Acclaimed architect Roy Harrover deserves much of the credit for changing the public face of our city.
Roy Harrover at the Memphis College of Art in October. Hundreds of his blueprints and other files are now archived at the University of Memphis.
"He is among the most admired and most important architects we have — creator of two of the ten most significant buildings of the last century, the first of which we are in right now. On behalf of the college community which has so benefited from your first effort, and on behalf of the greater community which benefits from all your efforts, I am proud to present you with the highest honor Memphis College of Art can bestow, the degree of Doctor of Fine Arts."
That was MCA president Jeffrey Nesin, speaking on the morning of May 13, 2000, as he bestowed an honorary degree on Roy Harrover. It was one of many honors and awards given to the architect, recognizing more than a half century of remarkable work as the creator of such landmarks as Memphis College of Art and Memphis International Airport (the two buildings Nesin mentioned), along with the Mud Island River Park complex, Commerce Square, Goldsmith's department stores, the Church of the River, and more than a hundred major projects.
More than any other living architect, Harrover can take credit for changing the face of modern Memphis. And it might not have happened if he hadn't thought Atlanta was too big, and Nashville was "too colonial."
BUILDING THE FOUNDATION
Roy Parker Harrover was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1928. When his parents divorced a few years later, he moved with his mother to Nashville. At the age of 7, he constructed some wooden toys and entered them into a national contest sponsored by the Toycrafter company. He not only won, but continued to garner prizes from the company for the next five years. While a teenager in junior high school, he landed a job building scale models of dive-bombers for the Vultee Aircraft Corporation. After graduation, he joined the Marine Corps, and was assigned to Cherry Point Marine Air Station in North Carolina, where he was responsible for aerial photography and mapping. The story goes that he did pencil portraits of fellow Marines' girlfriends and wives, earning enough to purchase his first car.
When the war ended, Harrover went to Yale on the G.I. Bill, where he studied architecture and found time to join the Yale fencing team. After he earned his degree, he began working as a designer for the dean of the Yale School of Architecture.
Not a bad job, but it didn't really suit a young man interested in modern architecture.
"I grew up in Nashville, and considered moving back there," he says, "but they were too dedicated to Colonial architecture. Atlanta was just too big, so I made a short list of cities — St. Louis, Dallas, others — and finally decided this town could use more modern architects. At the time, the only other fellow here who was doing modern buildings was [A.L.] Aydelott, who had designed the campus of Christian Brothers College, and I decided Memphis was promising."
Harrover moved here in 1955. He had only been here a few months when he formed a partnership with Leigh Williams and Bill Mann, working out of an old frame house on Arkansas Street, overlooking the Mississippi. The new firm was called Mann & Harrover, with Williams listed as an associate.
It wasn't a perfect team. "Leigh basically wanted to design redwood residences," says Harrover, "and Bill and I wanted the moon."
Mann had earned his degree from Georgia Tech and had designed Grahamwood Elementary School, but almost from the beginning, the two assumed separate roles: Mann was the marketing expert and salesman, and Harrover was the chief designer. After a year or so, Williams moved to the West Coast, where he helped design Seattle's Space Needle.
"The very first project I did here was the snack bar in the basement of Bry's Department Store," says Harrover. "It was slow going for a while. Bill was from Forrest City, and mostly all we did were cheap schools in Arkansas and Mississippi. The flat roofs were just bar joists and fiberglass, and in the summer, the tar would leak through the seams and drip down in strings on the desks."
But Harrover and Mann soon set their sights on a much bigger prize. "I knew the art academy was coming," he says, "and I very much wanted to compete in that."
By the 1950s, the Memphis Academy of Arts had completely outgrown the space it occupied in a cluster of nineteenth-century mansions on Adams Avenue. The city decided to build a fine-arts complex in Overton Park — an art school combined with a concert hall and museum — and held a regional competition to select the winning designers. The jury included world-famous architects Philip Johnson and Paul Rudolph.
The contest was narrowed down to three finalists. The Memphis firm of Thomas Faires & Associates conceived a sprawling complex with interconnected buildings. Aydelott submitted a "plaza scheme," which the jury thought was "an excellent solution to the many functional problems." Even so, the $7,000 first prize — and the job — went to Mann & Harrover, who had submitted a design that incorporated all the elements of the fine-arts center into one, easily expandable, ultra-modern structure.
"It was really a very unusual design, particularly the concrete screens," says Harrover, "but it would not have worked in an urban setting, squeezed between other buildings. It's really a piece of sculpture."
