Last December the Central Gardens communications committee sat down to discuss how they might honor the upcoming 2017 year, which would mark the 50th anniversary of Central Gardens as a neighborhood association.
And, full disclosure, it is no secret that I am on the Central Gardens communications committee.
We decided that we’d publish monthly neighborhood histories for each issue of our newsletter, and we’d pay homage to Central Gardens resident Barbara Viser and her 1998 book Central Gardens – Stories of a Neighborhood. Yours truly, Mark Fleischer, would do a majority of the writing, and Aaron Klimek, a Linden Avenue resident and fellow Memphis history buff, would bring some of his own contributions to the table.
Before anyone could say “Start writing” Aaron and I knew we’d be able to take deep dives into lesser-known neighborhood histories and, by extension, Memphis histories. We’d explore things like the formation of Memphis’ electrical grid, our plumbing and sewer history, and how the city and developers subdivided our Midtown enclave into what would become Central Gardens.
The responses around the table were a collection of blank stares. “Uh, that’s interesting. But do you really think readers will be interested in sewers? Plumbing? Land use?”
“Of course! People (um, men) will love this!” Aaron and I exclaimed.
There was another catch in our yearlong task. The histories were to honor not our general history as a neighborhood, but our history as a neighborhood association.
“Ah ha. I see. Well, that could be interesting too I suppose.”
In our research we combed through old Commercial Appeal and Memphis Daily News articles, dug through pages of obscure Memphis history books – the help of Wayne Dowdy in the Memphis Room at the library and the works of Paul R. Coppock became absolute essentials – and we scanned the old Memphis Sanborn and Williamson maps, among others.
And of course there was Ms. Viser’s wonderful book Stories of a Neighborhood. From her work we not only re-explored neighborhood history, we honored the work that is considered the definitive history of Central Gardens. It was a gift, and no more convincing would be necessary.
From our research and Ms. Viser’s book something wonderful happened each month: We discovered the people behind the neighborhood, and the hard work that went into making Midtown and Central Gardens what we know and cherish today.
Generations of Stories and Decades of Activism
In the early months of the year we recalled that in the 1960s, when much of the city’s white population was continuing its migration to the east, Midtown was struggling from years of neglect. Neighborhood diehards and established generations remained and kept their streets’ hearts beating strong, but to city leaders, Midtown’s best days had passed.
The apathy over Midtown and the lure of federal highway grants caught on with planners, and soon city leaders were drawing out designs to open up Midtown streets for eastbound traffic, and for an interstate highway that would cut through the heart of the Evergreen neighborhood and Overton Park.
The iconic I-40 battle to save Overton Park was finally won by Midtown with a federal judge’s decision in 1971. But five years earlier a lesser-known battle took place right here in Central Gardens. Stories of a Neighborhood recalls that for area residents, “the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ came in 1966, from a threat to destroy the beauty of Belvedere Boulevard,” and a proposal to remove the median strip from Belvedere to help alleviate traffic congestion.
It was this threat that mobilized residents and became the catalyst for the creation in 1967 of a neighborhood association, one of the first of its kind in Memphis. It was also one of the many local hallmark battles that continued to strengthen the influence of Midtown in decisions made by the city, and that became motivating factors in helping the city establish the Memphis Landmarks Commission, in 1975.
During the summer months our articles explored Memphis’ infrastructure – Aaron was finally able to share the important stories of Memphis’ sewer system and the discovery of our clean and pure artesian drinking water – and other developments that shaped the Central Gardens Association as a leader in Midtown.
In the fall our articles explored the neighborhood’s efforts to achieve a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, in 1982, and the neighborhood’s efforts in the early 1990s to gain approval as a Historic District under the protections of the Memphis Landmarks Commission.
A Two and a Half Year Wait For Historic Status
A reflection of the years of actions the neighborhood had taken from the 1960s on, reaching historic status in April of 1993 was no small effort. In fact, it proved to be a task filled with hurdles.
