Historic James Lee House

...A new beginning for this famous old Memphis Home


Memphis has had more than its fair share of "things gone wrong" in City Planning, when one solution generally seemed to be 'Demolish it!"  But here's one story about a grand old building that the city may have finally gotten right - The James Lee House, AKA the Harsson-Goyer-Lee House and the Memphis Academy of Art.  This great example of Victorian-Italianate architecture has sat vacant for over 50 years, frozen in time.  It has literally been crumbling to its foundations, but its grand, sweeping lines and ornate details, somehow, managed to hang on - barely.  It has literally "existed" in its original condition for the last half century.  It has never been restored and was ripe for another "typical Memphis demolition".  But this time it didn't happen.  This is the story of this beautiful old house from the humble beginning up to what will be a complete restoration  - and another chance to become a vital force in the "New" Memphis.

Click on the small photos to see full screen photos.



The beginning ...   


W. D. Dabney owned some land in Memphis at the corner of Adams and Orleans and sold it to Seth Wheatley in 1839.  Wheatley, a lawyer and planter, was mayor during Memphis' fifth corporate year and the head of Farmers and Merchants Bank.  Wheatley kept the land at Adams-Orleans for 9 years and in 1848, sold it to William Harsson.

Seth Wheatley


In 1848, the neighborhood streets of Memphis were paved with mud, and Memphians dumped their trash anywhere they pleased.  Mosquitoes multiplied in the stagnated mud holes all over town.  It was the perfect setting for another outbreak of yellow fever that had hit the city in 1828 and would hit again in 1855, 1867.  The great epidemics of 1873 and 1878 would later wipe out over half of Memphis. 

Map - 1911   



The Harsson and Goyer Families

William Harsson

In the year 1848, William Harsson, a lumberman from Baltimore built a simple two story farm house on the lot at Adams and Orleans.  The original house was not grandiose by any means.  It was built of brick and now forms the rear wing of the current mansion.  The entrance was not on Adams but on the Orleans side street.  Harsson and his wife Eliza had seven children.    His eldest daughter Laura, married Charles Wesley Goyer, who moved in after the wedding.  Charles had originally been a grocer but became a wealthy banker and bought the Harsson house in 1852.  He proceeded to enlarge the house - the first time in 1853.  Sadly, Laura Harsson Goyer and William Harsson both died of Yellow Fever in 1867.  Laura's son, C.Wessie Goyer, 6, died 2 weeks later.   They were all buried in the Goyer family plot at Elmwood.  William was later moved to Winchester Cemetery. 


Eliza Harsson

Laura Harsson Goyer

Charles Goyer

Goyer Grave Stone

Harsson Memorial


After Laura's death, Charles married her younger sister, Charlotte.  With 10 children and a new wife to care for, Charles Goyer now remodeled the Harsson place from farm house to mansion.  In 1871, he employed his neighbor's architects, Culliatt Jones and Mathias Baldwin, for a major overhaul, which included the 3 story Victorian front section and its tower, the sandstone facade and the stucco outside entryway.  The many descendents of the Harsson-Goyer families lived in the house for 42 years.  And many of them married into other wealthy families on Adams "Millionaires Row".  As they eventually all moved out, they decided to sell the family mansion.    (Below are more members of the Goyer Family)


Charlotte Harsson


Edwin Goyer

Florence Goyer

Mildred Goyer

Edwin's Obit

Laura's photo used for Elmwood Cameo



The Lee Family


In 1890, James Lee, Jr. a Princeton-educated riverboat captain bought the house, making the James Lee family the last residents.  James Lee had been a lawyer who in 1877 joined his father's steamboat firm.  James and Rowena Lee had ten children and their 20th-century-style opulence is evidenced by the marble fireplaces styled with ornate, gilded mirrors that still hang in the first-floor drawing room.  Having switched hands so many times during the previous 42 years, the house had become somewhat of an architectural nightmare - full of mysteries.  Tycoon James Lee married all the parts together to appear as "one style"  and added height to the great front tower simply "to impress".  The architects for the final addition were Edward C. Jones and Mathias H. Baldwin.


