The Commercial Appeal
CMOM given gift of $500K
19th Century donates monies from auction
The Nineteenth Century Club is merging into The Children’s Museum of Memphis, but not before giving the museum $500,000 from the sale of its historic home.
That’s the single-largest, one-time donation the museum has ever received, museum chief executive officer Dick Hackett said.
“The Nineteenth Century Club as a (nonprofit organization) will cease to exist but their talents, obviously their treasure and their enthusiasm to serve will come to the Children’s Museum,” Hackett said.
The 123-year- old club will present the big check
on Thursday, but the first $50,000 already has been spent.
The museum used that money a few months ago to open a scale replica of the front of Memphis’ historic Engine House 18, which still operates at 3426 Southern.
The museum plans to use the balance by spending about $50,000 a year to keep creating new exhibits, Hackett said.
“The $50,000 (yearly) really will mean that the Children’s Museum will ever be changing,” he said. “It is our formula. Our formula is one word: Change.”
A 1939 pumper, which has been a centerpiece since the museum opened in 1990, now sticks its nose out of the facade of the single-bay firehouse inside the museum.
“They get a little touch of what they’d like to be as an adult,” godmother Varonda Frost said of little Ava and Collin as they played last week on the emergency equipment.
“It does look great,” said Brooke Williams as her daughter, Brighton, scampered through the pumper’s cab. “It used to all be cluttered. This is really good. It has a house.”
But the Nineteenth Century Club doesn’t anymore. In January, the philanthropic women’s organization auctioned away its stately, deteriorating building at 1433 Union for $550,000. A lumber magnate built the Colonial Revival mansion in 1907.
The club couldn’t afford a $1.2 million plan to renovate the building or the growing court fines for code violations.
The sale of the commercially zoned real estate to The Union Group LLC fed a controversy among Memphis preservationists that’s only grown with recent signs that the new owner may demolish the 106-year-old mansion.
Power lines to the building have been cut, and Memphis Heritage executive director June West last week spotted be- hind the house the trucks of a Cordova-based salvage company.
She reported the salvage operation to city officials and believes to have at least temporarily stopped it. Earlier last week, Environmental Court Judge Larry Potter ordered the owners to do nothing to the building until they f irst appear in his court to answer to anti-neglect charges.
“The club’s mission has always been to benefit women and children,” Nineteenth Century Club president Lynn Heathcott said in a written statement. “When Hackett came to our board with a plan, it was obvious the connection was instantly there and he and the museum were completely in line with our mission.”
The club had been trying in vain for several years to sell the mansion — at a list price of $1.5 million — when Hackett had the brainstorm.
His commute to the museum took him by the building daily, but he paid more attention during his more leisurely, Saturday morning drives to work.
“Every time I drove by I’d reminisce about the times my parents would take me there for my swimming lessons, the family times we had on that property before and after the swimming lessons,” Hackett said. “I remember the snack bar and dressing room. I remember distinctly the person who taught me how to swim.
“So I pulled in one day when I saw a vehicle in back, and started talking to a gentleman. ... He got me a name. I contacted them and there was interest in maybe an opportunity we could do some- thing together.”
Hackett helped arrange an auction through the Morris Auction Group, believing an auction would bring more attention to the building from possible buyers.
He said he felt an auction boosted the chances of finding a buyer who would want to preserve the building.
But West, of Memphis Heritage, expressed concerns Hackett had conflicting interests.
A higher winning bid possibly meant a higher contribution to the Children’s Museum, whether the bidder intended to save the building or not, she indicated.
A competing bid of $350,000 had been offered by preservation-minded allies of Memphis Heritage.
But those bidders later acknowledged that on auction day they could not pay cash and asked the club to take payments.
“They had the opportunity, with the $350,000 offer, that would have restored the building,” West said of the Nineteenth Century Club. “What that means to me is they chose money over preservation.
“I would rather see the children of Memphis be able to visit a grand mansion on Union and see what the history of Memphis was,” West said.
Hackett declined to respond to the conflict- ofinterest claim.
“I don’t think there’s a soul in Memphis that would not like to see that building preserved, “he said.
“No one is crushed more and no one’s heart aches more than the women of the Nineteenth Century Club if that building should not be able to remain standing,” he said.
“... But there’s also no one in Memphis who was willing to step forward to pay the bill. We can hope and wish and dream and pray and plead and let everybody know it’s going to be sold. But if no one is willing to pick up the tab, who am I to say ‘ You’ve got to save it, you’ve got to spend your money.’
“It wasn’t the Nineteenth Century Club ladies that made the decision. Society made the decision not to come up with the money to save the building. I don’t know if it’s coming down or not, (but) it looks like it.”