Pieces of the Past
Relics from our city's landmarks end up in new-and sometimes unexpected-places
When the majestic Hill Mansion on Union Avenue was demolished in 1979 to make way for a fast-food restaurant, the two stone lions that guarded the home's entrance were relocated to Overton Park, where they greet visitors to Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. You might call that a form of recycling, but it involves architectural treasures instead of trash. All too often, when a once-proud building is demolished, no trace of it remains except for our memories, or perhaps old photographs in a musty scrapbook. But sometimes, if you know just where to look, actual pieces of these places manage to survive.
Still Holding Up
In the early 1900s, one of downtown Memphis' most impressive buildings was the Goodwyn Institute (right). Founded by a grant from wealthy cotton merchant William Adolphus Goodwyn, the seven-story building, which cost $300,000 to build in 1907 — an enormous sum in those days — contained a 900-seat auditorium for public lectures, library, offices, and at one time the WMC radio station. The authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide called the structure "an elaborate fantasy on the Beaux-Arts theme."
Fantasies never last long. In 1962, the Goodwyn Institute was bulldozed to make way for the First National (later First Tennessee) Bank tower, still standing today. But one prominent feature of the building survived. Mrs. Ed Stalnecker, described in the newspapers as a "religious recording artist," told reporters she was buying the massive stone columns across the front because "they reminded her of her childhood audition days at the Goodwyn Institute." Most people might bring home a brick, maybe a chunk of tile, but Mrs. Stalnecker brought home just about the whole façade. She didn't really have a place for the columns on her home at 688 South McLean (below). So she had an architect extend the roofline about ten feet, and then added the columns. Although the Stalneckers moved out of the house years ago, the old Goodwyn columns still line the front of the house today. I imagine they would be pretty hard to remove.
The Secret of Chi Omega
Just about every building on the campus of Rhodes College is an architectural gem — from the cathedral-like Barret Library to the cottage-like fraternity and sorority houses that dot the grounds. So it might come as a surprise that the Gothic Revival Chi Omega house actually began life as a log cabin — erected in the 1920s in Chickasaw Gardens.
And that cabin had a famous owner. Clarence Saunders, the Piggly Wiggly magnate who erected the mansion that would in later years be known as our city's Pink Palace Museum, owned the property behind his house that is today Chickasaw Gardens. He had workers erect a spacious log cabin on an island in the lake there to serve as a playhouse for his three children.When Saunders went bankrupt after losing his Piggly Wiggly fortune (too long a story to go into here), a Dr. R.L. Bodley acquired the log cabin as a "prize" for purchasing the first lot in the new Gardens. He didn't really need a log cabin, so in 1926 he sold it to Chi Omega for $1,000, who took it apart, hauled it to the Rhodes (then called Southwestern) campus, and then put it back together for use as the school's first sorority house (below).
The gift wasn't exactly received with pleasure. Some sorority members griped that the log cabin, surrounded by the stone buildings of the rest of the college, looked a bit "cheap." A letter in the college archives refers to "a very prosperous member" — no, it wasn't a Lauderdale — who had pushed for the purchase of the log cabin "in a very high-handed manner." The women put up with the ramshackle cabin for years, until 1940, when they scrounged up enough money to hire George Awsumb, a prominent Memphis architect who had designed Idlewild Presbyterian Church, among other things, to design them a house they could be proud of. He actually constructed the new house around the old one. So yes, inside those massive granite walls of the present-day Chi O house is the original log cabin.
Hoyt Wooten was certainly an interesting fellow. The former radio salesman made a fortune by building and operating our city's first successful radio and television stations, which he named WREC, for "Wooten Radio Electronic Corporation." He used some of that fortune to build an Italian-style mansion on Highway 51 South (later renamed Elvis Presley Blvd.) and to purchase the Elbaroda ("adorable" spelled backwards), the largest and grandest yacht anyone in Memphis had ever seen. And then, growing nervous about the fate of the world in the Cold War, he built what he is perhaps most famous for — the largest private bomb shelter in the world.
