There's something about a really significant building that attracts zealots. Really old houses fall into this category, and most folks wouldn't touch them at any price. Then there are the truly driven who throw themselves at a project with almost religious devotion. It's important to remember some zealots are the only ones willing to preserve our cultural treasures.
The Eli Rayner House has enjoyed the attentions of a devoted house fanatic for a while now. The property was acquired by the current owner more than 20 years ago, and major structural repairs and systems updating were undertaken. That kind of money spent on a project is more a hidden investment that doesn't add glamour or rich detailing but rather adds years to the life of the house.
This is a house worthy of the investment. Eli Rayner, born in North Carolina in 1815, had settled in Fayette County by 1851, but he decided to relocate closer to Memphis as his five children grew up. So he bought 2,000 acres of prime cotton land along the right-of-way of the newly founded Memphis & Charleston Railroad. In 1865, he erected this spectacular example of the Old South, a Greek temple built of local yellow poplar just as the end of the plantation economy was at hand and during the last gasps of the Greek Revival style.
The house features an exceptionally narrow two-story center pavilion with a full-width temple front. Matching one-story wings flank the center pavilion. The door surround has narrow sidelights and a transom filled with leaded glass. A wrought-iron balcony hangs under the portico at second-floor level.
The two-story fluted Corinthian columns with their foliated capitals (normally, acanthus leaves, but, this being Memphis, they're supposedly lotus!) are the most difficult to carve and, subsequently, the least common. The cornice and pedimented front gable (think Parthenon) are also intricately worked with paired sawn brackets and a round gable vest, both of which owe a nod to the contemporaneously popular Italianate style.
Inside there is a grand central entry with a "floating" circular stair featuring a most delicate balustrade. One side wing is an immense living room. The dining room is directly behind the entry, overlooking the backyard. The other wing contains a bedroom which could also be a home office or a library. A country kitchen fills out this wing with an attached, sumptuously scaled, latticed porch that, with a little wire screening, would be perfect for outdoor dining.
Some outbuildings remain, and the house sits upon a generous corner lot, but little has been done to the landscaping of late. History tells us that Eli Rayner had extensive gardens, including greenhouses where he grew exotic tropicals like lemons and oranges. If that's the kind of historical tidbit that fires up your imagination, then this may be just the cultural treasure you'd fall fast in love with.
1020 Rayner Street
3,100 square feet
3 bedrooms, 2 baths;
Agent: Scott Housewirth,