Getting Central Gardens on the National Register “This Gracious Neighborhood”

As a follow-up to both the Neighborhood Improvement Plan and the establishment of the Memphis Landmarks Commission in 1975, the city embarked on a survey of Memphis neighborhoods. This survey included the 500-plus acres of Central Gardens, and the survey was an important reference in the eligibility determination in the neighborhood’s application for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

“This Gracious Neighborhood”

511 acres. 83 blocks. 1540 structures.

Gaining a listing on the National Register of Historic Places doesn’t just happen. The National Park Service and U.S. Department of the Interior, which supports the Register program, does not scan the country’s horizon looking for properties, structures, sites, or districts that need to be considered for eligibility.

Being added to the list starts locally. It starts from the lobbies and sitting rooms of the very structures worthy of preservation. It begins in the neighborhood, from local evening walks or from front porches, sitting with a beer or a glass of wine in hand, on “a fragrant summer evening, redolent of honeysuckle, the broad-eaved houses bathed in the amber glow of the old fashioned street lights.”

Old House Online

Jim Williamson, architect and co-author of the Central Gardens Handbook, wrote that elegant passage in his introduction to the second edition of the handbook, reminiscing on the moment he knew he wanted to one day live “in this gracious neighborhood,” on one of those old-fashioned, idyllic streets in Central Gardens.

His reflections go deep into the heart and the soul of why we honor historic preservation.

Preservation also restores our sense of ourselves and our history. “Getting a building or district on the National Register makes people aware that what they have in the city is something of value in terms of their heritage,” said Memphis Heritage executive director John Hopkins in 1982. “It makes people rediscover and take a second look.”

Preservation is however about much more than just the sum of heart, soul and heritage. “Preservation,” said a Memphis Landmarks Commission study in 2003, “makes dollars and sense. The economic impact of historic preservation on Memphis is not only significant; it is substantial.”

The Inventory and The Volunteers

Substantial also are the efforts needed to add a structure or district to the National listing. In order to be nominated, a building’s owner must provide a statement of significance and structural descriptions of the property. Photos are required. Architectural references must be noted. Historical facts must be documented and categorized in bibliographical form.

This requires hours of work. Sometimes institutions will seek grant funding in support of the tasks. Sometimes local agencies will enlist nonprofits to help organize the exhaustive efforts required to identify structures or districts worthy of a listing.

For example, starting in 1988 Memphis Heritage, under a contract with the Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development, facilitated a seven-year survey and inventoried over 12,000 Memphis structures that identified over a dozen older neighborhoods worthy of preservation. Some of the neighborhoods and districts in the survey later became listed on the National Register. Others were not in cohesive districts and did not meet the requirements for a listing.

Other times the work required for a listing is privately funded by the very ownership of a structure. Or, when it comes to listing an entire district, the work is handled by volunteers.

Such volunteer efforts were the case with the Central Gardens listing. The initial work was performed in concert with the city’s new Memphis Landmarks Commission (MLC), which completed their survey of Central Gardens in May of 1977.

Led by the same Jim Williamson and with assistance from Barbara Viser (author of Central Gardens – Stories of a Neighborhood), the complete effort took up to two years and required a few dozen volunteers. It was yet another project that brought the neighborhood together. And, it provided the added element of educating residents on the unique, eclectic architecture of their neighborhood.

“Jim had the criteria we had to follow,” said former resident Jill Hortenstine Iglehart, “but we each had a number of properties we had to visit and list according to style, building material used, size, etc. We had just moved to the neighborhood in December of 1978, and I remember helping to catalogue all the houses. It was a fun project and good for me as we were relatively new to the neighborhood, and I learned so much about the styles of architecture.”

All told the volunteers listed 1539 structures in the Central Gardens Historic District, which included “168 buildings (that) do not contribute to the historical character of the district due to their age of less than 50 years or to their loss of their historical or architectural character through extensive alteration.”

The Nomination Form

From the nomination form and from the National Register website, properties must meet specific criteria to be eligible for a historic listing. The criteria is organized in four categories – A, B, C, & D – and they are used to objectively evaluate a property or a district for its consideration.

The Criteria for Evaluation: “The quality of significance in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture is present in districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects that possess integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association…”

And, it says:

A. That are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or

B. That are associated with the lives of significant persons in our past; or

C. That embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or

D. That have yielded or may be likely to yield, information important in history or prehistory.

This involves a rigorous examination of the district’s age, integrity, and significance. And puts considerable pressure on the person or persons completing the form to prove that the property or district is truly worthy of preservation. And mistakes or oversights in any statement in the form? They could result in forms being returned or worse, rejected.

