Cottage Industry

Ask Vance



Dear Vance: What was the original purpose of the tiny grey building that, until recently, housed Taylor's Music on Madison (below right) ? It has a certain charm, but I think it's too small to have been a residence.

— R.A., Memphis.

Dear R.A.: When I was young, my father would bundle me into the Daimler-Benz, and we would drive into the city to count the sacks of gold in our vaults hidden around town. Didn't everybody?

During these drives I was always instructed to keep my head down to avoid the gaze of potential kidnappers, but sometimes I would peek over the windowsill, and one morning I remember noticing this building, too. In fact, the next day I stamped my little feet and begged Father to purchase it for me and move it to the Lauderdale estate as a playhouse, but just about that time the dirigible market crashed to the ground — to so speak — and such frivolous purchases were curtailed. I'm still bitter about it to this day. If we had bought this little house, I could be living in that now, instead of paying the utility bills of our rambling 250,000-square-foot mansion, where I only keep the lights on in two rooms anyway.

But I came to realize that this little structure wouldn't have worked very well as a residence, since it was originally constructed in 1935 as a gas station. Pure Oil Station #6, to be more specific.

Founded in 1914 in Ohio, the Pure Oil Company realized they might garner a better share of the burgeoning gasoline market if their stations had a distinctive theme. So in the mid-1920s they recruited New Orleans architect C.A. Peterson, who came up with the "English Cottage" design for their stations. If a cottage doesn't seem to be a very good design for something so utilitarian as a gas station, you didn't understand the motoring public of the day. Michael Karl Witzel, author of The American Gas Station, writes, "From the vantage point of the motorist wheeling past, the pleasant trappings of the roadside house conjured up welcome feelings of friendliness and offered the atmosphere so greatly missed by the traveler when venturing forth on the open road. The mere sight of a white-shuttered window spilled forth memories of Mom and those delicious home-baked pies cooking on the sill. A house meant quiet evenings by the fireside, with one's favorite dog or the entire family hovering around the radio, listening to the latest exploits of Fibber McGee and Molly.

Well . . . okay. And apparently the folks at Pure Oil thought their cottages would be just as enticing dropped into a neighborhood, mere blocks from your own home, with those tasty pies and favorite dog and radio and all.

I managed to scrounge up a good photo of this station when it first opened in 1935. Squint hard and you'll notice the displays for Purol and Tyrol motor oil, the Lyon tires for sale, the three old-style gas pumps with the "clock" faces, and even a bubblegum machine mounted by the front door. What's also interesting is that this station doesn't seem to have the standard garage bay, where the cars would be greased and repaired. Instead, it appears to have a striped awning that stretches from the rear of the building to the house next door, so perhaps that's where cars were serviced.

As I said earlier, if you've been paying attention, this was Pure Oil Station #6, but what's strange is that, according to old telephone books, Memphis had only two other Pure stations at the time — at 1131 Lamar and 983 Poplar — so I can't explain their crazy numbering system.

This little station was originally operated by Thornton Emmons, who lived with his wife Hensye at 1589 Court. His son, Thornton Jr., worked at the station until he was drafted into the Army at the beginning of World War II.

The Pure Oil people obviously put a lot of money into their fancy cottage-style stations, but in this case it didn't pay off. Emmons' Pure Oil closed in 1942. It probably didn't help that this particular station was erected right next door to a much larger establishment with an enclosed garage — the Connable & Joist Filling Station (better known in later years as Hattley's Garage).

The building was vacant for a year or so, when a widow named Hazel Diehl opened Hazel's Dress and Accessory Shop there, advertising "complete ladies' apparel." Hazel remained in business for almost ten years, when she began to share space with an ice-cream shop called The Milky Way. A dress shop and ice-cream parlor seems an odd combination to me, and perhaps customers thought so, too, because Hazel's closed in 1956.

In more recent years, 1739 Madison became home to an odd assortment of businesses: Sargent's Motor Sales (used cars), the Barbecue King Restaurant, and Hurlburt's Laundry and Cleaners. In 1963, a pharmacy called the Prescription House moved in, and there is an interesting rumor connected with that establishment. People in the neighborhood believe that Dr. George Nichopoulos, the physician who treated Elvis Presley, operated this pharmacy, and — so the story goes — handed out pharmaceuticals to his famous client through a drive-through window in the back of the shop. Sandi Hughes, who works in the building today, graciously gave me a tour of the place, and showed me the little window.

But I think that's an urban legend. Dr. Nick's offices were actually across the street, in the medical building at 1734 Madison. Records show that the Prescription House was owned and operated by a licensed pharmacist named Jack Kirsch. And most biographers relate that Dr. Nick personally delivered medications to Elvis; the King of Rock-and-Roll couldn't be expected to drive to Midtown, sneak around back of a pharmacy, and pick up his own pills.

At some point in this building's complicated history, the gas pumps were yanked up and the open bay was enclosed. In the 1970s, the Coat of Arms Barber Shop moved in, along with the Taylor Topper Company, which offered "custom-made hairpieces." For a year or so in the late 1980s, it housed a boutique called Natalia's on Madison, then Crystal Cleaners, then Tangles Hair Salon. Taylor's Music moved in around 2003 but closed a year ago. The old gas station is now home to At Work Medical Staffing, and there are probably few buildings in town that have seen such a variety of uses over the years. I still think it would make a great playhouse. [image-2] Sunken Treasure

Dear Vance: I am enclosing a souvenir folder, picturing scenes of Memphis in 1917. Your readers might be interested in one picture, showing the "Sunken Garden and Speedway." Where was this sunken garden? Is it still there?

— R.H., Helena, Arkansas.

Dear R.H.: Thanks for sharing the old photograph. The sunken garden is still there — well, sort of — but it is not, and was never, on the Speedway. Perhaps I should explain.

First of all, the Speedway was a one-mile section of North Parkway, running west from present-day University. It was so named because early in the 1900s it was set aside on weekends for amateur horse racing, and it quickly became the place to be, and to be seen. The name survives today in the Speedway Terrace neighborhood around North Parkway. For some reason, over the years people started confusing the Speedway section of North Parkway with all sections of North Parkway, and then they even started giving that name to East Parkway. That's just crazy talk. And that's the problem with your souvenir folder, R.H. Although it says "Speedway," it actually shows East Parkway, and the sunken garden shown in the picture is still there, tucked into the median at the intersection of East Parkway and Madison. But the garden has changed considerably over the years. For some reason, the city doesn't plant flowers anymore in the sunken part. Instead, beginning in the 1960s and continuing ever since, they have planted an ever-changing rainbow of flowers on the slope just to the north, spelling out a giant "M."

The idea was clearly stolen from the Lauderdale landscapers, who once did the same thing at the entrance to our estate, but they spelled out a giant "L" using cacti, and it just didn't have the same effect.

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