James Lee, Sr.

James Lee, Jr.

G. Peters Lee James Lee IV Rosa Lee



1890 Cotillion-James-Rowena

Stacker Lee

Shelby Rees - Robert E - James III

Lee Section - Elmwood


For the complete list of James and Rowena Lee's 10 children and their many descendants, click "leelinesteamers.com" .


The photo on the right, circa 1910-12, shows the surrounding neighborhood on Orleans during the time the Lee Family lived here.  In addition, this may be the only photo showing the original railing around the tower roof.  >

The photos below were taken in 1974 by Jack E. Boucher, in conjunction with the 1972 Historical American Buildings Survey of the home.  The survey indicated that the Lee House  exterior was still in good condition, "with some deterioration"  so these photos would have looked much like the home that James Lee and his architects completed in 1890-91 - at least on the outside.

1910-12 Photo - "Art Works of Memphis"










Memphis Academy of Arts


In 1929, the house underwent its biggest transformation when it became the James Lee Memorial Art Academy, as was the wish of James Lee's eldest daughter Rosa, when she deeded the property and the Woodruff-Fontaine property next door to the City of Memphis.  Traditionally, Art students, by nature, are not the best tenants and their 30 years in the building took a major toll on it.  The name of the academy gradually evolved into The Memphis Academy of Art.


3rd Floor Art Studio

2nd Floor Art Studio

Drawing on Walls

B-Arts Ball 1953


Beaux Arts Ball 1948    

Beaux Arts Ball 1948

B-Arts Ball 1953

Beaux Arts Ball

Academy of Arts




The 1972 planned renovation ...


In 1972 the Historic American Buildings Survey in cooperation with the Tennessee Historical Commission and the West Tennessee Historical Society - measured and drew these plans with the intent to begin restoration work on the Lee House.  The project discusses all aspects of the house, including the condition of the home and its design elements - number of windows, fireplaces, and chimneys.  The restoration work never began.  These Architectural Drawings are by courtesy of the Library of Congress.  The Lee House measures 8100 square feet.  There is a partial basement.


Elevation 1 Elevation 2 Elevation 3 Elevation 4

Floor Plan




The "Untouched Years"


After 30 years in the mansion, the Memphis Academy of Art moved to new quarters in 1959.  The doors were locked, the windows shuttered.  The Woodruff-Fontaine house next door, also donated to the city by Rosa Lee, became a museum and wedding site. But the Lee house remained virtually untouched while the city funneled grant money into the Woodruff-Fontaine.  The Lee house fell into disrepair. Plaster fell off the masonry; paint chipped; wood rotted.  The last caretaker was the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities who had a one dollar a year lease for fifty years.  In spite of good intentions, they were never able to develop this mansion.  Their lease expired in 2011.  Below are some incredible photos showing what 50 years of neglect looks like.






Adjoining Garden


James Lee Bell



Victorian Village Volunteers clean

 V. V. Volunteers clean

For Sale       


The outstanding interior photos below were taken by William Bearden and are part of his Memphis Legacy project donation to the Memphis and Shelby County Room of the Memphis Public Library.






The James Lee House has been identified by the Library of Congress as one of this nation's historic treasures.


The Velazquez Family


Enter Jose Velazquez - just in time.  Velazquez, a local developer and former executive director of Latino Memphis, plans to invest $2.1 million to restore the 165-year-old mansion.  He and his wife plan to turn it into a "top notch, luxury" bed-and-breakfast inn with five suites.  The Velasquez family will have private living quarters on the 3rd floor.

On August 21, 2012, the City Council unanimously approved the transfer of the James Lee House to Jose Velazquez for the sum of $1.00. 

Jose Velazquez         


Jennifer - Elena - Jose


Proposed Suite

Proposed Bath


Proposed Sitting Rm

Commercial Appeal article

Editorial - Com. App.