The Memphis Press-Scimitar noted that the winning firm was "one of the youngest, if not the youngest, architectural firms in Memphis." Mann was just 33, Harrover only 28. The newspaper announced, "The jury feels strongly that this building belongs in the park — that it is precisely designed for the site which has been assigned to it. It is a unified design . . . and should be beautiful from any aspect as one approaches it." In conclusion, they said, "It is a truly classical concept."
Work began almost immediately, and the first phase of the building was dedicated on April 26, 1959. It was a far cry from what stands in the park today, since it was only the northern third of the present building — all that was allotted for use by the art academy at the time. The city eventually decided against a comprehensive fine-arts complex, and within a few years builders added the central hall (today's Rust Hall) and the southern wing.
Eugene Johnson and Robert Russell, authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide, observed, "Progressive Architecture honored it with a National Design Award, a blessing few other buildings in the city have received." The editors of the newly published guidebook, A Survey of Modern Public Buildings in Memphis, Tennessee, from 1940 to 1980, say MCA "has achieved an iconic presence in its Overton Park setting, and is one of the best and most enduring examples of early modern architecture in Memphis."
During this time, Mann & Harrover were busy with other, considerably less fancy, projects, including rental housing communities in Dyersburg, Tennessee. Most cities would have gone with fairly basic designs, but the Journal of Housing noted that "Dyersburg had settled for nothing but the best." In fact, Mann & Harrover submitted clean, ultra-modern designs for these humble homes that the Journal was convinced "would revolutionize the concept of public housing in the United States." What they delivered was based on the "Radburn" style of housing first developed in New Jersey — clusters of contemporary homes with living areas facing a common green space. Construction materials were high quality, and the houses were quite appealing.
The Dyersburg project even attracted the attention of Jersey Architect magazine. In its September 1961 issue, editors noted that they normally restricted their stories to projects in New Jersey, but "occasionally an architectural achievement in another state is so pertinent to local problems that we consider it of real value to the architects of New Jersey, and we consider the Dyersburg Housing Project such an achievement."
Next came a job closer to home: Richland Junior High School in East Memphis. For decades, the Memphis Board of Education had been building solid-looking red-brick schools according to a standard plan; now they wanted something different, and Mann & Harrover supplied it.
Faced with a sloping site, the architects designed the school as two separate buildings, linked by a breezeway. It's all concrete and glass, with a "folded-plate" concrete roof that Mann & Harrover said "was the first example of this system of construction in the South." The building today looks like many other school buildings in Memphis, but that's because we forget it was the first of its kind. When it opened in 1958, Architectural Record praised its "good design and extreme economy." The American Association of School Administrators named it "one of the top 26 of its kind in the nation" and noted "it makes the most of its concrete structural frame."
The authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide call it simply "the first truly modern school built in Memphis" and "one of the best buildings in town from the 1950s."
Larger and more prominent projects followed, such as buildings at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, training facilities for the U.S. Navy at Millington, and the development center for the disabled at Arlington. The firm apparently knew no limits. Mann & Harrover designed Goldsmith's Oak Court store, which led to the complete renovation of the downtown Goldsmith's store and the construction of other Goldsmith's at Southland Mall and Raleigh Springs Mall. In fact, Harrover was responsible for more than 30 other Goldsmith's renovations and projects — loading docks, elevators, signage, and more — throughout the city for the next 25 years.
ENTERING THE JET AGE
On the afternoon of June 7, 1963, Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, spoke at the dedication ceremonies of the gleaming new Memphis International Airport. Calling it "an architectural masterpiece," he said, "I have seen most of the metropolitan airports in the world, and I have seen none handsomer."
Progressive Architecture magazine honored it with a National Design Award, and made special note of its clean interior design, "which has produced an atmosphere unmarred by the Coney Islandish claims for attention of many airports." The American Institute of Architects saluted the building with its coveted National Award of Merit.
The Press-Scimitar gushed, "The new airport gives a lift to the spirit, as it was designed to do. It is high and massive and gives the feeling of awe that the gate to a great city should have."
And yet, just a few years earlier, air travelers to Memphis landed at a "little band-box" of an airport on the other side of Winchester Road. How did this transformation come about?
In the late 1950s, the Memphis Airport Authority announced that it planned to build a spacious new facility that would replace the old municipal airport that had opened in 1929. Mann & Harrover decided this would be a showcase project for them. As Harrover told Mid-South magazine, "It is absolutely essential that we put our best foot forward in that one building. If there's any place that's a concentrated, public image of the city, it's at that airport."