Interest in gaining historic status had started in early 1990. But the neighborhood’s studies into historic zoning gained a new momentum in the summer of that year in response to the intentions of a homeowner to demolish a historic mansion. William T. Fuller, the owner of the house at 1585 Central Avenue, had announced plans to demolish his landmark mansion, much to the consternation of area residents.
The house at 1585 Central Avenue, built in 1911, was known as the J.C. Norfleet House. Johnson and Russell in their Memphis An Architectural Guide described it as “one of the most original and imposing of the houses on Central.” It was a Mission style house “dominated by Tuscan columns out of the architectural vocabulary of ancient Rome… (and a) big third story, with a ballroom inside, that dominates all the architectural activity below.” It sat on almost three acres of land at the southwest corner of Central and Roland, and the house was approached by a sweeping driveway. “Guests arriving for balls were accommodated two carriages at a time at the entrance porch.”
Owner William Fuller, son and heir of the late Ada Norfleet-Fuller – who had been able to afford maintaining the house by operating it as wedding event venue – had been refused permission by the city to use the house as bed and breakfast. And, rather than letting the house fall into disrepair against the wishes of his late mother, Mr. Fuller announced his intentions to raze it.
Neighbors had wanted to see the house preserved as a single-family dwelling. Instead, they learned the hard truths about their neighborhood’s National Register designation. Said a Landmarks Commission staff member at the time to The Commercial Appeal, it “means very little in practical terms. Structures can still be torn down or bulldozed, and there is nothing people in the neighborhood can do about it.”
Almost two years later, in March of 1992, the neighborhood completed their thorough house-by-house and street-by-street study and endorsed a plan to apply for historic district status. The plan was quickly approved by the Memphis Landmarks Commission in April of that year, and by the Land Use Control Board in June. However gaining the final approval needed by a City Council vote would prove to be a challenge, as an ongoing struggle between the council and the Landmarks Commission played out in public, and that in turn swayed council votes.
Denied for approval in falling one council vote short in July, and stunned again in August, the neighborhood and its application were put on hold until the conflicts between the council and the commission could be sorted out. After months of delays, while the Landmarks Commission underwent changes by review of the City Council, the neighborhood finally gained approval on April 20, 1993, with a 10-0 vote by the council.
”We’re thrilled that we’re a historic conservation district, finally. Finally!” said Sandra Palazolo, association president.
Historic status came too late for the neighborhood to save the historic Norfleet House; Mr. Fuller demolished the mansion in December of 1990 and subdivided the two acres of land into eight plats. Central Gardens residents were devastated by the loss.
However that loss proved to be one of emotional drivers in the pursuit of city landmark status. As neighborhood landmarks committee co-chairman and association past president Mark Vorder-Bruegge Jr. said, the designation fulfilled a goal set when the association was founded in the mid-1960s. The association eventually wanted formal protections in place for the neighborhood’s historic homes.
It was those desires that could be traced to the neighborhood constitution, the hand-written 1967 document that became the subject of our Central Gardens story this past November.
That document, the efforts twenty-five years ago and those in the 1960s are a reflection of the actions we take on as a neighborhood to this day. As we’ve celebrated our 50th anniversary as a neighborhood association, it is stories like this that have reminded us how close we are in our passions and purpose to our neighborhood founders. As though generations of residents and fifty years of efforts have been condensed into a few hours, our stories have brought us closer to our ancestors, from Cleveland to Central, from Rembert to Union.
They are gifts they’ve given us in story. And to each of the 1700 households in the neighborhood, gifts they have given us for fifty years, and counting.
2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Central Gardens Neighborhood Association. For this holiday month the neighborhood newsletter explored this landmark year in the histories of the great neighborhood and the important milestones of the neighborhood association. Read other articles in this series in our Neighborhood Corner.
(A version of this article appears in the December Central Gardens Newsletter. Abridged portions of this article make an appearance in the December issue of Midtown Living)