Memphis and Central Gardens During The Preservation Era

Twenty-five years ago, in April of 1993, the Central Gardens Neighborhood gained unanimous approval from the Memphis City Council in becoming the city’s ninth Historic Conservation District. (As of this writing there are thirteen such Memphis districts) For Central Gardens the designation did not come easily, as the neighborhood agonized over months of city and planning conflicts and delays to finally gain the votes needed for landmark status. Now referred to as Historic Overlay Districts, the designation gives the Memphis Landmarks Commission jurisdiction in carrying out zoning laws to help neighborhoods protect and preserve their heritage in their historic architecture and streetscapes, the hallmarks of landmarked districts.

This year marks Central Garden’s twenty-fifth year as a Historic Overlay District, and this year’s features on the neighborhood will be an expansive exploration of important, city-wide preservation developments over the decades that in turn led to neighborhood efforts to continue to preserve, protect and enhance the neighborhood’s status as one of the premier historic districts in the country.

For the first installment, StoryBoard will explore the national and local movements that led to the passing of the National Historic Preservation Act and the establishment of the Memphis Landmark Commission, an era fraught with passions and pains in the efforts to preserve Memphis’ unique sense of place.

Memphis and Central Gardens During The Preservation Era

511 acres. 83 blocks. 1540 structures.

“We’ve got so much left to do.”

Such were the sentiments of Memphis Landmarks Commission preservation planner Lloyd Ostby. It was the summer of 1982. Memphis and Central Gardens were waiting for news from Nashville that would determine whether or not the neighborhood would at last be marked for preservation and added to the Historic Register. Mr. Ostby’s comments, in speaking to The Commercial Appeal, reflected the feelings of many.

“You’ve got people who are becoming aware of what they’ve got and they want to preserve that,” said Ostby. And, “getting on the historic register is just the first step.”

One thousand, five hundred and forty structures. Over eighty-three tree-lined blocks. Nearly two years earlier, in 1980, those numbers reflected the overall size that year of the historic neighborhood known as Central Gardens, located in zones 15 and 16 of West Tennessee, in the area of Midtown, Memphis.

The numbers had come out of the results of joint, partnering efforts: one a 1977 survey by the newly-formed Memphis Landmarks Commission (MLC); the second from an inventory listing sponsored by the MLC, that came out of the hard work of dozens of volunteers who helped compile the lengthy house-by-house listing required in adding the district to the National Register of Historic Places.

All the houses in the survey and listing sat on foundations within the less than one square mile of the geographic borders of the Central Gardens Neighborhood: Cleveland Street to the west, parts of Eastmoreland and Linden avenues to the north, most of Rembert Street to the east, and parts of Central and York avenues to the south.

The efforts required to earn a listing on the National Register of Historic Places was, to quote residents at the time, “a huge undertaking,” filled with passion and a sense of urgency – a race to beat developments that threatened the architectural and neighborly heritage of the neighborhood. The roots of these efforts could be traced to a late 1960s and ‘70s pioneering spirit in Midtown, Memphis; however, the inspirations for the efforts and the causes behind preservation went back decades.

The Roots of Preservation

The interest in historic preservation began at earnest during the Progressive Era in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1902, when the United States was deep into the booming growth of Industry and the Railroad.

“For nearly 100 years, generations of Charlestonians have been aware of this city’s singular sense of place… Charleston’s unique environment, people, and circumstances contributed to a tradition of preserving and protecting the physical evidence of past generations. Over the past century, Charlestonians have moved from saving individual buildings to entire neighborhoods to maintain the city’s unique sense of place.” (Historic Charleston Foundation)

Charleston began their preservation efforts with private organizations and their acquisitions of key properties starting in 1902. This eventually led to the establishment of the first local ordinance designating a historic district, in Charleston, SC, in 1931. In 1936, New Orleans followed on the heels of Charleston’s efforts when activists’ efforts led to the approval by the New Orleans City Council of the city’s Vieux Carre Commission, which protected the city’s historic French Quarter from encroachment by developers and the wrecking ball.

Fast forward to the 1950s. With the U.S. recovering from World War II and embroiled in the Korean conflict, national spending took the country into a post-war era of unprecedented growth and prosperity, giving rise to domestic manufacturing and automobile makers transitioning into a peace-time economy. This atmosphere gave us the passage of huge federal bills that would change the look of cities for generations. These included The Housing Act of 1954 and the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. Both acts were designed to promote “speedy, safe transcontinental travel” and growth in American cities, and were widely seen as essential to help big business thrive and in allowing families to achieve “The American Dream” in pursuit of life, liberty, happiness – and a new car in the driveway.

