Home Improvement 

The vacant, historic James Lee House may soon see new life.

The James Lee House, an 8,100-square-foot vacant mansion looming over the corner of Adams and Orleans, is run-down and rumored to be haunted. But it may be restored and made habitable in the upcoming months.

José Velázquez and his wife Jennifer have been working to secure the blighted structure since April of last year in the hopes of transforming it into a bed-and-breakfast.

In late 2010, the Memphis City Council asked the Center City Development Corporation to find a developer to restore the city-owned James Lee House, located in historic Victorian Village. The Velázquez's proposal to restore the house as a bed-and-breakfast was chosen.

The renovation costs are estimated at $2 million. Determined to make their plan a reality, the couple sold their house, invested their life savings, and obtained the rest of the funding from private contributors.

Last Friday, about 70 people attended a brief presentation on the proposed bed-and-breakfast renovation, as well as a tour of the historic house.

Velázquez said he and his wife became interested in owning their own bed-and-breakfast after spending nights at several of them during their honeymoon decades earlier.

"We just fell in love with the concept. They're private, cozy, unique, historic places that allow you to really experience life as it was in a nice setting," Velázquez said. "The [James Lee] house allows us to do those things. It has the space, the character, just the feel for people who really like the bed-and-breakfast."

Built in the mid-1800s, the James Lee House was owned by several families including William Harsson, Charles Wesley Goyer, and James Lee before being gifted to the city in the 1920s to establish the Memphis Academy of Arts (now the Memphis College of Art).

When the art school migrated to Overton Park in 1959, the home was left vacant and has been ever since.

The proposed bed-and-breakfast at the Lee House would include five suites that range in price from $170 to $320 per night. A gourmet breakfast, evening wine reception, private parking, and wireless internet service would also be included.

The couple plans to name four of the suites after the families that have owned the house in its 164-year history: the Lee Suite ($320), the Goyer Suite ($250), the Harsson Suite ($290), and the Velázquez Suite ($280). The fifth suite would be called Isabel Studio, after the Velázquez's daughter. The couple would reside on the third floor.

"These are going to be really large suites with antiques, beautiful beds, and all that. It's going to be a unique experience," said Scott Blake, executive director of Victorian Village, Inc. "It's like an upscale hotel, but you get a different, intimate environment. You go down for breakfast, and you meet people from all over the world."

Earlier this year, a proposal was presented to the city council to transfer the title of the property to the Velázquezes, which would allow them to renovate the historic house.

A city council committe voted Tuesday to approve the sale of the house, and the full council was also scheduled to vote on the sale. The full council's vote was not available at press time.

If approved, it may take up to a year for the bed-and-breakfast to open.


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