Directly north of Central Gardens, Union Avenue has for generations served as its de facto Main Street. Today it is a mix of gas stations, bank buildings and fast-food drive-thru’s next door to early-century storefronts, beautiful churches, and repurposed hundred-year-old mansions. And yet it has a rich history as an iconic thoroughfare that decades of Central Gardens residents have tried vainly to preserve. This month we take a brief tour of its unique history.
Union Ave – Central Garden’s Maligned and Misunderstood Main Street
Once upon a time Union Avenue through Midtown Memphis was not six lanes. Once upon another time the same Union Ave ended at East Parkway. In other times it had a reversible lane system that alternated the flow of traffic east and west during the morning and evening rush hours. And once upon a long-ago time it was, dare we say, walkable.
Today we think of Union Avenue as the patchwork of mixed uses that it has become: a highway through the heart of the city; a place where left turns are both forbidden and a free-for-all; a thoroughfare of fast-food drive-thru’s, bank stop-offs, a place to drop off your dry cleaning and shop for groceries. Or, a place to rush through as quickly as possible, with as few scratches as possible.
Many Midtowners today avoid it at all costs. Union Ave post-millennium is as much known for its hazards as its fast-food. With sometimes non-existent sidewalks, it is not safe for pedestrians. Bicyclists are ill-advised to use it for its lack of bike lanes. East of the intersection at Cleveland Street it is inexplicably devoid of turn lanes; its six lanes are crammed into a street that seems wide enough for only five.
And though it wasn’t always this way, it’s as if all that could have gone wrong with the development of Union Avenue over the years did in fact go wrong.
Hard to imagine, but in the days before the automobile took over, Union Avenue through Midtown more closely resembled Peabody Avenue than the confusing highway mix it is today. From Stories of a Neighborhood: “Union Avenue evolved from a muddy, rutted country road in the early 1900’s into the major commercial thoroughfare of the Central Gardens area. Early photographs of Union show it as a residential street lined with stately mansions, and its shift to commercial use began gradually in the 1920’s when (…) people just built their businesses onto the front of their houses.”
There were several factors that contributed to the evolution of Union as a commercial thoroughfare built around the automobile. A primary contributor was its lack of a trolley line east of Marshall Avenue, where Sun Studios is today. In the 1890’s, when the trolley lines were the primary source of transit, the main east-west rails ran on Poplar, Madison, Peabody, and Central. Union Avenue remained trolley-less, a hold-out of sorts under E.H. “Boss” Crump, who set aside Union for a future rail service that would allow the city to compete with the city’s existing private lines. By 1906 all of the companies consolidated to form the Memphis Street Railway Co., but where all the existing lines remained, Union was left open, and the rails never came.
In 1924 the city published its first city plan, The City Plan of Memphis Tennessee. All over the city, zoning restrictions were placed on new construction and streets were redesigned to address increased automobile needs. As described in Paul R. Coppock’s Memphis Sketches, “planners put heavy emphasis on opening up clogged traffic arteries.” Union Avenue received its own unique zoning regulations to accommodate the traffic flow, and saw the first of many alterations when it was widened east of Marshall during the late 1920s.
At four lanes – two in each direction – it was wide enough to support a growing Memphis that was expanding eastward into developing suburbs, especially in the years that followed World War II. And since trolley tracks had never been laid, it was free of the rail encumbrances of nearby Madison and Peabody. “That left the street wide open for cars and trucks, and businesses associated with automobiles moved in among the fine homes along Union.” (Memphis Sketches)
New commercial developments were almost immediate, as business and latter-day store-front strips were built along the avenue, with the block from Avalon to Rozelle and Belvedere becoming one of the first small commercial districts in this part of Union in Midtown.
But vehicles in those days only traveled so fast, and what evolved along the rest of Union was not a wide concourse but a charming street of small shops, restaurants, and the service stations of yesteryear. It was this incarnation of Union Avenue through Midtown that many generations grew up with. From the early 1920s thru the late ‘50s, many of the now-extinct businesses and institutions beloved by many nearby residents were built.
