In June 1956, while his nearby Westbank Shopping Center was under construction, 80-year-old architect Neander Montgomery Woods Jr. died of a heart attack in Connecticut. His obituary in The New York Times described Woods as a Connecticut developer and architect. Obituaries in Connecticut newspapers stated that he was a well-known architect who practiced in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. None of the reports mentioned Woods' highly successful 12-year career in Memphis which had begun in 1900.
Woods' local work is best described in the book Memphis, An Architectural Guide. Its author Dr. Eugene J. Johnson wrote: "As a group, his houses are probably the most original buildings built in Memphis in the early part of this [past] century. They even stand up well alongside the inventive domestic architecture of the Midwest and West Coast from the same years." The clues from Woods' 44-year architectural career in the New York City area suggest that his work continued to be as creative and prolific as in the Memphis years. Why then is Woods largely unknown in Memphis and downright obscure in the Northeast? The answer could be because he moved around a lot!
In 1889, 13-year-old Neander Montgomery Woods Jr. moved to Memphis with his father and stepmother Sallie. His father, the Rev. Neander M. Woods Sr., was called to be the pastor of Second Presbyterian Church. About a year later, young Woods was sent to live with his grandmother in St. Louis to attend the Manual Training School of Washington University. After a year and a half at Washington U., he studied engineering at Vanderbilt University; in 1898 he graduated from Alabama Polytechnic Institute (Auburn University) with a degree in civil engineering.
Off to Chicago
Following graduation, Woods and his bride Tallulah headed for Chicago. The couple arrived during that exciting period of history when Chicago architects and builders were "re-inventing" the architecture of the city for our modern world. Architects such as Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham and James Gamble Rogers were designing some of the first skyscrapers; Frank Lloyd Wright was building a new kind of suburban home that would soon evolve into his famous Prairie style of architecture. Unfortunately, all that we know about this period in Woods' life is what his father recorded in a family history; the senior Woods wrote that his son "worked in the office of a prominent architect in Chicago." The 1899 Memphis City Directory contains the following terse listing: "Woods, Neander M. Jr, removed to Chicago".
The Memphis Years
Woods returned to Memphis in 1900 to work for B. C. Alsup and Company and by 1903 was a partner. In 1905, Woods' father wrote, "The firm of Alsup & Woods has planned and erected a great many of the most important buildings in and around Memphis." Only two of the firm's buildings have been identified: The Butcher Shop (1904) on South Front Street and the Goodwyn Institute (1904-1907, demolished) on Madison Avenue. However, it was also during his tenure with Alsup that Woods completed two very important houses. The homes are probably the first that were designed and built by the young architect. They were located next door to each other on the newly-developed Annesdale Street, which was later renamed Rozelle. One, 633 Rozelle, was for Woods' sister and brother-in-law, and the other, 629 Rozelle, was his personal residence; both houses were completed in 1901. Woods' residence, the first of five personal residences in Memphis, contains remnants of what appear to be an original central heating and cooling system. This is an unusual feature for a home of that era but, because Woods studied engineering, the architect may indeed have designed it.
In 1906 Woods left Alsup and formed his own company. Johnson wrote in
Memphis, An Architectural Guide that at this point Woods' "architecture took
off into flights of great originality." Woods initially hired James J.
Broadwell and George Mahan, Jr.
as draftsmen; in 1910 his younger half-brother Everett Woods joined the
drafting department. All three draftsmen would later become well-known
Memphis architects. The inventive residential architecture produced by
Woods' new firm was characterized by a rich mixture of texture and materials
(often including dramatically cut rock-faced stone), diagonal porte-cocheres
or porches, a variety of roof shapes, and trefoil dormers. The firm must
have produced speculative as well as custom housing because Mahan, in a
1935 interview that also included his partner
Everett Woods, said that they designed more than 500 homes during the six years (1906-1912) that they were in business.
For reasons unknown, Woods closed his Memphis firm in 1912 and left the city. He placed George Mahan Jr. in charge of the remaining projects and, according to Mahan, moved to New York City with his wife and three children. We can only wonder what commission or job offer or event could have persuaded Woods to abandon his hugely successful and creative practice here. It has been suggested that he went to New York City with the promise of doing commercial rather than residential work. However, in Memphis he had carried out large-scale commercial projects like the Commercial Bank Building (in partnership with nationally-known architect James Gamble Rogers) and the 19-story Exchange Building which he designed alone. With no information available, we are left to form our own theories about Woods' mysterious departure.
New York City and Beyond
While there are certainly a number of "unknowns" about Woods' life in Chicago and Memphis, his 44 years in the New York City area could be classified as mostly unknown! He was first listed in the New York City Directory in 1915 as N. M. Woods, Inc. with offices on West 34th Street. His residential listings have surfaced in a number of New York City suburbs such as Mamaroneck, New York; Asbury Park, New Jersey and Wilton, Connecticut. One lakeside community in New Jersey even has records of six building permits issued to Woods in the 1920s. However, the most valuable information to date has come from a women's magazine.
For a few years Woods wrote articles about his residential architecture for a popular (but now defunct) national periodical. He began this job during World War I when there was a shortage of building materials and labor. His first articles told how to build the best house using minimal materials and labor. Woods included plans and elevations with the articles and was soon operating a booming mail order house plan business; houses from his plans were built across the U.S.A. and Canada, and at least one was completed in Ireland. Following his series on smaller, less expensive housing, Woods began writing about custom houses he had designed. One article featured a 1920 lakeside house complete with pergola, boathouse and two-car garage. Woods dubbed it the "house with two fronts" because, he explained, the street entrance was as important as the lake side even though it was the one with the "attractive outlook." Regrettably the magazine folded in the 1930s, leaving Woods' later work undocumented.
Even though information on several years of his life is missing, it is
evident that Woods had an amazing architectural career spanning almost
60 years. It would be nice to know more about his life and work, and, as
research continues, maybe someday we will. In the meantime, we are fortunate
in Memphis to be able to enjoy so many of his beautifully preserved houses.