Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY MEMPHIS ROOM, BENJAMIN HOOKS CENTRAL LIBRARY
Dear Vance: I went to Fairview Junior High School and was always told it used to be an old hospital. Is that true?
— V.W., Memphis
Dear V.W.: I'm surprised nobody has asked me about this fascinating establishment before. Constructed sometime in the mid-1800s on a hill overlooking East Parkway, Fair-View (as it was then called) served as a place of refuge and recovery for victims of the battle of Shiloh during the Civil War. Years later, the building that now serves as the school gymnasium operated as a makeshift morgue for hundreds of Memphians who died during the yellow fever epidemics. And on that awful day of June 2, 1928, doctors here treated the unfortunate children crippled during the Great Zippin Pippin Disaster, when . . .
Oh, none of that's true. I was just seeing if you were paying attention. For one thing, East Parkway wasn't even laid out until 1904. And anyone who walked through the front doors of Fairview passed right by a six-foot-tall stone plaque that clearly shows the Memphis Board of Education erected the building in 1930.
The inscription gives the exact dates of construction: FAIRVIEW JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL — Erected from April the First to September the First 1930." It then lists the members of the Board of Education responsible for approving construction of the new school: W.J. Prescott, president; H.H. Honnol, vice president; and three others without titles: J.C. Carruthers, Mrs. Mamie Cain Browne, and Mrs. Eldren Rogers.
Even so, I can understand some people might think Fairview wasn't originally a school building, because it doesn't resemble any other educational facility in our city. With its distinctive buff-colored brick, its stunning art deco design, and — most of all — its tons of brightly colored terra-cotta detailing, this is not your typical red-brick schoolhouse. In fact, Eugene Johnson and Robert Russell Jr., the authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide, consider it "the architectural gem of the school system and one of the finest buildings in the whole city."
That plaque by the front door says the school was erected by S&W Construction Company, and the architectural firm was E.L. Harrison. Most of the work on this building was done by one of Harrison's young associates. "The real mind behind Fairview was Noland Van Powell," say Russell and Johnson, "and it is fair to say that this is his surviving masterpiece."
Powell (1904-1977) was an accomplished painter and architect, and his work lives on in the classical elegance of The Peabody's Plantation Room and the colonial charm of Chickasaw Oaks Mall. Other notable projects — done alone or in conjunction with other architects — include the Memphis Steam Laundry Building, the old Three Sisters Building downtown, Greyhound bus stations and Toddle House diners throughout the Mid-South, and dozens of fine Memphis homes.
Without any formal architectural training, Powell served as an apprentice for the Harrison firm before eventually branching out on his own. But if he designed Fairview as an apprentice, then that makes the finished building even more remarkable. You can spend quite some time in front of the school admiring all the wonderful details: the elaborate two-story entrance pavilion (shown here), the almost-gaudy mosaic-tile frieze above the doors, the flanking towers with their stylized representations of "Day" and "Night," the stone plaques set into the brickwork along the façade — it just goes on and on.
On a recent visit to photograph the school, I peered through the doors and made the same discovery noted by the authors of An Architectural Guide: "Lots of schools put all their architectural power on the outside and leave the inside to the students. At Fairview, however, the outside part of the entrance is just half of the experience of coming into the school."
Inside, you'll find sweeping black-and-tan marble staircases, art deco-designed trophy cases, and even rows of incredibly elaborate light fixtures that have somehow survived more than eight decades of students.
Fairview was never a hospital, but for any admirer of fine architecture, it sure makes you feel good to look at it. "Fairview is a wonderful building," conclude Johnson and Russell. "It takes a difficult architectural problem — the American secondary school — and does great things with it."
Dear Vance: I heard that a "community of the future" was built in East Memphis in the 1950s. Are they talking about the Williamsburg Colony in Parkway Village?
— D.T., Memphis
Dear D.T.: Hmmm. I think I can safely say that the residential development on Knight-Arnold, with a dozen or so homes based on historic properties in Colonial Williamsburg, would actually be a community of the past — not of the future.
No, what you are surely talking about is the innovative Country Club Estates, a "city of the future" to be developed in the area bounded by Park Avenue, White Station, Quince, and Estate. It was patterned after a rather unusual subdivision in Radburn, New Jersey — surely one of the few times that New Jersey has been used as a good model for anything.
I've included a rather fuzzy map that ran in the May 1, 1953, edition of the Memphis Press-Scimitar that showed how the Radburn Plan, as it came to be called, would be applied here. It's basically a grid of major thoroughfares, with the residential streets laid out as neat rows of cul-de-sacs (most of us call them "coves"). A centrally located park would include a lake and community center, and a large retail center would be constructed to the south. All the streets would be pedestrian friendly, with the smaller streets actually tunneling beneath the larger ones so nobody would have to battle traffic.
As the newspaper explained, "It winds walkways through the entire development, over grassy areas and beneath trees — with pedestrian underpasses to carry residents from any place in the community to any other place in the community, without having to cross a street."
Country Club Estates would include precisely 1,750 single-family homes, described as "contemporary architecture of the Nth degree" — a precise scientific measurement which, I assume, is much better than homes of "L" or even "M" degrees. Renderings actually showed rather small, plain-looking single-story homes with flat roofs and detached carports. The Lauderdales would never purchase such a thing, let me tell you.
Local developer J.A. Montgomery claimed the development would "serve present-day requirements of good living in a more practical and pleasant way than does the conventional pattern of subdivision living." The newspapers of the day supported the idea in every possible way, with the Press-Scimitar printing special editions that touted the Radburn Plan, calling it "a development of the future — not just another housing project, but a design for living."
But it never happened. Country Club Estates never broke ground. The local planning commission objected to the cheap-looking houses on small lots and fretted that "this type of home will be slums in a few years." Memphis eventually built the curiously named Sea Isle School in the land originally set aside for the community center. Other developers opened a bowling alley, Big Star grocery store, and other businesses at Quince and White Station, but the neighborhood today bears no resemblance to the original plan. In fact, the only vestige of this grand scheme is the name of the street that would have served as its eastern boundary: Estate.