H.W. Durham Memorial Home served Bartlett’s elderly

Editor’s note: This series will run weekly throughout 2016 to highlight Bartlett’s history in honor of its 150th anniversary this year.

Bartlett-Sesq-logo-SMALL-WE“Some time ago,” the gentlemen was saying, “I made the Lord a promise. I promised that if He would trust me with some of the world’s goods, I would return a share of it to the benefit of mankind, and to His glory. This is in keeping with that promise.” The man was H.W. Durham, and he was referring toa million-dollar foundation that he and his wife established to build and maintain a “model” home for elderly people in 1957. This new home became the H.W. Durham Memorial Home in Bartlett.

Durham was born in Knoxville. In 1917 he moved to Memphis, where he founded the Cosmopolitan Life Insurance Company in 1923. He sold the company in 1955 for about $5 million and set up a trust fund of $1 million to build and maintain a charitable institution to care for the aged.

He said, “It has long been my dream to help these people find a happy environment where they can have independence and companionship with others their own age.”

He also noted, “I do not intend for this home to be an ‘old folks home’ in the traditionally understood sense. I visualize it, rather, as a club with as few restrictions as possible.” Durham’s plans called for the first wing to accommodate about 36 elderly women, and later as the endowment fund grew, a unit would be added for elderly men.

Twenty acres on the eastern edge of Bartlett were bought, and the architectural firm of Norton and Hall drew the plans after much study of buildings for similar purposes across the country. The Durham Memorial Home was as fire resistant as a building of its type could be. Only the doors — solid beech — and the handrails along the corridors were of wood. There were four living rooms — one furnished in modern style and one furnished in Victorian style because Cosmopolitan Life Insurance Company furnished it. The other two living rooms were called the card room and the television room.

Each individual room had a full tiled bath and a button to signal the office if they needed help. Although the rooms are identical in design, the different color schemes reduced institutionalized sameness. The dining room looked like a fine restaurant with planted flowers, mirrors and woodwork. The kitchen was equipped with the latest and best appliances.

Down the hall was a nondenominational chapel with a piano and an organ. The first director of the home, Claribell Reynold Stiles, was an accomplished musician as well as an experienced administrator. Music from the chapel could be piped into the dining room. There was a large crafts room that had sewing machines and other equipment for pursuing hobbies.

There was a small infirmary with three hospital beds and an examination room. A requisite to residence was a medical examination by the person’s own physician and a complete medical report put on file.

The basement included a laundry room, storage space and the heating and cooling units, with plenty of space left over for setting up shuffleboard and similar games.

The residents of the 35 individual rooms in the Durham Home were chosen by a board of directors. They were looking for single people, but in some instances couples were taken.

The basic monthly rate, including everything, was $100. The minimum age for residents was 65. Most residents were of modest and fixed income, but greater income was not a bar to residence. It was Mr. Durham’s idea that the home should function in a manner of an exclusive private club, with no restrictions on individual freedom. Resident could maintain their own cars, and there was a garage for them.

A principal requisite to membership was the ability to get on with the other residents. A congenial atmosphere as in a happy home was one great objective of the founder.

The H.W. Durham Memorial Home opened in September 1957 and became everything Durham hoped it would. In 1963 he spent $400,000 and hundreds of hours of his time to roughly double its capacity by adding a wing to be known as Roberta Hall in honor of his late wife, Roberta White Durham, who had died in 1961. Her greatest concern was for others and was an inspiration to all who knew her. This wing was built for the purpose of caring for the sick.

A newspaper article in 1975 reported: “Mr. Durham is 94 and still going strong. During the week he goes to his office downtown leaving home about 9:00 a.m. and returning about 3:00 p.m. He has had office space in the Exchange Building for over 40 years and he says downtown feels like home. He continues to serve as chairman of the board for the Durham Home and goes there on Sundays to eat dinner with his ‘guests’ and sign the checks for his employees.”

He continued this routine until his death in 1977 at age 96.

In 1983 another new wing was opened at the Durham Home and was named the Thomas Wing. Fourteen rooms were added, bringing the total number of rooms to 81. Renovation of some other rooms, the addition of an elevator and other improvements were done during the construction process.

In 1988 the Foundation’s Board closed the Durham Home and established a grant-making foundation in further fulfillment of Durham’s desire to return to the community many of the blessings bestowed upon him in life. The Durham Foundation continues to award grants to serve older people, primarily in the Mid-South area. Its mission is to enrich and improve the quality of life for older citizens and their communities. The Foundation promotes independence and individual autonomy for older people living at home or in institutions. Since 1989 the Foundation has given grants totaling in excess of $6.5 million.

The Durham Home was located at 6005 Stage Road on the south side, where the present-day Towne Center is.

When the Durham Home was being demolished, the Bartlett Historical Society was renovating the Gotten House, and the Durham Home donated many of its parlor furnishings.

Written by Susan Griffith Coleman, Bartlett Historical Society.