Nobody in Memphis had designed an airport before, though, so the firm set out to research what other cities were doing. "We visited other airports around the country," says Harrover, "and we decided what we wanted to do before they even interviewed any architects."
Airports in those days were built at ground level. Passengers walked across the tarmac, sometimes even lugging their own suitcases, and then climbed high steps to enter the airplanes parked along the runways. Harrover saw something different going on in Chicago — a new device called a jetway, an elevated, sheltered platform that linked the planes to the terminal's gates. "So we came back and told the committee what the future of aviation looked like."
The Airport Authority liked what they heard, because they awarded Mann & Harrover the contract without seeing any plans. The general scheme would be a two-level airport, with a concourse stretching away from the main terminal. Passengers would use the second level, which would place them at the same level as the airplanes, and the lower level would be used for baggage.
The concept was copied by so many other airports that few people realize how innovative it was at the time. What is still striking after all these years, however, is the unusual "martini glass" design of our airport's main terminal.
"I saw it as an Egyptian temple complex," says Harrover. "But I knew it had to be inexpensive. Eero Saarinen was building Dulles Airport [in Washington, D.C.] at the time, and I was on the phone with him, comparing notes, trying to find the cheapest way to roof the terminal."
The cheapest way, he decided, was to break the space up into small bays. "Consider the egg," says Harrover. "A curved shape is extremely strong considering its thickness. What I did was take a shape called a hyperbolic parabaloid, and twist it. You take four of those, and you have an inverted pyramid. We put those pyramids atop columns, and the result is very beautiful, and also very cheap. The concrete is less than six inches thick, but it is very strong."
The authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide consider the building "one of the architectural success stories of the city. Planned before many of the great American airports we now use were conceived, Memphis continues to provide an entrance and exit for the city that combines dignity with a sense of the joy of travel."
Another advantage to the design was its ease of expansion, and within years, matching terminals were extended to the east and west of the main structure. In its original proposal, Mann & Harrover even mentioned that the airport might eventually be capable of handling rocket ships — this was the 1960s, remember.
Harrover calls it his favorite project: "It did become tremendously popular, beyond our wildest dreams. It was accepted by people who didn't even like modern architecture."
One person, however, didn't live long enough to enjoy all the acclaim. Bill Mann died of lung cancer in 1960, before the airport was finished. After completing all the projects they had worked on together, Harrover changed the name of his firm to Roy P. Harrover & Associates.
BLENDING OLD AND NEW
In 1968, the National Bank of Commerce hired Harrover to build the bank's new headquarters downtown. They wanted to demolish the original Greek Revival building, constructed at Second and Monroe in 1929, and build a more modern complex. The old building, they thought, "was felt to convey an old-fashioned, unprogressive image."
Harrover had other ideas. He convinced bank officials that the old building, with its massive columns and soaring atrium, could be refurbished and saved, and he submitted designs for a modern 30-story office tower that would be linked to it at ground level.
Restoring the old building was a major undertaking. The original architects had modeled it after the beautiful Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh, but over the years its paint had faded and its lobby became cluttery and dark. Harrover's firm returned the interior to its vibrant original colors, repaired and cleaned marble columns, and ripped out the old teller cages and replaced them with granite counters. The result is one of the great interior spaces in Memphis — a bank lobby that invariably draws a "Wow" from any first-time customer.
The tower, completed in 1970, is also impressive, a rectangular mass with inset windows and a recessed entrance that places the main floor on the same level as the lobby of the old bank behind it. The editors of A Survey of Modern Public Buildings in Memphis note, "This building was critical to the continued revitalization of downtown Memphis. The design is unpretentious, rational, and appropriate to its urban setting." Admiring the "finely crafted precast concrete and glass envelope," they conclude, "Commerce Square is a landmark structure in Memphis."
Officials with Pinnacle Airlines apparently like the building. When SunTrust purchased NBC and moved the bank's offices to East Memphis in 2009, the building was left with only a few remaining tenants. That changed in October, when Pinnacle announced it would move its headquarters to Commerce Square, filling 22 of the tower's 30 floors.
PUTTING MONEY INTO MUD
In the late 1970s, Harrover embarked on what the authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide proclaimed "one of the finest architectural designs in the city's history." It was also one of the most ambitious civic projects ever undertaken by anyone, anywhere: to convert an often-flooded sandbar — home to a defunct landing strip and ramshackle marina — into a multimillion-dollar museum and entertainment complex. The official name for the project was Volunteer Bicentennial Park, but nobody remembers it by that name. Everyone calls it Mud Island.
