How an Abandoned 19th-Century Mansion Became Memphis’s Most Luxurious New Hotel

The exquisite James Lee House is a secret hideaway in the heart of Tennessee's great river city.

Twenty-eight years ago, José and Jennifer Velázquez visited a fabulous bed-and-breakfast in Middlebury, Vt., on their honeymoon. “We fell in love with the notion,” says José. “We decided that when we grow up, we’re going to do that.” Their dreams have come true with the opening of downtown Memphis’s first true five-star bed-and-breakfast, the James Lee House.

Set within a 19th-century Victorian mansion in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, the hotel comes with all the trimmings of a historic masterpiece, from the expansive dining room table set beneath a ceiling of hand-painted frescoes to the walls lined with intricate moldings and the front door’s original stained-glass windows.

In 2012, however, the house was anything but a masterpiece. A rundown eyesore that had been abandoned for more than 50 years, the house was sold to Velázquezes by the city of Memphis for a single dollar. The couple then invested millions into the property to restore it to its former glory.

Today, the James Lee House is filled with handcrafted antiques: There’s a 117-year-old Steinway piano in the parlor; a vintage book collection including everything from Charles Dickens to Washington Irving in the Presidential Suite; and a Victorian sette—perfect for an evening aperitif—in the parlor.

The Velázquezes’ goal is to exceed the expectations of even the most seasoned travelers with their charming city refuge. “We travel, we like good service, good quality, something unique that helps us make memories,” José said. “So that’s how we approach this place.”

As such, every day at the James Lee House starts with a three-course breakfast of baked goods, parfaits with homemade granola and marmalade, and cooked dishes with an authentic Southern flair, like grits and sausage or a tall stack of buttermilk pancakes. Every suite comes with a marble bathroom, and several feature their own balconies overlooking the private garden lined with fountains and benches—another element that makes this mansion in the heart of Memphis feel like a secret hideaway.

“The folks who stay here are individuals who research and search,” says José. “You don’t go to Expedia to look for us.”



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