Lost Memphis: Downtown's War Memorial Fountain

Photo courtesy Benjamin Hooks Central Library

I wonder how many people have forgotten about the magnificent stainless-steel memorial fountain that once stood outside the Front Street post office? Well, here's a great image of it — from the Memphis Room at the main library. Impressive, no?

It was erected in 1962, as a tribute to the dead of World War II. Later, I believe the inscription was altered a bit so it could also serve as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the Korean War as well.

How did such a thing come about? It seems that a local group called the Gold Star Mothers — mothers of sons and daughters lost in action in our nation's wars — raised $50,000 and recruited Memphis architects to design a suitable memorial. What they wanted was a traditional, shrine-type structure — with nice bronze statues and marble columns and all. Something quiet and respectful. What they got, though, was a gleaming rectangular aluminum dish, with marble dripping into a big marble pool below. I don't know who designed it.

The Gold Star Mothers were dismayed, and called the fountain "a monstrosity." The designers defended their work, though, saying the fountain was "the first example in Memphis of non-representational civic sculpture." In other words, it was some of that newfangled "modern" art, and some folks here just didn't appreciate it.

And they showed that lack of appreciation in various ways. Almost as soon as the fountain was set in place at Front and Madison, gripes started pouring in. Postal workers said sunlight reflecting off the highly polished aluminum blinded them. On windy days, water tended to splatter people walking along the sidewalk. One day a nosy kid climbed up onto the rim, fell in, and almost drowned. Sometime later, some drunk guy tossed his girlfriend in.

Pranksters put goldfish in the water, but they died and clogged up the drain. Other kids (and adults, too, I bet) kept pouring soap and bubble bath in the water. It was just one pesky thing after another.

Finally, eight years later, the city dismantled the fountain, planted grass where the pool used to be, and tossed the aluminum shell up on top of a maintenance building in Overton Park. There it sat for years and years, until 1977, when the park commission remembered the nice fountain and decided to install it at Memphis Botanic Garden in Audubon Park. At least that's what an old newspaper article says. But that plan apparently never happened. The folks at the Botanic Garden say the fountain never turned up over there, and the folks at the park commission say they have no idea where it is. It's probably tucked away in storage somewhere. I'll check the Lauderdale Mansion attic as soon as it cools off a bit.

The plaza you see here was revamped for the U of M law school, and the park commission eventually built a nice War Memorial Plaza in Overton Park by the Doughboy statue. The Gold Star Mothers are probably a lot happier with that one.

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Famed Memphis trivia expert Vance Lauderdale answers reader questions weekly here on his blog!

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business.  Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

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