Putting neighborhoods on the National Register is an exhaustive, dedicated process. In this special series, the keeper of the Memphis Heritage Historic Properties Catalogue gives us snapshots of some wonderful but lesser-known historic neighborhoods.
“Man, … this crossroad is filled with so many ghosts. You know Robert Johnson walked down that street, you know Muddy Waters was in that train station.”~Jim Jarmusch, film director
South Main Street HD was listed on the NR in 1982 and is roughly bounded by South Main and Mulberry Streets, and Webster and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenues (the latter formerly part of Linden Avenue).
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The completion of Union Station in 1912 and Central Station in 1914 made South Main the gateway to Memphis. Most of the 105 structures in the district were built between 1900 and 1930, the majority of them to serve the needs of travelers and railroad commerce. As pointed out in the district’s nomination to the NR, “The district retains a remarkable degree of its original architectural integrity with only a very few buildings having been significantly altered.”
Above, district maps from The National Register of Historic Places, National Park Services nomination and from the Memphis Landmarks Commission
Boundary increases in 1997, 1999 and 2013 added more historic structures to the district, in which extensive rehabilitation and repurposing is now taking place. For example, a development group led by McLean Wilson (grandson of Kemmons Wilson of Holiday Inn fame) have converted the 103-year-old Central Station into “a hotel like none other” and Malco has converted the station’s old Powerhouse building into a 7-screen theater, while the Memphis Farmers Market is next door to both.
South Main Street Historic District is also recognized by the City of Memphis as a local historic district or Historic Overlay District.
Above, South Main from the upstairs windows of Earnestine & Hazel’s at G.E. Patterson and S. Main, view north up S. Main. Known as a neighborhood ripe with drugs and prostitution in the 1970s and ‘80s, local stalwarts eventually transformed our South Main District into a tight, hip community of artists and galleries. Locals retained its grit and authenticity, enough to attract film productions like the 1989 independent film “Mystery Train.”
Above, a still from “Mystery Train,” Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 film about travelers and immigrants visiting a mythic Memphis. In the shot above, taken in front of the Arcade Restaurant, the long-demolished Arcade Hotel can be seen across Calhoun (now G.E. Patterson). The movie was filmed in the summer of 1988.
Director Jim Jarmusch said the authentic Memphis setting reflected on a kind of pilgrimmage for his characters, and that this intersection of S. Main and Calhoun was a key element. For Spin magazine he said “Man, … this crossroad is filled with so many ghosts. You know Robert Johnson walked down that street, you know Muddy Waters was in that train station.”