Ask Vance: Peabody in the Past

Our history expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.

Nadia Price, courtesy of Richard Woddall

Dear Vance: Is it true that the modern-looking office building at the corner of Peabody and Diana actually began life as an old grocery store? — P.T., Memphis.

Dear P.T.: It is true, and for proof I offer you this photograph of the building, taken in the early 1950s by well-known Memphis photographer Nadia Price, who had a studio on Cooper, just a few blocks away.

You have to realize that years ago, before national chains took over the grocery industry here, it was commonplace to have small, family-owned and -operated groceries, markets, and other stores scattered along the residential streets of this city. There was a very practical reason for that: In the first half of the 1900s, we employed a very novel means of transportation when we decided to go shopping: We walked. And so merchants opened stores in their own neighborhoods, and that’s where they drew their customers.

I’m talking about merchants like William and John Clark, who originally opened a grocery in this building way back in 1914. At least that’s the first time it is listed in old city directories. For some reason, the Clarks didn’t stay here long at all, because a fellow named Sterling Dunn took over the grocery the very next year, and ran it until 1918. This must have been quite an adventure, because back then this was hardly an established neighborhood. In fact, many of the houses in this area were under construction, so it was actually a bold move to open a store in such a “developing” area so far east.

The store went through a couple of other owners, before Joseph and Margaret Romeo bought it in 1920. They made the spacious second floor their home, and ran this business for the next quarter-century. By neighborhood grocery standards, this was an impressive store — considerably larger than other markets in the area, such as Rambo’s Grocery and Bryant’s Market, both on South Cox (and both buildings still standing today).

In the Lauderdale Library, I located a sheet of stationery from the J.C. Romeo Grocery and Meats Market. They offered “vegetables in season” and Ballard’s Famous Flours, a product manufactured downtown in one of our city’s few Egyptian Revival structures. That building is still standing, too. People built things to last back then, you see.

Have you been paying attention? This quick summary finally brings us up to the time captured in the old photograph shown here. In 1946, George Lenow Jr. purchased the property at 2029 Peabody and opened it as Weona Food Store #73. Weona, one of my all-time favorite business names, was a citywide chain of individually owned and operated groceries — hence the name: “We Own a Store.” (Someday I’ll tell you about the contest this group had to select that name, but not now).

It’s confusing that somebody named Lenow (with a “w”) owned a store in the old Lenox (with an “x”) neighborhood, but maybe it’s only confusing to me. At any rate, the Lenox train station was just down the street on Cooper, and the Lenox School was several blocks north. I just wanted to point that out to you.

As you can see from the old photo, Weona #73 offered Coca-Cola, Tetley Tea, and Colonial Bread. Back then, it seemed like every screen door in the city was painted with the slogan, “Colonial Is Good Bread.” The grocery survived on Peabody until the mid-1950s, when it became home to Leda Admiree’s Flower Shop.

What’s really interesting about this picture is the horse and cart visible in front of the building, apparently used by a junk dealer. Even as late as the 1950s, horses and mules could still be seen around town.

Sometime around 1960, it underwent a drastic transformation, becoming the modern-style building you see today. I can’t say for certain, but considering that noted Memphis architect George Awsumb Jr. (designer of Idlewild Presbyterian Church, among other landmarks here) moved his offices into this building in 1961, I believe that he was responsible for the renovation. At any rate, 2029 Peabody has now survived for almost a century, and renamed the Peabody Building, it is now home to another architecture firm, the Braganza Design Group, and a textile company, DECA Global.

Life at the Lerner

Dear Vance: I recently purchased this old photo showing a busy street and a sign for a place called Hotel Clark (above), offering “The Best Service for Colored Only.” I think this was taken in Memphis, but where was it? It’s not listed in old phone books.
— M.E., Memphis.

Dear M.E.: Actually it is listed in all the city directories I consulted, but you have to look under “c” for Clark Hotel, despite how the name is painted on that sign. And that busy street is rather well-known, then and now, because this small hotel was located at 144 Beale, in the crowded commercial block between Second and Third.

The old hotel actually began life as a rooming house on the second floor of the Lerner Building. This building has a stone marker at the top with the date 1924, but as Richard Raichelson points out in his informative book, Beale Street Talks, that’s not the construction date of the building, but the year when the owners — for reasons not made clear — removed the top floor. The building actually dates to 1916, when it was erected by businessman Louis Lerner. As anybody who strolls up and down Beale will notice, many of the structures have been changed and altered over the years, and the Lerner Building was one of them.

In the early 1900s, Beale Street must have seemed like the World’s Fair to anybody who visited it. Every block was crammed with bars, taverns, hotels, cafes, pawn shops, shoe stores, clothing stores, dry good stores, meat markets, ice cream parlors, lunch counters — you name it. Perusing the old telephone directories, I was intrigued by their curious names: Grey Mule Café, Duble-Dek Ice Cream, Tango Tavern, Swift Peter Cafeteria, Texas Chili Parlor — it just goes on and on. Not only did you have a place called the Clothes Doctor, you had a Boot and Shoe Hospital. And hungry visitors could take their choice of two places standing side by side — the One Minute Dairy Lunch, or if they were really in a hurry, the One-Half Minute Café.

But back to the Lerner Building. Sometime in the late 1920s, the second floor of 144 Beale was operated as a rooming house by a woman with the remarkable name of Rosie Butts. In 1930, or thereabouts, Hartman Clark turned the place into a small hotel, with about a dozen rooms or so. By 1935, he had named his establishment Hotel Clark, and — in those segregated times he advertised that his rooms were “for colored only” though such a clarification was hardly needed. In his book, Raichelson notes, “It was a popular stopover for visiting jazz musicians, including Count Basie. Bands rehearsed in one of the rooms, which also hosted frequent after-hours jam sessions.”

During this time, Raichelson says the ground floor was occupied by pawnshops and stores offering clothes, liquor, and jewelry. Hotel Clark stayed in business until the 1960s, when the name — and presumably the ownership — changed to Hotel Jackson. When Beale Street lay dormant in the 1970s and 1980s, many places came tumbling down, but the Lerner Building survived. As you can see in the present-day view of that same block (above), it’s now home to the Blues City club.  

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