Union Avenue, Pre- and Post-War Nostalgia
Stories of a Neighborhood: “Several of Union’s establishments, such as Fortunes and the Pig ’n’ Whistle, have become part of the urban legend. Gerber’s Suburban Shop was located at the southeast corner of Belvedere and Union, and Denaux Interiors, Julius Lewis, the Helen Shop, and the Trousseau were also on Union. Generations (…) rode their bikes everywhere, to Wiles-Smith Drug Store, to the Memphian Theater on Cooper, to the playground at Peabody and Belvedere, and to the library (…) They also shopped at M’amselle and Snooty Fox on Union.”
Other stores now long-gone included the Toddy Shop and those store fronts between Avalon and Rozelle that in the 1930s and ‘40s were “known as the Russell Block – Burk-Hall Paints, Mildred’s Beauty Parlor, Mr. Gadd’s Barber Shop, Galtelli’s, Wiles(-Smith Drug Store), and a great dime store.”
Bordering Central Gardens, that south side of Union gives us a particularly striking evolution of Union then versus now:
1579 Union, in the middle of the block between Willett and Avalon about where the Fedex Office is located, was the local restaurant Pig ’n’ Whistle, known as “The Pig,” which served up its famous onion rings and wet-style barbecue.
1593, on the west side of Avalon where Wendy’s is now, was in 1942 a Quail’s Service Station.
1603, on the east side of Avalon where Cartridge World and Metro PCS is located, was the home of a local Walgreen’s, which advertised free delivery service and “Take Out Ice Cream.”
1613 was home to Easy-Way Stores store #6.
1625-27 was home to a Piggly Wiggly store.
1635 was home to a Doughty-Robinson Drug Store, later to be the long-time home to the Wiles-Smith Drug Store, with its iconic soda fountain.
1651 at the corner at Rozelle, Happy Day Laundry started it 1-Day service in 1946, where it remained for 70 years until a fire destroyed the building in 2016.
Today we know it as the location of a Shell gas station and a drive-thru car wash, but through the 1980s the iconic corner on the south side of Union, between Rozelle and Belvedere, was home to the famous Fortune’s Belvedere drive-in, which served up Cokes, ice cream and memories for a half-century. The original Fortune’s started Downtown, and its most locally-famous location was the Fortune’s Jungle Garden, which was formerly on the south side of Union between Waldran and Somerville, where the 240 now exits. Fortune’s Belvedere was the third location, and is almost universally recognized as the first drive-in in the U.S. Stories of a Neighborhood: “Fortunes Drive-In was a magnet for area residents, young and old. In the thirties and forties, high school sorority meetings were held on Sunday afternoons, and afterward the girls all gathered at Fortune’s. Cokes were ten cents and an ice cream cone was a nickel.”
East of Belvedere Blvd at 1699 Union was the Gerber’s Suburban Shop, the Toddle House Shops restaurant at 1703, and the E C Denaux interior decorator and furnishings at 1723. Finally, on the plot of land between LeMaster and Idlewild at 1761, was Seessel’s, the predecessor to today’s Kroger.
Opening at the Union location in 1941, Seessel’s was at the time Memphis’ oldest retail food establishment, having been established in 1859. For twenty-four years starting in 1941 Seessel’s market – their byline was “Good Things To Eat” – was in a narrow building with an entrance facing a tree-lined portion of Union, and it occupied only a fraction of the land that is now Kroger and its parking lot. Its neighbor to the west was the Spencer-Sturla funeral home, and its neighbors to the east along Idlewild Street were more foursquare houses common to the neighborhood.
Union Avenue, The “Reversible” Highway
The days of the small shops and grocers would be numbered, however, as the eastern suburbs grew and more and more commuters required quicker and faster routes to and from Downtown. Before the I-240 was built, Union Avenue through Midtown became one of those commuting routes, and the late 1940s thru the ‘60s saw some of the developments that would change Union for decades. Over time many of these changes did not prove to be the most efficient, and little by little they stripped the Union Avenue Midtown streetscape of its small-town charm.
In 1939 city engineers had already extended Union through East Parkway and widened the avenue from the parkway to its terminating point where it met Poplar Avenue (this was long before the building of the Poplar and Union avenue viaducts and long before the 1963 overpass of Union over East Parkway). In those days the intersection at Union and East Parkway was a quaint roundabout that took vehicles down a shaded avenue with a median, similar to Belvedere Blvd.
