Dear Vance: I recently came across a reference to a Midtown house called The House of Happiness. Where was this place and what was so happy about it? – HD, Memphis.
Dear HD: In September and October 1935, the Memphians were able to tune their radio votes to WMC and listen to a program called House of Happiness. According to The Commercial Appeal, the half-hour show “showed the trials and tribulations of Ted and Sally and the ways prominent Memphis firms can help them complete their house of happiness.”
The newspaper helpfully explained, “Although Ted and Sally are a mythical couple, the house and the companies involved in the program are realities.”
The “House of Happiness” – so named because every feature was designed to make the homeowner very happy – was built at 705 University, across from what is now Rhodes College. The house served as a special cross-promotion by The Commercial Appeal, WMC radio station, and the Federal Housing Administration to encourage people to buy new homes. If they already owned a home, the property served as a showroom for Memphis companies that supplied the appliances, furniture, curtains, tiles, bathroom fixtures, and lighting – everything a homeowner could possibly need.
I was surprised to discover the architect chosen for this project. EL Harrison created Art Deco landmarks like the Fairview Junior High School and the Farnsworth Building (now 88 Union Center), as well as the Memphis Steam Laundry (since demolition), the latter in a truly bizarre Venetian Gothic style. An architect who specializes in such impressive monuments does not seem like a likely choice for a “normal” residence.
But maybe he sensed that this particular house was ahead of its time. The architect Brantley Ellzey recently mentioned it on Facebook, noting: “The ‘House of Happiness’, despite its gentle nature, is one of the most influential houses ever built in this city.”
Why is that exactly? Harrison based his design on houses that could be found all over New England. In fact, the main entrance is a copy of an 18th century Massachusetts cottage. Ellzey noted that 705 University “marked a turning point in residential architecture in Memphis as developers turned down the more detailed styles of the 1920s and 30s in favor of the more pared down colonial, one of the most popular designs for homes.” in Memphis to this day. “
It certainly stands out from the rows of bungalows in the Vollintine-Evergreen district, the Tudor Revival houses nearby, or the Gothic Revival campus of Rhodes College.
Ted joined in: “What I like is that in five minutes I always get pure, tasteless ice cubes. It’s a coolerator for me, every time! “
But why, besides the design, were “Ted and Sally” so happy to live there? For one thing, it was spacious. The one-story house originally had three large bedrooms, two full baths, a dining room and a separate breakfast room, as well as a spacious kitchen with a pantry, a full basement and an unfinished attic.
Other details made even the most critical of visitors happy. In October 1935, members of the Better Housing Committee, a national organization, toured the house and shared their views with local reporters. Ms. Merrill Hudson, chair of the committee, commented, “Fortunately, with so much closet space and space, such a kitchen would make any housewife happy.”
Another member liked that the architect included plans to convert the attic into a playroom. “Children love to play,” she said, “and the attic locks them up to themselves without disturbing other family members.”
Other committee members seemed obsessed with the many cupboards – admittedly a problem in homes from the period – with a note: “Every housewife has a collection of things that she likes to keep but not in full view. The spacious closet space of the ‘House of Happiness’ is one of the most attractive features. “
The women liked “the large fireplace in the living room” (without giving further details), as well as the “spaciousness of the breakfast room with its built-in wardrobe and the window arrangement of the house, which donates a lot of light and sun in every room at certain times of the day.”
They also told reporters that “the large back yard is suitable for a very attractive vegetable or flower garden, and the spacious front yard can be designed for the delight of any family.”
Most of the praise, however, went to the housewife. Did you notice? Wasn’t there anything here for the lazy husband who (presumably) rarely helped with cooking or other household chores? Well, this guy would smile when he ventured back into the single garage because the “House of Happiness” – a “completely planned and finished home” – even came with a brand new Chevrolet.
Yeah, but what did Ted and Sally have to say about all of this? “Although they had to budget for their own home because of their moderate average income,” the newspaper said, “they insisted on A1 materials and workmanship.” So Ted and Sally would invite friends to their new home every Saturday night, and everyone chatted for exactly half an hour about the local companies that provided these A-1 materials: Fischer Heating and Plumbing, DeSoto Hardware, Dawkins Electric, and Carruthers Wood , among a dozen others.
Ted and Sally were unusually excited about their newfangled “coolerator” (the “air-conditioned refrigerator”) provided by a local company called Serv-ICE. One night Sally said to her friends (and radio listeners), “It’s beautiful! And when you consider that we will never have tasteless or dried out food again. “Ted interrupted:” What I like is that I always get pure, tasteless ice cubes in five minutes. It’s a coolerator for me, every time! “
Although in most episodes of House of Happiness these two talked endlessly about their appliances, lights, or their stove, one particular episode was far more dramatic. The CA summarized it as follows: “During a Brotherhood dance in a nearby house, the two newlyweds and their friends are frightened by the appearance of a fire in the area where their house is located.”
That was a radio show, remember. Reproducing the sound effects of a dance party and house fire must have challenged the WMC sound crew. Why go to all this trouble? I bet one of the sponsors provided fire extinguishers – or household insurance.
I found it quite amusing that the show, as one newspaper put it, “portrayed the many humorous difficulties the home builder faces”. Like anyone who has ever seen Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, or more recently The Money Pit (1986) with Tom Hanks and Shelley Long, homeowners who encounter these “building problems”. seldom consider them “humorous”.
Of course, most of us are not that enthusiastic about our “air-conditioned” refrigerators either.
The “House of Happiness” was completed in 1936. It was open for guided tours every day during and after construction. My buddy Wayne Dowdy, general manager of the history department at Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, showed a photo (too grainy to reproduce here – sorry!) Of the front yard full of people waiting to go inside.
So after everything was done, which lucky Memphian got the keys to such a famous house? Well I uncovered a little secret about it. City registers don’t list the property for a few years after 1936, which is strange. Even if the house was empty – or still served as a model house – this address should have been listed.
Anyway, the house found a buyer in 1940, and it was quite a prominent Memphian. Merrill Kremer, president of one of the city’s largest advertising agencies, moved in with his wife, Sylvia. If they had children using that playroom in the attic, I don’t know about them.
Drive by today, and from the university, the house has looked the same since it opened more than 80 years ago. Only when you take a closer look you can see that the original wood shingle facade is covered with siding. However, a side view along Lyndale shows that later owners added a house-matching two-car garage connected to it by a lovely conservatory and patio.
Inside, the general layout remains essentially the same, and the beautifully carved fireplace and bathroom tiles are original. The “cooler” was replaced by modern appliances, the bathroom equipment was modernized and the top floor is now a fourth bedroom (with bathtub).
Many people have lived in this beautiful house over the years. I could name them all, but I respect their privacy. Nevertheless, I would like to say so much: It is a real shame that the “House of Happiness” never had an owner named Ted or Sally.
Special thanks to my buddy, Summer Scott, for a tour of the “House of Happiness” and sharing photos of interior details as they look today.
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