Dear Vance: What is the story behind the bizarre "grotto" in the middle of Memorial Park? It seems like a strange thing to have there.
-- J.L, Memphis.
Dear J.L.: I'm halfway sorry you asked me about this place. As you may know, for the past 12 years or so, workers have been constructing a magnificent mausoleum that will serve as a final resting place for my weary bones. Oh, it's a marvel, and I'm told that when it is finished it will be the only manmade object in all of Shelby County that will visible to crews of the space shuttle. That's probably due to the giant neon letters at the top spelling out V-A-N-C-E.
But after paying a recent visit to the Crystal Shrine Grotto, an interesting place indeed, I began to wonder if something like that would be more to my liking, and more suitable to my true character. It's lovely, charming, rustic -- all words used to describe me in various published biographies. Oh, I can't decide what to do. I'll just let the Nobel Prize committee have the last say in where I shall be entombed -- and how much they will charge for admission.
Besides, even if I wanted to build a mon-ument like the Grotto, I couldn't, because its creator passed away in 1955 and is buried in San Antonio. Born outside Mexico City in 1890, Dionicio Rodriguez came to this country in the early 1920s. Since he spoke little or no English, and always traveled from place to place, much of his life is shrouded in mystery. But somehow, he perfected a technique for chemically tinting concrete and then carving or molding it into naturalistic forms that closely resembled stones, branches, trees -- whatever he wished -- even down to artificial worm holes, cracked branches, and peeling bark.
It's hard to say how well he was received in his own lifetime, but in recent years remaining examples of his amazing work have been documented and preserved, wherever possible, and good examples of it can be found in seven states. In Little Rock, there's a beautiful park with bridges and an old wooden mill -- all formed of concrete -- that was used in the opening scenes of Gone With the Wind.
In the 1930s, Rodriguez met up with another remarkable fellow, E. Clovis Hinds, who in 1924 had purchased some 160 acres of land on the outskirts of Memphis and began to transform it into a tranquil graveyard he would call Memorial Park. A cemetery brochure describes his dream: "He sought not simply a pleasant, peaceful place of repose but an atmosphere steeped in tradition, linking the ancient past with the eternal future."
Rodriguez came here in 1935 and, under Clovis' guidance, began construction of what I would consider his masterpiece -- the Crystal Shrine Grotto. If you haven't been there, my photographs and words really can't do it justice. Using tons of tinted concrete, Rodriguez recreated scenes from the Bible and literature. The Cave of Machpelah overlooks the scenic Pool of Hebron. Nearby is Abraham's Oak, the Ferdinand IV Sunken Garden, Annie Laurie's Wishing Chair, even the Fountain of Youth -- all made of cement.
I turned up an old Memphis Press-Scimitar article that quoted Rodriguez: "People usually don't go to cemeteries, unless they have a special interest in them. We shall try to change that." There's no source given for that quote, and since (as I said earlier, if you were paying attention) Rodriguez supposedly didn't speak English, I wonder if it's true. But even if it's not, he certainly gave people a reason to visit Memorial Park.
One of the most unusual features is the Grotto itself, a manmade cavern whose ceiling is studded with thousands of quartz crystals. Inside, 10 panels depict scenes from the life of Jesus Christ. It has a certain kitschy charm, that's for sure, but all in all, a remarkable thing to see. If you can, that is. On a recent visit, I found the gates padlocked, so I hope cemetery officials haven't locked up the place.
Now, about this time, any reader would expect me to include a photo of Rodriguez, hard at work constructing the Crystal Shrine Grotto. But even though I searched high and low, I never found a single photograph of the man. From what I understand, he was very secretive about the techniques he used to create his monuments, so it's possible that he didn't allow anyone to photograph him. And yes, it's also possible that I just didn't look hard enough.
Dear Vance: There's an interesting old monument to Jenny Higbee in Overton Park. Who was Higbee, and why does she deserve a place of honor in the park? -- G.K., Memphis.
Dear G.K.: Let me tell you that Jenny Higbee was a remarkable person, who had quite an influence on many women in this city for many years, and well-deserving of a noble monument. Now, why they put it in Overton Park is a question I can't answer. For a while, it seems, that park served as a catch-all for all kinds of things: World War I monuments, Japanese gardens, a miniature Statue of Liberty, you name it.
But back to your question: A worn inscription carved around the top of the stone memorial reads: "Erected in Memory of Jenny M. Higbee by the Higbee Alumnae Association." I doubt that the alumnae association is very active anymore, since the school that Higbee founded was closed so many years ago.
Higbee, who came to Memphis from New Jersey in the late 1800s, taught for a while at St. Mary's School when it was located downtown. Sometime around 1870, she decided to open her own place and constructed a fine-looking two-story brick school at the corner of Beale and Lauderdale. She also purchased the old mansion next door originally built by Robertson Topp -- owner of several railroads and the old Gayoso Hotel, among other ventures -- and used that as a dormitory for her students.
The Higbee School quickly became one of the South's leading educational institutions for young women. An old newspaper article says that in 1892 the school had more than 300 students, with a faculty of 32. The main courses were music and art. According to historian Paul Coppock, the students "were as young as kindergarten and as old as college preparatory." He also described Higbee as "a remarkably fine teacher."
What's even more remarkable is that the Higbee Hornets football squad was not only the Southern Conference champs for many years, but they even beat Yale 63-7 in the 1919 Rose Bowl.
No, I made that last part up.
Unfortunately, when Jenny Higbee passed away in 1903, the school could not survive without her, and it closed in 1910. A group called the Memphis Trades and Labor Council purchased the property in 1921 and used it as their headquarters until 1972, when the old school and the Roberton Topp mansion were both demolished.
I feel bad about that, since both impressive buildings were located on Lauderdale. My family should certainly have taken better care of their own street.
One final comment. The memorial in Over-ton Park, shown above in an old postcard, has a second inscription: "Her Life's Work Is Her Monument." And yet they built a monument for her anyway. I guess they feared her life's work wouldn't be remembered over the years, and the memorial in Overton Park -- erected in 1908 -- is still standing to this day.
Got a question for Vance? Send it to "Ask Vance" at Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103. Or email him at email@example.com.