The legislations had their drawbacks, however, as they enabled states to use federal monies to bulldoze neighborhoods under their “Urban Renewal” initiatives, which allowed clear paths for the building of highways. They also promoted the development of suburban sprawl, crippled the infrastructure of city train and trolley systems, and led to racially-motivated “slum” clearance policies that gained the nickname “Negro Removal.” This lead to the leveling of entire blocks of downtown neighborhoods in Pittsburgh and Boston; San Francisco and Atlanta; and from Niagara Falls, New York to Beale Street, Memphis.

Beale St and Main, center, view east. MLGW headquarters at Main and Beale, 1978, surrounded by empty lots. The Orpheum Theater sits just left of center. Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.

The highway-building initiatives would eventually threaten historic neighborhoods in New York’s Greenwich Village, SoHo and Midtown, and helped to create the environment that allowed for the sale and demolition of New York’s iconic Pennsylvania Station, in 1964 and 1965.

People from all around the country fought back. Activists, preservationists, and even First Lady Lady Bird Johnson were leaders in the responses to this destruction, and their collective efforts raised enough public awareness in a push to have Congress pass the National Historic Preservation Act, in 1966.

There had been other efforts by the federal government in their involvement in the preservation movement – the Antiquities Act of 1906, the Historic Sites Act of 1935, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1949 – that were focused on historically-significant sites and structures and that provided preservation assistance. But the 1966 bill became noteworthy in that it finally gave local governments the power to create regulatory historic districts. It also created the National Register of Historic Places, which maintains “the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation,” and it placed the register under the authority of the National Parks Service, which was established in 1916, fifty years before the Preservation Act.

Meanwhile, Back in Memphis

One of the more unfortunate examples of urban “removal” reached devastating depths here in Memphis with the destruction of most of Beale Street in the wake of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in 1968. Following the fear and unrest of that landmark year, Memphis city planners embarked on a series of Beale Street redevelopment plans that resulted in the demolition of 474 structures along eight blocks of Beale from Main Street to Lauderdale. The destruction was enough to eventually threaten the district’s status on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation that it had been granted in 1966.

City officials successfully turned away the National Parks Service efforts to remove the Beale Street district from the listing in 1987. The same could not be said however for the former Vance-Pontotoc Historic District, which eventually lost almost two-thirds of its historic structures to urban renewal destruction, neglect, and “suspicious fires.” Added the Register in 1980, the district was removed from the historic listing just seven years later, in 1987.

“Urban Removal” Beale St and the Vance-Pontotoc neighborhoods, 1959 (above) and 1971. Historic aerials, Shelby County Register of Deeds

In post-MLK Memphis, the city suffered from a crisis of identity and apathy. Issues of unemployment, crime, men returning from Vietnam, and continuing urban decay were on the minds of many. Losing historic structures and neighborhoods to the wrecking ball in favor of new construction, in the name of progress, was a primary concern. A great many Memphians of the day feared that they’d eventually lose much of what they had grown up with and which made Memphis so unique.

Throughout the 1970s, prominent local preservationists did not mince words. “To hell with sound timbers (in old, historic houses) from the past,” The Commercial Appeal said in knocking the prevailing business attitudes of the early ‘70s, “let’s bring in the bulldozers and get on down the road; there’s money to be made.”

Historian and author Dr. Charles Crawford, in appealing to the need for a local preservation commission, said “There has been a great deal of milling around on this thing. We’ve had old versus young, authority versus individual initiative, profits versus some of responsibility to the past. There has been very little interest generated among Memphians to preserving the background of their lives. There’s not much left to save.”

Crawford’s comments, as pessimistic as they were, were certainly a reflection of the times. Many in Memphis were still bitter over the devastation along Beale and Vance and the demolition of Memphis’ old Union Station, which had been torn down in the early morning hours in 1969. In reality, the raw numbers were much more optimistic, as Memphis would go on to rank annually in the top dozen or so cities nationwide for numbers of structures on the Historic Register. In addition, if factored per capita, Memphis annually ranked near the top in historic structures and districts as compared to its population size.

And despite some local apathy, Memphis had already established a rich foundation in historic preservation. “The history of the preservation movement in Memphis goes back nearly 40 years…” to 1953, when the Memphis chapter of the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities (APTA) was founded. The now-legendary Perre Magnes, writing for The Commercial Appeal, reflected on preservation efforts in Memphis preceding a National Preservation Week in May of 1991.

“The APTA’s heyday,” she wrote, “was the decade of the Sixties when the Memphis Housing Authority wanted to demolish two French Victorian mansions on Adams. The two houses seemed doomed, but members of the APTA began efforts to save them. With $50,000 from a public fund drive and the permission of Mayor Henry Loeb, the buildings were saved.”

From those foundations and with continued interests in preservation into the 1970s, local preservationists continued to lobby the old Memphis Housing Authority and the Memphis-Shelby County Planning Commission to form the type of conservation authority allowed by the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act. Lobbying efforts came from organizations like APTA and the Memphis City Beautiful Commission, Dr. Crawford and dozens of individuals and homeowners passionate about preservation.