In 1979-80, when the Central Gardens nomination form was being completed, the recently-formed Memphis Heritage and the Memphis Landmarks Commission provided some assistance with preparation. The MLC then reviewed and approved the National Register nomination before forwarding it to Nashville where the Tennessee National Register Review Board reviewed the nomination.

Statement of Significance – Proof In History

Led by Jim Williamson, it was a task that the neighborhood was up to, as it resulted in the eventual approval by the MLC and ultimately by the Tennessee Review Board to put Central Gardens on the National Register.

It also provides for some interesting reading, and a comprehensive summarization of the neighborhood’s history and historical significance.

“Criteria A, B, and C”

The History

“The Central Gardens Historic District, located in midtown Memphis and containing over 1500 structures, exemplifies the best in urban residential community planning and architecture of the first three decades of the twentieth century. The richness and diversity of its eclectic architecture is unified into a highly coherent whole by the strong order of its hierarchical vehicular circulation system, as well as by the prevailing consistency of setbacks, massing, cornice heights, and detailing which characterize the individual buildings. As one of Memphis’ most prestigious neighborhoods during the period of c.1900-c.1930, Central Gardens contains houses originally occupied by many of the city’s most prominent citizens, as well as a number of the community’s most significant institutions.”

The Architecture

“The majority of houses in Central Gardens were constructed between 1905 and 1925. The most prevalent architectural styles found in the district are the Four Square and the Bungaloid. Other recognizable styles which occur frequently include Queen Anne, Greek Revival- Georgian Revival, Jacobethan Revival, Shingle Style, and Italian Villa Style. A significant number of houses, however, refuse to fit neatly into any single stylistic niche, exhibiting an eclectic freedom which often incorporates disparate stylistic elements with surprising success.”

The Significance (numbers in parenthesis represent inventory numbers)

“The Central Gardens Historic District also includes a number of individual landmarks of extraordinary significance, some of which are listed on the National Register. These include Beverly Hall, (“Greenwood”) (715), the E. H. Crump House (1064), the Matthews House (Robert M*. Carrier House) (613, the First Congregational Church of Memphis (30-31), and the Rozelle-Holliday House (873), which is currently pending. Other individual structures worthy of special note include Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (819-322), The Cathedral of Immaculate Conception (792-798), Kimbrough Towers Apartments(41), and Miss Lee’s School of Childhood(1025).”

The National Register research of Jim Williamson and Carl Awsumb went into the publication of their Central Gardens Handbook.

511 acres. 83 blocks. 1540 structures.

A few generations of history, documented by more than a few dozen volunteers walking around the neighborhood, visiting properties, taking detailed notes.

The nomination and inventory forms of the National Register application are appropriately focused on facts only. Like a good ol’ college thesis, they lay out the factual reasons why the district deserve a spot on the National listing.

Not captured in the application however, are the warm, comforting feelings that sometimes take over new and long-time Central Gardens residents as they sit on their front porch and watch the ballet of the street*, or when they walk the neighborhood on the first signs of spring, or with the autumn leaves, or after a summer thunderstorm. No doubt those volunteers, with their exhaustive work in the late ‘70s, gained a new, deeper appreciation of “this gracious neighborhood,” falling in the love again with its tree-lined streets.

It’s a feeling Jim Williamson captured when he closed his preface to the second edition of the Central Gardens Handbook. For it he culled a wonderful quote from a little-known story by local writer Peter Taylor, from the story, Daphne’s Lover.

The quote goes like this: “Ah, Vinton! Ah, Goodbar! Ah, Harbert! … What noble old streets! What noble-sounding names!”

What a heart-swelling feeling! Worth repeating the next time you go on that neighborhood walk.

“Ah, Harbert!… What noble old streets!” Harbert Avenue, Central Gardens, in the spring.

*Jane Jacobs, in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, famously referred to neighborhood street-life as the “sidewalk ballet.”

(A version of this article appears in the February Central Gardens newsletter.)

Mark Fleischer is the founder and executive director of StoryBoard Memphis. The Orpheum’s Forgotten History was originally published as a front-page feature in StoryBoard’s former print edition in November of 2018. This summer-long online series expands from the confines of print and features more in-depth stories and analysis, never-before published interviews and stories, and recorded interviews from the participants who brought the vintage palace back to life.

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