In 1951 city engineers instituted a system that commuters would use for generations: rush-hour reversible lanes.
For the first two years, police placed cones on traffic lanes to designate which direction traffic would flow; in 1953 signals were installed spanning Union. Under the signaling configuration, on weekday mornings lights turned green over the middle two lanes of the avenue, opening up traffic flow westbound into downtown. The signals and traffic flow would reverse for the evening commute. (In the early ‘70s new signal lights were installed – the now infamous red X and green arrow regulating lights – that baffled commuters for years.)
In 1963 the avenue was re-configured again, the pavement re-striped from four lanes to six. In some spots it was in effect widened, and along the avenue through Midtown sidewalks were altered, pushed back, or outright eliminated to further accommodate more automobile traffic and for ease in parking at store fronts.
Union Avenue, though still home to small local businesses, had continued its transformation from small, mid-city thoroughfare to commercial highway. Seessel’s foods was one of the many businesses and Midtown interests that responded to these changes.
In 1965 Seessel’s built a new, larger building on the property to the east, near Idlewild, and demolished the older structure to make way for additional parking. In 1966 local Councilman Pete Sisson “proposed removing the median strip from Belvedere to help alleviate traffic congestion” …and lost. And in the 1980s, Midtown lost its beloved Fortune’s Drive-In.
Stories of a Neighborhood: “In this decade, one of the biggest battles was waged by the Central Gardens Association over the sale of the (existing Fortune’s owner) Midwest Dairy property at Union and Belvedere. The association fought for new owners with a more attractive and compatible use for the land, losing bitterly to the existing Shell gas station and food mart. The loss served as another wake up call to the association to become more proactive in its efforts to preserve the integrity of the neighborhood.”
The same can be said today about the association’s efforts to preserve the neighborhood, with our Union Avenue and its adjoining businesses as integral to a thriving Central Gardens.
Post-Script – Seessel’s Post-Millenium
As for the old Seessel’s market, after its 1965 addition it was “remodeled a number of times (…) but its largest expansion came in 1984. The Central Gardens Association and Seessel’s negotiated an extensive expansion of the store onto residential property… on Eastmoreland and LeMaster. (The CGA) endorsed expansion of the store, and Seessel’s agreed not to convert the four residential properties into any non-residential use for 20 years. The association waived the rear set back requirements but required that the store erect an eight-foot brick wall and fence along the southern border of the property.” (Stories of a Neighborhood)
After a series of ownership changes through the late ’80s and ’90s, in 1997 the Seessel’s chain was sold for good, to Alberton’s, and became Seessel’s by Albertsons. In 2002 Seessel’s was rebranded to become Schnuck’s, and in 2011 it was taken over by Kroger.
In late 2015, after a series of discussions, negotiations and neighborhood battles similar to those in year’s past, Kroger demolished the older structure to make way for the new Kroger we know today. Bordering Idlewild Street to its east, the store chain agreed to a parking entrance/egress that reduced traffic into the immediate neighborhood, and endorsed the closing of Idlewild to southbound traffic through to Linden Ave as a further traffic reduction. And after decades of continued parking-friendly set backs, the new Kroger was built with neighborhood feedback in mind, with pedestrian- and bike-friendly store frontage right on top of Union, harkening back to a time when cars moved at a slower pace through the neighborhood.
In a final irony, the footprint of the north-west corner of the entrance of the original 1941 Seessel’s sits right about where Kroger’s Starbuck’s entrance is today, that finally and again invites patrons to walk into the store.
Copies of Barbara Viser’s Central Gardens – Stories of a Neighborhood can be purchased by going to Central Gardens Shop.
Additional research for this article came from: Ask Vance, Bluff City Books, 2003; Memphis, 1948-1958, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, 1986; and Josh Whitehead’s Creme de Memph blog and these posts:
2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Central Gardens Neighborhood Association. For this year’s newsletters the neighborhood has been celebrating by exploring the history of this great neighborhood, from various resources, news articles and maps, and with occasional excerpts from Barbara Viser’s Central Gardens – Stories of a Neighborhood.
(A version of this article appears in the October 2017 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.