Transfer -  8-21-2012


On June 4, 2013, the papers were signed and the sale finally closed.  It's been a very long process, but Jose and Jennifer Velazquez are now the official owners of the Lee House. 


Jose and Jennifer sign papers

Jose and Jennifer sign papers

 A proud moment ...

Memphis Daily News article


The Groundbreaking celebration is scheduled for July 1, 2013.  The restoration-renovation Process will officially begin.   The photos below are by Maureen Thoni White.


Scott Blake Mayor Wharton A. J. Northrop Jose Velazquez



Groundbreaking Garden Exterior Interior - Foyer

Interior - 1st floor    


The Restoration - Renovation Progress ...  

Information and photos of the Restoration,  as it progresses, will be added.    The photos are in no particular order

Jose Velazquez unbolts door...

J.V. checks "fallen parts" Lee Suite Demo Begins

2nd floor hallway   


Wash Test Approved Cleaning Cleaning Cleaning Interior Progress

Progress Progress Front Foyer Foyer Foyer

Back Stairs Back Stairs Back Stairs Utility Closet 3rd Floor to Studs-Brick

Progress Old Electrical . Out Temporarily Electrical Light Fixtures Light Fixtures

Doors Doors Goyer Bathroom Front Foyer Floor

Crosley Suite

Crosley Suirte

Harsson Suite

Harsson Suite


Crosley Suite Bath Lee Suite Bath


Before-After:  The Great Parlor


Dec 2013 Dec 2013 Dec 2013 Elena - Jose Dec 2013

First Party 2013


Dec 2013 Dec 2013 Jan 2014  

Taste of Elegance 2014

A new beginning - The James Lee House Bed and Breakfast
Opening day dedication ... April 17, 2014

Opening Announcement

James Lee B and B Ribbon Cutting Ballroom-Parlor

There are five suites inside the bed and breakfast, one on the first floor and four on the second floor. José and Jennifer Velázquez reside on the third floor.


Dining Room

Isabel Suite Lee Suite Bath

Crosley Suite


Lee Suite Goyer Suite Goyer Bath Harsson Suite



Harsson-Goyer-Lee House Memorabilia  ...a lot should come to light during the restoration




Lee Line Memorabilia  

Goyer-Lee Wedding China


Miniature Model of Lee House





The Historic-Memphis website does not intentionally post copyrighted photos and material without permission or credit.  On occasion a "non-credited" photo might possibly be posted because we were unable to find a name to give credit.  Because of the nature of our non-commercial, non-profit, educational website, we strongly believe that these photos would be considered "Fair Use.  We have certainly made no monetary gain, although those using this website for historic or Genealogy research have certainly profited.  If by chance, we have posted your copyrighted photo, please contact us, and we'll remove it immediately, or we'll add your credit if that's your choice.  In the past, we have found that many photographers volunteer to have their works included on these pages and we'll  also do that if you contact us with a photo that fits a particular page. 


The "Historic-Memphis" website would like to acknowledge and thank the following for their contributions which helped make this website possible:  The Lee Line Steamers-Riverboat History website, The Library of Congress, Jack E. Boucher, Jose Velazquez, John J. Tackett, William Bearden and the Memphis Legacy Project, Jim Weber, Scott Blake, Monty Shane-Design 500, Memphis Public Library, Memphis University Library, Memphis Law Library, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Memphis Press Scimitar, Shelby County Register of Deeds, Memphis City Schools, Memphis Business Men's Club, Memphis Chamber of Commerce, Memphis City Park Commission, Memphis Film Commision, Carnival Memphis, Memphis Historical Railroad Page, Memphis Heritage Inc, Beale Street Historic District, Cobblestone Historic District, Memphis Historic Districts, Vance Lauderdale Family Archives, Tennessee State Archives, Library of Congress, Kemmons Wilson Family, Richard S. Brashier, Lee Askew, George Whitworth, Woody Savage and many individuals whose assistance is acknowledged on the pages of their contributions.  Special thanks to Memphis Realtor, Joe Spake, for giving us carte blanche access to his outstanding collection of contemporary Memphis photos.

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