Constructed at a cost of some $200,000, the 13-room underground complex on the grounds of his estate included sleeping quarters for 50 guests, a dining hall, recreation room, communications center, and even a morgue for anybody who didn't survive whatever attack Wooten feared.The only part above ground was a set of modern-looking concrete "sails" that concealed the entrance to the shelter.
Wooten never used it for its intended purpose. After his death in 1969, his property was converted into a subdivision called Lion's Gate, and for many years the old bomb shelter served as a community center. It's been empty for years now, but it's still standing as a remarkable reminder of our city's "radio electric" man.
The Lyric Lives On
In the early 1900s, one of our city's grandest vaudeville houses was the Lyric Theatre, located at 291 Madison. An old newspaper clipping described the handsome building's elaborate façade, which included "two scantily clad Greek maidens lounged prettily over the building's high arched entrance."
The Lyric remained a popular vaudeville house until 1924, when it was converted for use as a sort of town hall, the scene of YMCA meetings, dramatic club performances, and other ventures. Sometime in 1941, the theatre burned in a spectacular blaze, and the impressive ruins (below) drew bystanders for weeks. Salvage crews tried to rescue the "scantily clad maidens" but the chains slipped as they were being hoisted, and they crashed to the ground, shattering into pieces.
Other portions of the Lyric survive here and there around town, though. According to newspaper articles, a Memphis woman bought 60,000 of the fire-scorched bricks for a "rambling, English-style home" she was building on South Parkway, though the newspaper didn't specify just where she was building it. A Memphis man obtained the massive chains that had supported the theatre's marquee and used them for a footbridge at his home on Princeton — again, the papers didn't mention who this fellow was, or where that footbridge was located.
But I had better luck with George Watson's project. He purchased 10,000 of the old bricks and built a nice wall around his home at the corner of Highland and Watauga. Go there today, and the wall is still standing (below). In fact, it has survived longer than the original theater.
The 1952 construction of Poplar Plaza was a milestone in our city's history, for it was the first shopping center built away — and really far away at that — from downtown, which had always been Memphis' commercial center.
Lowenstein's was the "anchor" store, but one of the top attractions there was the Plaza Theatre, a stunning Art Deco structure, all yellow brick and stainless-steel trim, the façade topped with a massive steel spiral (technically called an "accroterion").
The Plaza, like so many single-screen theaters in America, faced tough times in the 1970s, added a second screen, and finally closed in 1989. Although there were fears the theater — and for that matter most of Poplar Plaza — would be demolished, new owners rescued the complex, and the theater was converted into the Bookstar that stands there today. The building exterior and interior are remarkably unchanged, but for one thing: That massive steel spire was removed
But it wasn't lost. It was hauled a few blocks away to the University of Memphis, where it now rests in a nook in an exterior wall of the Fogelman College of Business and Economics (below). With a little polish, it would look as good as new.
Many Memphians have fond memories of the Mark Twain Cafeteria. It opened in 1957 at 4320 Summer Avenue, which was then on the edge of town. "We served regular restaurant food, cafeteria-style," former owner Spiros Angelikas once told me, "but it was more seasoned, and we also offered Greek and lamb dishes." Besides the great food, many people remember the wonderful neon sign outside, which showed Tom Sawyer fishing along the riverbank. And they also remember the impressive murals painted on the walls of the restaurant inside (above), depicting well-known scenes from the books of Samuel Clemens.
Although the murals, at least to me, seemed to be done in the same style, three of them were painted by a local artist named Elmer Blalack, and the fourth was painted by Memphian Glenda Brown.
When the Mark Twain suffered the fate of many family-owned eateries and closed in 1996, a Dollar Tree moved in. Gone were the neon sign and other Mark Twain touches, including the cluster of booths arranged inside a steamboat "pilothouse." But the murals have survived. In fact, they can be seen today, as nice and fresh as the day they were painted, outside the Mississippi River Museum on Mud Island.