"Wyeth Chandler was mayor at the time," Harrover recalls, "and he asked me, 'Do you feel competent in converting this island into a city park?' And I did."
Harrover's firm presented three drastically different concepts. The first would have filled in the Wolf River harbor, creating an open, green plaza from Mud Island to Riverside Drive. The second was based on the Ponte Vecchio Bridge in Florence, Italy. This would involve a massive bridge stretching across the harbor, with clusters of shops at either end.
The third proposal was a full-scale entertainment and educational complex dedicated to telling the story of "the commerce, power, history, and beauty" of the Mississippi River. "Well, everybody got real excited and chose that one," says Harrover, "and I just became obsessed with it."
Harrover studied every book he could find on the Mississippi River valley. He hired a New York exhibit firm, Barry Howard, to design many of the displays in the 40,000-square-foot museum that would be the island's centerpiece, but he took it upon himself to design the full-scale riverboat and gunboat that visitors board inside.
The complex would include restaurants, playgrounds, shops, and — perhaps the most striking feature of all — a 2,000-foot-long topographic model of the lower Mississippi, complete with mosaic maps of the major cities along its length. Harrover obsessed over every detail of the Riverwalk — working out where the pumps supplying the water should go, how to present the other rivers feeding into the Mississippi, and even writing the text on the explanatory panels visitors encounter along the way.
"We certainly couldn't have done it without the [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers," says Harrover. "They didn't put any money into it, but they had these gorgeous maps of the river, and we used that to build the model."
Another federal entity wasn't quite so helpful. The Coast Guard actually has control over all bridges across major rivers, and they nixed Harrover's plans to stretch a low bridge directly from Front Street to Mud Island.
"They said a bridge had to be 50 feet high because it was a navigable waterway," says Harrover, "and I couldn't convince them that nobody really uses that part of the harbor anymore. But they wouldn't bend on it, so that's why the bridge is so high, and why you have to go up two flights to reach the monorail or walkway, then go back down to enter the park."
The monorail was always going to be part of the plan, but Harrover ran into an unexpected obstacle: "I thought Disney would be interested in building it, but they weren't, and it looked like we weren't going to get anybody. We had contacted people from Italy, France, and Scotland, and everybody just dropped out."
Finally, companies from Italy and Switzerland agreed to work together to build the only hanging monorail system in the world. Harrover's firm designed the tracks, the Swiss constructed the cable and drive system, and the Italians did the wiring and built the two cars.
Mud Island opened on July 1, 1982, and it's safe to say that public reaction has been mixed. Time magazine praised it, giving it one of their six "Best of 1983" design awards and calling it an "ingenious recreation park." A few months later, the magazine's architecture critic visited and declared it was "a far cry above most amusement centers, and is a lot better than Disneyland because it gives a lasting impression." Progressive Architecture devoted a feature story to it, calling "the whole thing a fascinating experience."
Others a bit closer to home weren't quite as kind. On the tenth anniversary of the park's opening, our sister publication, the Memphis Flyer, devoted an August 19, 1993, cover story to the park, titled "Our Name Is Mud." The writer called Mud Island "a rundown, under-utilized albatross around this city's neck."
In its own story, Progressive Architecture noted that "detractors of the proposal came out of the woodwork with a roar." As a result, "the architect found his time split between his beloved research and public relations work to get his message heard by sometimes hostile groups. But he held up under intense pressure . . . while local journalists were publishing lopsided stories, attempting to discredit Harrover and condemning the project's costs."
Harrover was aware of, and sensitive to, all this criticism. In fact, in the boxes of his files and correspondence now archived at the University of Memphis, a folder is labeled "Negative Publicity — Mud Island." None of his other projects has a folder like that.
But another folder also contains articles and letters singing his — and the project's — praises, including a personal note from none other than Memphis financier John Burton Tigrett. "I believe you have created a fabulous human-interest attraction," he wrote. "You and your associates have envisioned an original and remarkable enterprise. In a world short on craftsmanship — and long on shoddiness — it has been built with consummate skill and finish, and you deserve nothing but honor for it!"
Perhaps the authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide sum up the conundrum neatly: "It is curious that Memphis treats Mud Island with less than the honor due it. Certainly out-of-town architects put it first on their places to see in the city."
AN IMPRESSIVE PORTFOLIO
Harrover & Associates stayed busy over the years with an astonishing range of work. They designed a resort at Reelfoot Lake, the Sigma Chi fraternity house at Ole Miss, the headquarters for Buckeye Cellulose Corporation, the Madison Professional Building in Midtown, the Bartlett Post Office — even a boathouse for the Boy Scouts at Camp Currier in Mississippi.
