By Sharron Johnson
There is a great property situated behind a parking lot at the northwest corner of New York and Young, a quaint two-story house with a tone-on-tone gray paint job. There is an ever so slight use of maroon trimming the window panes with black shutters and a black front door. The owner has added the most artistic window guards. None like I’ve ever seen before. Obviously custom art pieces, they are beautiful!
The porch is enveloped with hydrangeas. Hydrangeas love water and shade. Her front porch faces east, so that explains why they are doing so well. The morning sun is kindest to tender plants such as these. As you may guess, this is mainly a shade garden due to the gigantic oak trees that look as if they came over on the Mayflower as whips. From the corner behind a wooden fence you notice a grove of nine very mature pine trees that help shade the south side of the lot, which feels the size of half of a football field. This has to be the largest residential lot in all of Cooper-Young.
As you come up to the front entrance there is monkey grass edging everywhere. I’ve spoken to many people that ether love it or hate it. Myself, I love it! It’s the best, quintessential edger — for path, garden, whatever — EVER! In the sea of monkey grass stands a Little Free Library. For those of you have never heard of one of these, it is according to Wikipedia.com: “a nonprofit organization that supports the worldwide movement to offer free books housed in small containers to members of the local community.”
Once you start up the entrance, you are flanked by privet hedge that has been boxed off to create an enveloping screen from the hustle of the street. Then, you step into another world. The porch furniture isn’t matchy matchy. It’s a collection of finds that represent the owner’s taste and style. From a colonial bench to 1940’s-style metal lawn chairs that show every paint job that has ever been applied to them.
This home built in 1902 was once a small composite cottage that has been enlarged to accommodate today’s lifestyles but still keeps its historical roots with wooden turned porch posts and a transom over the door. Then you travel to the back 40, figuratively speaking. There are large play areas, fire pit areas, and one space set aside for a garden. It is like being in the country without the long drive into town for provisions.
Karen Golightly is the lucky custodian of this said place. You gentle readers who are new to the area might not recognize her name, but us old-timers, like moi, do. Karen moved into 931 New York in 1991 and from 1999-2003, she was the editor of the LampLighter:.
You are originally from Mobile, Alabama. Is this the only place in Memphis that you have resided?
Well, when I first moved to Memphis I lived on campus in a dorm room at Rhodes College. Then several different midtown apartments. Then the one tiny apartment on Oliver until I bought this house
Why this house and neighborhood?
It was luck, really. I was getting my MFA at the University of Memphis, and I got to know Gwynn, who was the owner of this house. She had moved and was selling it for pretty cheap. There was a crack house across the street when we moved, which was a little tricky, but eventually more and more people started moving into this part of the neighborhood.
Tell me about your passions, hobbies, occupation and family.
I have three children — Bella, Phin, and Pip. They keep me pretty busy running around to rugby games and other activities. I also play indoor soccer on five different teams, so that keeps me pretty busy at the Kroc and Greenfield. And I’m a graffiti photographer. I travel a lot and try to take street art pictures wherever I go. I also direct Paint Memphis, which is a one-day mural/paint festival. Last year we painted the largest collaborative mural in Memphis. This year, on October 1st, we will paint the other side of that floodwall at North Evergreen and Chelsea.
I also direct Memphis Reads, which is a literacy program where we have a community read of one book once a year and bring the writer to town for several activities including a Shelby County Schools talk and a large free public talk. I work at Christian Brothers University as an associate professor of English, directing the creative writing program as well as Fresh Reads, our first year experience reading program.
How large is this parcel?
It’s five shotgun lots. I can’t remember the square feet of it.
Can you tell me about the mature willow oaks and pine grove that were planted by other owners? What are some of the plants that you have planted?
The oak trees have obviously been here for many, many years as have the pine trees that grow on the south corner of the lot. The former owners of this house paved most of the patio in the backyard with hand laid brick. I added to that when I moved in as well as tore down the garage and added a stone section to the yard. I built my daughter a playhouse in the backyard when she was about 3. It’s now more of a shed since she is 19.
The former owners planted lots of flowers and trees that required a lot of sun, which the backyard used to have before the oak trees got so big. So I’ve had to go back and re-plant with more shady loving flowers such as hydrangeas, hostas, gardenias, wisteria, and some flowering trees, such as tulip magnolia, cherry blossom, and a ginkgo. And in the one sunny part of the yard I have a vegetable garden combined with a flower garden of irises, daylilies, and some other random bulb flowers.
How do you use your garden space?
Because there is so little sun in the backyard, I have to try to work hard to incorporate color with shade plants, so I plant things like caladiums and other shade loving plants. My mom is great about rooting me lots of plants that she grows in her yard and passing them on to me.
In the front yard, and our two half circle beds, my 11-year-old, Pip, likes to plant sunflowers. He has more of a green thumb than me. Everything he plants grows like crazy.
I’ve started doing some container succulent gardens, which I mostly keep on my front porch so that they can get sun. They are easy and delicate and quite beautiful, so I’ve grown to love them quite a bit.
In the back yard there is a loggia that once was a shed. Did you design this space?
The loggia, or arbor, used to be a garage which was leaning pretty badly when we moved in. We tore it down and kept the floor of it, which was made out of stones. So now it houses Christmas lights and a 20-year-old wisteria plant that I have to keep in check regularly. It’s also a really lovely “stage” for when we have parties with bands. I designed it, and my friend John Ryan built it for me. That was 20 years ago.
The little library, when did you add this? Did you build it? Too sweet.
I added the little free library three years ago. Karen Capps built it for me. I painted and decorated it. It’s been a great way to get to know neighbors and watch people interact with books, bringing their own and taking the ones they want. When I first got it, all of the books would disappear as soon as I put them in there. I figured out that it was some kids walking home from what was then Fairview.
I finally caught the kid who was doing the stealing and he ended up bringing so many of his books that he had read at his house and really changed the Little Free Library from a more adult book place to a place for middle school students. He would knock on my door every time he brought a book by to show me that he was bringing two and only taking one.
Brick plays a major roll in your garden in room definition. What was preexisting and what have you added?
The basic patio was in place when I moved in, but I added three different paths to link them to the driveway. This was fairly easy since the backyard was completely full of tons of buried bricks, so I mostly just dug them up and wash them off and put them into an appropriate path.
How would you describe your garden style?
Eclectic. I’m a huge fan of color so I am somewhat limited, but I love all of the green and flowering plants that I do have. I was kind of going for a sort of New Orleans feel, which is what I first felt when I walked into my backyard. It’s funny. From the front, you would never know that I have this lovely giant backyard, but once you walk into it it’s like you’re entering a sort of magical place. At least to me anyway.
I know you are a fan of graffiti art. Me, too. When I entered the back yard with you, I was surprised to not see a large graffiti art piece, considering the expanse of fence. Is this something you are leaving for a future project?
Well, so far no one has volunteered to come and paint on my fence, but I have definitely considered it. I would really like to do something on the exterior of it, on the fence that faces the parking lot. We will see if that happens ever.