What resulted, in the passing by the City Council of Ordinance 2276 in 1975, was the forming of the Memphis Landmarks Commission (MLC). The MLC in their mission was mandated to preserve and protect “the historic, architectural and cultural landmarks in the City of Memphis.”

Empowered with an annual budget, the commission finally took hold the following year, appointing commissioners and hiring staff to go to work to perform block by block surveys of Memphis structures, recommend that historic structures be saved, designate historic sites and assist certain neighborhoods in becoming historic districts.

And In Midtown…

In Midtown fears were on the rise that our mid-city was becoming less a set of quiet neighborhoods and more a high-speed automobile pathway toward the developing suburban neighborhoods to the east. Thru Midtown, Union Avenue was becoming more and more like another highway-like thoroughfare for East Memphis commuters. In Central Gardens east of Cleveland Street, east-west streets like Carr Avenue and Vinton had become major cut-throughs for commuters avoiding stop-lights on Union and Peabody.

These fears came on the heals of the infamous 1966 development that “broke the camels’ back” – the proposal to open Belvedere Blvd to more vehicular traffic by removing its iconic landscaped median – that roused the neighborhood into creating the “Central Gardens Area Association,” in 1967.

During the same years local residents witnessed development after development that were quickly changing the traditional and charming characteristics of their neighborhood. Decades-old family-owned commercial structures were continually under threat of demolition along Union Avenue, and developers were taking advantage of zoning loopholes to build high-rise apartment buildings along Central Avenue that were out of character with the historic and stately mansions and four-square homes of the neighborhood.

But to Central Gardens area residents, these developments were a call to action. Local architect and neighborhood resident Jim Williamson, whose leadership and contributions to neighborhood preservation are now a bit of local legend, said in a 1998 interview for Stories of a Neighborhood, “In the seventies, there was a great sense of being a pioneer, of solidarity, and of banding together to make a go of this neighborhood. People who had moved here had a feeling of being beset by outside forces and skepticism which pulled them together more tightly. We felt the need to work together on projects of common interest, and there seemed to be more a sense of urgency to be part of all aspects and activities of the neighborhood.”

The continued threats to the neighborhood and the pioneering sense of urgency led the neighborhood to hire William S. Pollard Consultants, Inc. for assistance on a new plan. With neighborhood input, together the consulting team and residents performed an area study and produced a plan that included proposals to create bicycle lanes, a walkway system, new street signs and entrance gates, and new parks and an educational center. The plan was critical to preserving the small-town and family-orientated integrity of the neighborhood, and became the neighborhood’s first since the writing of the neighborhood constitution in 1967. It was published in the fall of 1975 as the Central Gardens Area Neighborhood Improvement Plan.

With its zoning-like proposals the plan became a source of inspiration in the efforts of neighborhood residents to add the district to National Register listing. Under the tutelage of and partnership with the new Memphis Landmarks Commission, the effort was organized in the late 1970s by architects Mr. Williamson and his associate, Carl Awsumb.

Two weeks before Christmas in 1980, with the nomination and required inventory form finally complete, Jim Williamson submitted the 188-page document to the Memphis Landmarks Commission, who would go on to forward it to the Tennessee Historical Commission in Nashville.

The wait for approval from Nashville would be almost two years, with word finally arriving in the summer of 1982, from a July 8 afternoon Memphis Press-Scimitar and the following reporting by staff writer Jill Johnson:

“Two historic districts, three landmark buildings and 12 city schools in Memphis will be reviewed in Nashville tomorrow for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. 

“The Memphis Landmarks Commission will present the nominations before the Tennessee Historical Commission state review board. If accepted… about 1,500 buildings in the Central Gardens area and 100 structures facing South Main… would double the number of Memphis buildings on the register.

“Lloyd Ostby, preservation planner for the Memphis Landmarks Commission, said he expects all the nominations to clear without opposition… ‘The Central Gardens area represents the best and largest collection of early 20th-century architecture in Memphis, Ostby said.’”

Another two weeks passed before Tennessee Historical Commission Executive Director Herbert L. Harper officially signed the nomination into the historical record, and another six weeks before the district property was officially certified to be “included in the National Register,” on Sept 9, 1982.

It was, as described in Stories of a Neighborhood, “a great victory for the neighborhood.

A victory, but with another 35 years of preservation battles yet to come.



The Commercial Appeal, archival clippings, 1962-1986

– Stories of a Neighborhood, Central Gardens, 1998

– National Parks Service and the National Register of Historic Places

– Charleston Historic Foundation, Charleston and Preservation

– New Orleans Vieux Carre Commission

– Memphis Room of the Memphis Public Library

– Memphis Landmarks Commission,

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