The Big Shoe

Dear Vance: When I was a child, I have fond memories of buying my shoes in a store shaped like a giant boot. Is that building still standing in Memphis? — M.N., Birmingham

Dear M.N.: I wish I could tell you it has lived on, still creating magical memories for children of all ages, but I’m afraid Memphis gave the big shoe the boot. Everyone called it “The Big Shoe” but I don’t think that was ever its official name. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is how many people were dismayed when this very bizarre building on Lamar was demolished in 1996. In fact, I could argue that this was one of the most famous buildings ever erected in Memphis. Anybody and everybody, it seems, remembers it.

The eye-catching structure at 2995 Lamar opened in 1965 as High Fashions in the Shoe, a shoe store for children. It even had a tiny door in the side, just for the toddlers. It was designed by Memphis architect Lawrence Hord Jr., and his son, Carter (also an architect), told me, “My father designed hundreds of churches, but most everyone mainly remembers the shoe. He was very creative and enjoyed the design challenge. The inspiration came from a small copper bank for coins, which was in the shape of a boot.”

Other Memphians deserve some credit for the structure. My pal Gayle Kirk Drotar tells me that her grandfather, Lester Horton Dunagan, a local sculptor and part-owner of the White Stone Company, crafted the original clay mold for the shoe. “From that the architects put together how to build it,” she says. “That little shoe sat in his shop until he died, but we don’t know what happened to it.”

 The original building was gleaming white with blue trim, and inside was a psychedelic playland, with green walls, yellow ceilings, and all sorts of odd fiberglass creatures that served as furniture. Candy Ward claims that her grandfather, Roland Burt, crafted much of the interior. “The inside of the Big Shoe contained a lot of animals that my grandfather built,” she told me. “I remember an octopus and each arm held a little seat for the children, and a caterpillar with four or five humps that served as seats.”

According to newspaper accounts, the big shoe would serve as the prototype for an identical chain of shoe stores in other locations around the Mid-South. That never happened. Instead, the shoe went through various owners over the years. In 1967, it became The Shoe House, and by the 1970s it was known as The Enchanted Shoe. Eventually, though, owners gave up trying to use the structure as a shoe store, and in its last few years — painted a dreary tan and brown — it housed a clothing store.

Rumors persisted that the building would be moved to Libertyland instead of being demolished, but since it was one huge chunk of poured concrete, nobody could haul it across town in one piece, and the changing neighborhood made it difficult to use as a store of any kind. Anyone who thought otherwise simply needed to visit the liquor store next door, where clerks sold bottles of wine through a slot in a bulletproof-glass window. Not quite as charming as shopping for shoes inside a giant boot.

In Memphis: An Architectural Guide, authors Eugene Johnson and Robert Russell Jr. called the shoe “one of Memphis’ best examples of roadside architecture — almost roadside sculpture. What better way to advertise shoes than by putting them inside a giant boot?”

I paid it a visit shortly before it was demolished, and stopped next door to replenish my supply of Kentucky Nip. The clerk told me, “We see cars and vans pull up out front and tourists — Japanese, European — take a picture of it. If they tear it down, we’ll lose another one of Memphis’ little-known attractions.”

Well, we did tear it down, as you know by now. A strip shopping center stands on the site today. Not many tourists bother to snap pictures of that.

Both photographs courtesy Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries

Monument Mix-Up

Dear Vance: Many years ago when I was living in Memphis, I remember visiting a monument that commemorated Hernando DeSoto’s discovery of the Mississippi River. I can’t recall where this was. Can you help? — T.G., Nashville

Dear T.G.: Actually, you have a choice of two different monuments, for the simple reason that nobody really knows where DeSoto first glimpsed the river, so we just stuck his name all over the place.

For years, a flat slab of granite — almost always misidentified as a former slave auction block — has stood in a grassy area called Colonial Park, just west of the MATA bus terminal on North Main (below). The stone carried a shield-shaped plaque listing key moments in our city’s history. The first was this: “1541: Near this spot stood Hernando DeSoto when he first beheld the Mississippi River.”

Well, historians later realized this was probably untrue — or at least unproven — so when the plaque was pulled off during a World War II scrap-metal drive, nobody bothered to replace it. 

(And don’t even get me started on why people insist it’s an actual auction block. I’ve turned up newspaper articles that show a group called the Colonial Dames of America donated the stone to that little park in 1924. It wasn’t even there in the 1800s.)

Then, about two miles to the south, you can find another monument that for years made the same claim. Sometime in the early 1900s city officials hauled a rough chunk of granite between the two Indian mounds that stand outside the National Ornamental Metal Museum. They named the grassy area around the mounds DeSoto Park, and put a plaque on the stone commemorating the conquistador.

For some reason, even though they found a mighty impressive chunk of stone (right), they used a dinky little plaque, about the size of a car license plate, and bolted it on a topside corner of the stone. It said: “Near this spot Hernando DeSoto discovered the Mississippi River in May 1541.” Nothing else about DeSoto — his expedition, his life, his death in America. And once again you have that vague wording “near this spot.”

My gripe about this monument is how cluttery it is. Maybe park officials couldn’t find another big rock, so they decided it should do double-duty and attached a larger plaque to the front, reading: “The Chisca mound was utilized in 1863, during the Civil War, as an artillery redoubt and magazine inside of the great federal fortress Fort Pickering, covering the site of the first Fort Pickering, and the top of the mound was excavated for that purpose.” 

Now the Lauderdales have never been hailed for their military prowess, but putting your cannons on top of your main gunpowder supply seems like a really bad idea. And why does the old marker focus on just that detail? Fort Pickering was a massive encampment — almost a city unto itself, really — but you sure don’t learn much about it from this. 

At any rate, this awkwardly worded — if not downright wrong — monument stood for decades in DeSoto Park. And then one day, both plaques disappeared, though — just like its counterpart in Colonial Park — the big stone remained in place, stripped of its ornaments.

A few years ago, the Riverfront Development Corporation renamed this area Chickasaw Heritage Park, honoring the original settlers here, and the plaques were replaced, with slightly different wording. The big plaque on the front about the guns remains as vague as ever, but the smaller marker now says, “In this area Hernando DeSoto viewed the Mississippi River in 1541.” Since we’ll never know for sure, I guess saying “this area” is better than “this spot.”

But all of this just shows that you can’t always believe what you read — even when it’s set in stone.  

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