Magevney House opens Fridays during Lent, prepares for city's bicentennial

By Published: May 17, 2019 12:41 AM CT

In the back bedroom of the Magevney House – one of the oldest houses, if not the oldest,  still standing in Memphis – is a more recent relic from the nearly 200-year-old structure’s 20th-century past.

A guest book from May 11, 1941, the day the museum opened to the public, begins with a handwritten inscription from then-Mayor Walter Chandler.

“May everyone who visits the Magevney House receive a clearer conception of early Memphis life, a keener appreciation of good citizenship and a deeper inspiration for the religious history made here,” Chandler wrote.

That’s been more difficult in the last decade, as the house was closed entirely for several years, during which the kitchen garden and other backyard plantings went to seed. In recent years, the city – which manages the house as part of the Pink Palace Family of Museums – has opened it for tours only on the first Saturday of each month.

This Lenten season, the circa-1836 house at 198 Adams Ave. is open for tours every Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. through April 12.

“We’re trying to capitalize on the increased traffic at the churches on Fridays during Lent,” said Holly Jansen, the city’s manager of historic properties.

The house is next door to St. Peter Catholic Church and a block away from Calvary Episcopal Church, where the Lenten Preaching Series and Waffle Shop are open for the religious season leading up to Easter.

“We decided it would be a great thing to do on Fridays,” Jansen said. “It really doesn’t take very long to tour the house and it's free. We are trying to get more people through the door.”

The first Friday drew a small group of visitors for the 20-minute tour, including some who happened to be walking by, noticed the activity and got curious.

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In the entry hall is the framed citizenship form from Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, that brought Eugene Magevney, an Irish immigrant from County Fermanagh, to the Philadelphia area and then to Memphis in 1833 as a schoolmaster. Magevney boarded at the house on Adams that he would buy in 1837. The moves were part of a 12-year plan to bring his future wife from Ireland to Memphis.

As he added on to the house over the years, Magevney rented rooms to other Irish immigrants who came to the city, said tour guide Randle Witherington.

Witherington stepped into a bedroom across the entry hall from the parlor, pointed to a wooden bureau with a lace altar cloth, and called it “the cradle of Catholicism” in Memphis.

The bureau was the altar for the first Catholic Mass said in Memphis. The home was also the site of the first Catholic baptism and wedding in Memphis. The wedding was Magevney’s marriage to Mary Smyth, the woman he sent for after 12 years in the city.

Jansen said there are plans in November to re-create the first Mass, with a live feed on social media to include more people in the experience than the small house can hold.

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The house isn’t within the boundaries of the Victorian Village community development corporation, further east on Adams Avenue and the surrounding area. But Scott Blake, executive director of Victorian Village Inc., said it is a starting point for walking tours that display how architecture in Memphis evolved in the 19th century.

“Magevney represents a turning point in bringing in a social middle class and starting to create a real city out of a rough river town,” he said. “You start seeing the Victorian and the Italianate with the first James Lee house just in a three-block area. You can walk up that street and really see the entire genesis of architecture in the 19th century. There’s a little bit of a gap if you are walking.”

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Witherington noted Magevney amassed an estate worth $3.5 million but continued to live in the modest house until his death in 1873 during a Yellow Fever epidemic.

His widow lived in the house until the 1920s. It was turned over to the city in 1940, and other structures on the lot, including a kitchen separate from the main house, were demolished in the conversion.

“When this house began a museum in 1941, historic preservation standards were different than they are today,” Jansen said. “And they did a lot of things back then that we would not have done today. I would love to interpret those things as well.”

The home tour includes pictures of the outbuildings and other structural details just before the demolition and the opening of the home for tours.

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There were some archaeological digs on the property in the 1980s and 1990s. Archaeologist Guy Weaver will talk about that March 24, during the second in a series of bicentennial lectures at the Mallory-Neely House.

Immediate plans for the Magevney House include new carpeting and some repair work on the front door, which is the home’s original front door.

“The biggest issue is the landscaping,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to tackling that landscaping project. We imagine it will be a major kitchen garden again with some flower beds. We want some chickens and maybe a goat or two to interpret what life would really have been like in the mid-19th century.”

Meanwhile in Victorian Village, new homes are taking shape next to old ones.

“Our goal is to have a lot more residential infill and particularly a lot more rental residential infill,” Blake said, noting plans by developer Henry Turley and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center to build 400 units of apartments in the area.

“That sudden population surge is going to really make it a 24-hour place to be, more secure, more active and more walkable,” he said.


Memphis@200 Magevney House Victorian Village Inc. Holly Jansen Scott Blake
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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