Especially noteworthy was the First Unitarian Church, perhaps best known as the Church of the River. Harrover proposed a building that would allow members to "worship in a structure specially designed to express the tenets of their faith. The church architecture emphasizes a cardinal principle of Unitarian belief: the reason, logic, simplicity, and order of the universe as revealed in nature."
The result was a low-slung brick and cedar sanctuary facing a plate-glass window 17 feet high and 36 feet wide, offering a sweeping view of the river. The editors of A Survey of Modern Public Buildings judge it "a simple and compelling concept" and "a beautifully conceived and executed example of modern faith-based architecture."
One of the firm's most unusual projects was the U.S. Embassy in Lagos, Nigeria, which would be the largest embassy in Africa. It was a challenging endeavor. On one hand, it was supposed to be "elegant but not pretentious in the style of embassies of the 1950s." At the same time, it had to incorporate security features and include facilities for housing some 300 U.S. residents of Nigeria in the event of a siege. The result was a handsome, poured-concrete building tucked neatly into a small site in the nation's capital.
Some Harrover projects would have changed the city skyline, but they never left the drawing board. One was a high-density apartment complex proposed for the former site of the Memphis Country Club at Southern and Perkins. City officials eventually decided that adding apartment towers holding some 5,000 residents would bring far too much traffic into that area. Target, a condominium complex, and an office park were built there instead.
More ambitious, perhaps, was the Beale Street Cultural Center proposed for an area around Linden and Second. This would have included a museum of history and culture, a 2,500-seat performing-arts center, marketplace, day-care center, shops, and even a restoration of the W.C. Handy music publishing company offices. The centerpiece would be a circular, 300-foot "Brotherhood Tower" in the middle of a plaza. When these plans were unveiled in 1973, The Commercial Appeal observed that "the proposal may face stiff opposition," and they must have been right. No part of it was completed.
Harrover & Associates closed its doors in 1991. For a few years, Harrover worked for the Crump Firm, then later for the Haizlip Firm on a variety of projects. After more than a half century of almost-constant work, he finally retired in 2000.
On an autumn afternoon, he sits in the den of the Midtown home he shares with his wife, Stephanie, an artist (and sister of acclaimed photographer William Eggleston). The house is traditional, but Harrover proudly shows off the modern-looking addition (which he designed, of course) that showcases his collection of antique rifles and wooden airplane models. In another room, his wife points out that her husband even designed the couch and chairs.
It's been 55 years since Harrover began bringing his vision of modern architecture to Memphis, and most of his buildings have certainly stood the test of time. Not only do the designs themselves hold up, but in a city with a "tear-it-down" mentality it's somewhat surprising that so many of his projects have survived over the years. In fact, of his major Memphis projects, only two — the Union Avenue showroom for Schilling Lincoln/Mercury and the Mud Island playground called Huck Finn's Backyard — have been demolished.
For that reason, it's somewhat ironic that the one building whose design is now most threatened is his most famous — Memphis International Airport. Harrover took pains to keep the concourse clean and open, even specifying the size and shape of any signage in the terminal. Over the years, his mandates have been ignored, and travel posters, advertisements, and displays for rental cars and other products now intrude.
"We always considered the airport a public space," he says. "You don't allow advertising in schools, or firehouses, or courthouses, so why allow it in the airport?"
With his keen eye for details, on a recent visit he noticed that the lighting, which he took pains to get just right, has been modified. "The lights at the tops of the columns were pointed up, towards the arches, and now they point down," he says. "They've even taken the shades off. I don't know what they are doing, but they have really messed it up."
But the greatest insult to his creation is the massive parking garage currently under construction directly in front of the main terminal, which will completely block the impressive view of the building travelers get from the expressway as they approach the airport. Harrover shakes his head in dismay when this is brought up, and says, "They are building the biggest blank wall in the city," but won't go on the record about how he really feels about the project.
He recently donated his archives — thousands of blueprints, photographs, letters, renderings, and articles — to the Special Collections Department at the University of Memphis Libraries. Detailed models of his projects are displayed at Memphis International Airport and the College of Art. For proof of his other accomplishments, Memphians just have to look around them.
Roy Parker Harrover sums up his long career rather neatly: "I'm really proud that I had so many talented people work for me, many of whom became practicing architects themselves," he says. "We sure did a lot of nice work."