The Crane Company and Collins Chapel.
PHOTO BY VANCE LAUDERDALE / old images courtesy julie ray
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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.