The Sheltered Life

Ask Vance

Dear Vance: I was told that when the old Goodwyn Institute building downtown was demolished, the majestic columns that graced the front of the building ended up on a house in Memphis. If that's true, where is the house? -- M.K., Memphis.

Dear M.K.: I remember this well, for the Lauderdales were also bidding on those same columns, hoping to use them to shore up the west wing of the mansion. Unfortunately, our high bid of $47.50 was rejected, and we ultimately decided the classical-style columns were not in keeping with the majestic Gothic Revival designs of the main mansion.

So we used some pine 2 x 4s instead, from the old Handy City on Summer, and they worked just fine. Someday I may get around to painting them.

I should explain that the Goodwyn Institute was an organization just as remarkable as the stunning building that housed it. Very little, it seems, is known about the founder, William Adolphus Goodwyn. Most histories just vaguely mention that he was a successful cotton merchant here around the Civil War before he moved away to Nashville, where he died in 1898. Though he had left our city, in his will he bequeathed his entire fortune for a public library and an annual series of educational lectures. Much like the Lauderdales have done for so many years, but without as much fanfare. In fact, very few people attend the Lauderdale Lectures any more, held every Friday afternoon at Hooters, but that is no fault of mine, is it?

Anyway, the Goodwyn Institute opened in 1907 at the southwest corner of Third and Madison. Historian Paul Coppock observed that the seven-story building "was notable for four large columns above the entrance and for lions' heads in terra-cotta, with abundant white terra-cotta decorations." The old postcard (opposite page) gives you some idea, I hope, of the grandeur of this structure, which cost some $300,000 to build -- an enormous sum in those days. The top floor held the library, and the third floor was taken up by a 900-seat auditorium. The rest of the building held various offices and, at one time, the WMC radio station.

The authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide thought highly of this landmark, calling it "an elaborate fantasy on the Beaux-Arts theme." But as Memphis often does with beautiful buildings, it decided to bulldoze this one in 1962 to make way for the First National (later Tennessee) Bank tower.

But you are right, M.K., that the columns of that building were "recycled." I found a 1962 Commercial Appeal article headlined "Old Goodwyn's Pillars Find New Home." It seems they found their way to the home of Ed and Bette Stalnecker at 688 South McLean (shown as it looks today, below left). "The religious recording artist," the article explained, "bought the columns to remind her of her childhood audition days at the Goodwyn Institute."

What impressed me was the impulsive nature of the Stalneckers' purchase. They didn't really need them on their home, but they were determined to find a place for them, and the CA article noted, "Their roof will be extended to fit the new addition." Now those same authors of that architectural guide didn't really like that idea, observing that, "Because of the height of the columns, an overweening pediment had to be added awkwardly to the roof" and as a result, the house "gained in pretension, if not in grace," when the columns were installed.

I think they look just fine, and those same authors admit, "It's good, of course, that the columns were not thrown away."

The Sheltered Life

Dear Vance: Years ago, when I lived in Memphis, going back and forth to school we would pass this large triangular structure on Elvis Presley Boulevard, and my parents told me it was a bomb shelter. Can you tell me who built it, and what became of it? -- D.H., Franklin, TN

Dear D.H.: Oh, this brings back memories of the awful feud between the Lauderdales and that upstart Hoyt Wooten. Yes, it was Wooten's private bomb shelter you had noticed -- the largest and (at a cost of some $200,000) most expensive bomb shelter in the world, in fact -- and he never let us forget it.

Wooten was a nice gentleman, by all accounts, but he riled Mother and Father because he was always determined to outdo them. It was bad enough that he had the good sense to make a huge fortune by investing in such modern things as radio and television, while the Lauderdales squandered our wealth on zeppelins, linotype machines, and flax farms. But when he built his magnificent private yacht, the Elbaroda (yes, it spelled "adorable" backwards), and specified that it be precisely one foot longer than our own mighty steamship, the Lady Lauderdale, that was the end of it. He never attended any more of our soirees, and we never set foot in his house in Whitehaven, much less in his fancy-schmancy bomb shelter.

Oh, but we heard all about it, all right. Nervous about the Cold War, Wooten built an underground complex that could safely hold 52 people for up to a month. I had heard rumors that those lucky 52 actually paid to be included in that group, but I can't say if that's true. Above ground, that triangular part you noticed, D.H., actually concealed the entrance, protected by heavy steel gates. Down below, the 13-room complex included sleeping quarters, dining hall, smoking lounge, recreation room complete with billiard table -- and even a morgue for anyone who didn't make it. Powered by generators fueled by massive underground storage tanks, the shelter -- as you might expect from a radio and TV expert -- had a state-of-the-art communications center to talk with anybody who was still alive after the attack that Wooten feared.

That attack never came, of course, so Wooten liked to open up his shelter for tours. Why, he was so proud of it that he even printed up postcards (left). After his death in 1969, there was some talk of turning his estate into a public park, though I don't know what they would have done with the shelter. In the early 1980s, developers turned his property into a subdivision called Lion's Gate, and for a while, the old bomb shelter served as a community center. But it's been empty for some time now, and I remember years ago Memphis Heritage used it for their annual meeting and found it dark and musty smelling. Wooten would have been mighty sad to hear that, I bet.

West Memphis Wonders

Dear Vance: Can you tell me where I can find the scenic location in West Memphis, Arkansas, that is depicted on this postcard? -- T.Y., Memphis

Dear T.Y.: Oh, I have passed that very spot hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. It's stunning -- like something you'd see in Switzerland. It's right past Southland Greyhound Park, on the north side of I-40, and if you blink . . .

Okay, I'm kidding. Postcard manufacturers, then and now, tended to embellish their subjects. They also sold generic postcards that featured lovely scenic views, and the buyers could print whatever they wanted on the bottom.

Either (or both) of the possibilities seem to be the case here. Though many people think of West Memphis as just one big expressway interchange, if you slow down and pull off the highway, it actually has some nice neighborhoods and homes. Even so, what it does not have, are mountain ranges, groves of giant oaks, and a blue-water lake complete with a waterfall.

I noticed your old postcard was never mailed, T.Y. Perhaps whoever bought it, or printed it, just didn't have the nerve to send it. It would have just caused trouble. 

Got a question for Vance? Send it to "Ask Vance" at memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103 or email him at


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