, employment, and labor conditions.  They led the battle to have a police matron at the city jail, and a female sanitary inspector at the Board of Health.  They also played an important role in bringing higher education to Memphis.  They were instrumental in initiating a "clean government campaign" and demanding the ouster of corrupt officeholders.  They built the first public playground in Memphis.

In 1926, the Nineteenth Century Club acquired the 15,813 square foot Darnell House.    The house was built in 1906 by Rowland J. Darnell, one of the great lumber magnates when Memphis flourished as the lumber capitol of the world.  The mansion boasted some of the most beautiful millwork in the south and still retains its original floor plan and architectural details.  It is the last of its kind in Memphis and is literally a time-capsule, reflecting a bygone era of the city's history.

Nineteenth Century Club               

Nineteenth Century Club Nineteenth Century Club Nineteenth Century Club

Nineteenth Century Club


And the Nineteenth Century Club stayed here for the next 80 years.  But as maintenance costs mounted, the club, faced with dwindling membership and limited funds, was forced to sell the property because they simply couldn't afford to take care of it.  What followed was a two year court battle over the fate of the historic house.  The court battle included the Nineteenth Century Club board members fighting among themselves, the new property owners, and the Memphis Children's Museum.  In 2013, the Union Group LLC, had acquired the property for $550,000 after the competitive bidding process.  Proceeds from the sale went to the Children's Museum of Memphis.  That bequest didn't please some former club members and preservationists.  So  a lawsuit challened the sale claiming it violated the club's bylaws. 

Nineteenth Century Club Nineteenth Century Club Nineteenth Century Club

Nineteenth Century Club

Eventually the sale was upheld and some demolition work was actually begun.  But the court battle began again going back and forth ... demolition denied ... demolition certain.  The fate was eventually decided by the new owners - the Lin Family.  They  will not demolish the old mansion.  Instead they plan to keep the building's facade and have consulted an architectural firm on plans for preserving the inside.  It will be turned into a restaurant and event space.   As of July 15, 2015, the owners have secured a $2.35 million construction loan and have pulled a $2.17 million work permit.

Although the old Nineteenth Century Club remains in existence, after the sale of the Darnell House is final and complete, they plan to eventually disband and simply fade away. 


19th C. Club vintage soup cup

Ironically, in spite of the fame of the Darnell House, very few actually knew what the interior was like.  When the building appeared to be one step prior to demolition , interior photos began to show up on the internet.  The best of the interior photos are a series by Vance Lauderdale and Joe Spake (below). 


Front Door

Entry Hall Arched Door Arched Mirror Arched Door

Stained Glas s


Staircase Grand Staircase Grand Staircase Fireplace Fireplace Detail


Upstairs Room           2nd Floor Room 1st Floor Room Dining Rom DR Ceiling

Ceiling details Ceiling details Sun Room tile Panels-Sconce



Water Damage

Stained Glass Details Darnell Crest Indoor Pool


As photos become available, a few will be added to this space ...

19th Century Club - 2015

On January 1, 2017, the upscale IZAKAYA RESTAURANT opened in the newly renovated 19th Century Club.  It was not successful and the restaurant was closed for a couple of months and then reopened in 2018 as "Red Fish Sushi Asian Bistro".  There will be photos later.






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