Travelers to Memphis in the mid-1900s had their choice of grand hotels: The Peabody, The Gayoso, The Claridge, and the King Cotton. Originally built as the Elks Hotel, then the Hotel DeVoy, the King Cotton offered sweeping views of Court Square, Confederate Park, and the Mississippi River (right). When downtown Memphis basically went to sleep in the 1960s and 1970s, the King Cotton closed. One of its last gasps of life was when it hosted a local performance of Hot L Baltimore, a perfect setting since the play involved characters living inside a decrepit hotel.
The empty building remained quiet until the morning of April 29, 1984, when blasts of dynamite turned the landmark into a heap of rubble. The gleaming Morgan Keegan Tower stands on the site today. But relics of the old hotel survive inside the new office tower. When it was constructed, the
hotel's owners placed four giant stone griffins — mythological winged beasts with the body of a lion and the head of an eagle — on ledges jutting from each of the building's top corners. It was a tricky operation to remove them with cranes, but each survived. Two are now on display in the lobby of the Morgan Keegan Tower, and the other two are on the second floor.
Anyone who has ever eaten there misses Anderton's.
Herbert Anderton opened an oyster bar downtown at 151 Madison that was a huge success. In fact, when the place celebrated its tenth anniversary, Anderton had his employees bake a 400-pound birthday cake and serve it to all his satisfied customers. In that first decade, he claimed he had served more than six million oysters, and who would argue? Heck, the man loved oysters so much that he built a house on East Parkway with an oyster-shaped swimming pool.
In 1956, he decided to expand, purchasing the old Gilmore Seafood Restaurant at 1901 Madison and renaming it Anderton's East. An old newspaper story said the new establishment had "an air of quiet elegance" but that's not how most people would probably describe it. Instead, we remember that bizarre pirate-ship bar (complete with cannons), organic pink ceiling "blobs" that floated over diners in the main dining room (above), a blue glass panel etched with sea creatures, and — for a while — even a waterfall outside the front door. Oh, and all this inside a bright-green terra-cotta façade.
It seemed like it might last forever, but all the Anderton's restaurants (there was a third one in Whitehaven) closed. When the Madison location shut its doors in 2005, everyone thought they had seen the last of the most unusual restautants in town.
Well, visit a new bar at 2559 Broad Street called The Cove (above), and you will experience a chilling sense of déjà vu. But it's not all in your mind. Yep, it's all there — the pirate ship and that funky Fifties interior —rescued from Anderton's.
Jim Marshall had spent most of his life in the design business when he decided he wanted to open a bar. He found the location on Broad, and then went to an auction of Anderton's furnishings. "I had no intention of buying anything," he told this magazine a few months ago. "I just popped in out of curiosity."
Well, he popped back out as the owner of Anderton's distinctive bar, as well as lighting fixtures, murals, and other pieces of the old place. He moved everything to The Cove, and says, "When I got the bar in, it looked as though it had been made for this place."
And yes, they serve plenty of oysters there.
It's a safe bet that few buildings in our city's history attracted as many Memphians as Ellis Auditorium (right). After all, this downtown landmark — spanning an entire block along Main Street — was the scene of countless high school graduations, performances by the Memphis Symphony, rock concerts, and hundreds of other events.
When it opened in 1924, Ellis was considered high-tech, with two separate halls on either side of a central stage, which could be divided by a soundproof curtain. Over the years, though, the old auditorium needed more than a facelift, so it was demolished in 2001 to make way for the gleaming new Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. But Ellis lives on in various ways. One of its massive pipe organs, which no doubt played "Pomp and Circumstance" for thousands of graduates, was painstakingly dismantled, pipe by pipe, and relocated to Bartlett United Methodist Church. (The other pipe organ is being restored in Missouri for a future home in California.) And some of the old auditorium's distinctive architectural ornamentation, such as a row of nine terra-cotta medallions, found their way into the main concourse of the new building (below), along with 28 of the old wooden chairs. Some of those chairs still have the wire rack on the bottom, where gentlemen could store their hats — back when gentlemen wore hats — and their original seat numbers. Maybe one of those is the very chair where you sat during your graduation. Have a seat. Bring back memories for you?