The Crane Company and Collins Chapel.
PHOTO BY VANCE LAUDERDALE / old images courtesy julie ray
Dear Vance: What can you tell me about the very handsome five-story building on Court Avenue, just north of AutoZone Park, which has the word CRANE carved along the roofline? — s.p., memphis
Dear S.P.: Though it’s not slathered with decoration, I’ve long admired this sturdy but handsome building, which began life more than a century ago as the “sub-branch” of a national heating and plumbing supply company.
That firm, as you probably surmised, was the Crane Company, still in business today (though not in Memphis), producing and selling all kinds of residential and commercial plumbing products. In fact, thanks to my pal, Julie Ray, who loaned me her copy of a rare book, The Autobiography of Richard Teller Crane, published in 1912, I know a good deal about the early days of this company.
I won’t give away the whole story here — you’ll have to find your own copy of Crane’s book for that — but I’ll tell you that Crane (shown here) was born way back in 1832 in Paterson, New Jersey. At a young age, he discovered that “I possessed considerable natural mechanical tendency, for I found much pleasure in devising mechanical contrivances, such as simple machines operated by water wheels, and I also made sleds, boats, balls, and bats. Another pastime which afforded me much pleasure was the making and flying of kites.”
Crane never mentions attending school. At the age of 9 he began working in a cotton mill and a few years later at a tobacco factory. As a teenager, he gained employment in a brass foundry owned by his uncle in Brooklyn, and from there he took a succession of other jobs that allowed him to use his skills as a mechanic and machinist.
In 1855, he formed his own company in New York, the R.T. Crane Brass and Bell Foundry. Within a few years, the company expanded to include the manufacture of all sorts of things: pipes, pumps, tools, fans, fire hydrants, radiators, even elevators. In the late 1880s, Crane began the construction of various sub-branch offices around the country. The first opened in 1886 in Los Angeles, followed by San Francisco (1891), Oakland (1898), Portland (1894), Tacoma (1906), and almost 40 more. Each of these sub-branches would house the company’s regional sales offices as well as a warehouse for the particular products being sold in each region.
The Memphis branch was established in 1904, and the Autobiography contains a nice illustration of the building when it opened, along with these details: “The lot on which the store stands is 87 x 148 feet. The store is a fireproof building precisely 87 feet frontage by 100 feet deep. The remainder of this lot is occupied by a one-story annex. This branch also has another lot 74 x 74 feet, on which is a warehouse.”
As you can see, the building has survived more than 100 years and still looks as good as new. It served the Crane Company until 1982, when Crane closed many of its branches. The building on Court became home to Memphis Hospital Service and Surgical Association, but only for about a year. In 1983, the Golden Shield Life Insurance Company moved in, but the building has been empty for the last year or so.
Richard Crane died in 1912. In the Autobiography, he admits that he had only a “fairly good knowledge of brass foundry work, knew something of the brass finishing trade, and was only a fair machinist. I had a very limited education, possessed no business experience, and was quite deficient in the qualities of a good salesman.”
Nevertheless, he — and his company — succeeded, he wrote, because “I did, however, possess considerable foresight and ingenuity as well as reasoning power, and was full of enthusiasm, energy, and determination.”
So much like the Lauderdales in that regard!
What’s more, he said, “it was my invariable practice to avoid all deception and trickery … and I have never resorted to anything like sharp practice or dishonesty to gain trade.”
Uh, well, maybe he wasn’t so much like the Lauderdales after all.
Collins Chapel Hospital
Dear Vance: I came across a reference to a private hospital called Collins Chapel, and had never heard of it. Where was it, and what happened to it? — d.s., memphis.
Dear D.S.: Everyone knows the large medical centers here — Baptist, Methodist, St. Francis, St. Jude, and Le Bonheur immediately come to mind — but years ago it wasn’t considered unusual for patients to be treated at smaller hospitals and clinics scattered all over town. I’ve written before, for example, about the old Gartly-Ramsey Hospital on Jackson, a privately owned facility whose patients included William Faulkner.
In their fine book Memphis Medicine: A History of Science and Service, Patricia LaPointe McFarland and Mary Ellen Pitts tell the story of Collins Chapel better than I can, but since this is my column, I’ll just summarize its history here. First of all, Collins Chapel was (and still is) an African-American church, located downtown at 676 Washington. In 1910, members established a clinic and “old folks home” (as we used to call them) at 418 Ashland. In 1919, Dr. William S. Martin was named director, and although he served as president of the Bluff City Medical Society and played an active role in other medical groups here, he is perhaps better known — to Memphis sports fans, at least — as one of the owners (along with his brothers) of the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American Baseball League.
But I digress. Collins Chapel Hospital apparently struggled to survive in its early years, but in the 1920s it expanded, adding a new wing, offering a nurses training school, and even operating its own ambulance service. Those ambulances were important, you see, because back in those segregated days, white ambulance companies often wouldn’t pick up black patients. Heck, for that matter, it wasn’t easy for black patients to get into some of the city’s largest hospitals. Hard to believe, but true.
In 1955, Collins Chapel opened an all-new hospital at 409 Ayers, which is the building you see here. It only offered 44 beds, but as McFarland and Pitts point out, “it was the fulfillment of Dr. Martin’s years of efforts to provide a modern healthcare facility for African Americans.” After the city hospitals were officially desegregated in the 1960s, the need for places like Collins Chapel Hospital diminished, and it closed in 1971. Though still standing, the building is empty.
Wait, one more thing: Who was Collins? That would be the Reverend J.T. Collins, who served as the first minister when the church was founded by slaves in 1841.