Saturday, November 12, 2016

East End Park, Memphis' First Amusement Park

East End Park has a mythical quality about it. Where was it? When was it? Are you sure that it was in Memphis? Was there a roller coaster, or are we confusing that with the Zippin Pippin at Liberty Land? 

Let's take a trek back, over a hundred years ago, to this happy place called East End Park, and find out.

Because long before there was the Prairie/Turner Dairy, there was East End Park. 
Long before 18-wheelers rumbled around the Blue Monkey from Madison on to Morrison, trolley cars cling-clanged past and made stops at this corner, just feet from Overton Square. 

Then & Now of Madison, 1912 to today.
Two views looking east down Madison. What is now Molly’s La Casitas and
the Blue Monkey was in 1912 a new building housing a meat market and Walker’s Bakery.
Next door to the east was East End Park’s “Writing Station,”
welcoming park revelers, and a trolley car of the “Dummy Line.”

1912 picture courtesy multiple sources. Today picture taken by
author last week (11/7/16)

In light of proposed (and now halted) expansions to this historic piece of real estate, I have rushed this story into production, piecing it together from a variety of sources that I reference at the end* and.** Therefore, this post is a work in progress - remember that! - as I was saving it for later on “down the road” on the Madison Ave project. But I believe an understanding of our past is critical - an understanding that shapes our present and our future.

A photo of the pavilion and the lake at East End Park.
Writing at the base of the photo:
"North side Madison bet Morrison and Diana" and "1895."
Memphis Public Library, Frierson, S.
Three men & three women riding the miniature train. 1910’s
Memphis Public Library, Gift of Pink Palance 1976

Meet Mr. Howard Chapman Boaz and his wife Lena.
When this picture was taken in 1912 they were living at 2043 Union Ave,
at Diana Street, just a block away from the park.
Courtesy of the Memphis Public Library and the Joe Bennett Collection

"Vance" of Memphis Magazine’s “Ask Vance” column called East End Park “our city’s first amusement park” that was touted as “the Coney Island of the Mid-South.” Developed before the turn of the century, it preceded Overton Park and the Zoo by a few years. It came before there were the Fair Grounds. It was generations ahead of Liberty Land. And it arrived at a time in the early 1890s when Memphis was enjoying historic growth, and in full recovery from deadly bouts with the yellow fever that wiped out scores of families rich and poor in the twenty-plus years that followed the Civil War. 
At the peak of its existence between the mid-1890s thru the 1910s, citizens from a quickly-growing Memphis area could walk, bike (yes, bike), or take the Dummy Line trolley - later many would drive their new motor-cars - to East End Park and enjoy a lake, a dance hall, arcade games, a beer garden, and yes, a roller coaster. A pine-wooded roller coaster, the coaster that would become Elvis’ favorite ride, the Zippin Pippin. And for a short time park patrons could even enjoy vaudeville acts. 

Inset of the Williamson Map 1891 tells us the location of East End Park.
Madison runs left to right (west to east) and it turns south to Cooper at
the familiar curve in Overton Square. Stratton Ave, seen toward the 

bottom of the inset, was later renamed Morrison Ave. 
Courtesy Shelby County Archives

But for you purists, where exactly was it located? East End Park sat on 50 acres of land north of Madison Avenue, on the eastern end of the town of Idlewild before it was annexed by Memphis. The street that is now Morrison ended at Madison at the park - the building that now houses the Blue Monkey would be built just adjacent to park grounds in 1912, at its western edge. Its eastern edge ran parallel to Lick Creek and right about along the fence that separates today’s dairy property with the Bayou Bar & Grill parking lot. And its northern edge did not stop where Jefferson Manor Apartments are now - it was all the way up at Poplar Avenue, at the foot of what was still Lea’s Woods before that land became Overton Park. 

A screen-shot of a 1907 Sanborn map. I rotated the image so that north
is up. Madison Ave runs along the bottom of the picture.
From here we can see quite a few details, including
the Madison Ave writing station (bottom left), the lake,
the roller coaster (bottom), and the park's arcades and other
"amusements" to the west (at left). Courtesy Memphis Public Library

Author Paul R. Coppock’s books - a treasure trove of Memphis history - describe the park area in the 1880s as a plot of farmland where hunters hunted and fisherman fished in the Lenox Bayou. As visitors increased a small dam was added to form a lake, picnic tables were added, and then in the later months of 1889 the amusements of East End Park were built by the East End Railway Company as a destination for riders of their trolley - the East End Dummy Line - which had been completed in 1887. 
The Dummy Line ran along Madison Avenue and connected Downtown streetcars with the emerging towns of Madison Heights and Idlewild to the east (Memphis’ eastern city limit up until 1890 was at Dunlap, now the Medical District). It made the familiar right turn to the south at the corner of Madison and Cooper, continued down Cooper, and made a left turn at Young Avenue where it took riders to the horse races at Montgomery Park, at the site of today’s Fair Grounds and Mid-South Coliseum. 

For the first 10+ years of its existence after 1889 a physical address
wasn’t listed in the city directories, listed only as
“East End Park, East End Dummy Line, 3 miles from city,” or
“East End Park, Madison av opp. Stratton” (later renamed Morrison)

Mr. Coppock described rides on the Dummy Line trolleys as “prime entertainment.” There were parties on the cars, filled with the promise of alcohol once riders reached the beer garden of East End Park. There were also those revelers who stole rides on the trolleys, “big boys” who had to be thrown off by policemen and were sometimes arrested. 
The park quickly grew. From Coppock’s book Mid-South: “A dance pavilion was put up. There was a beer garden. Eventually there was an entrance gate on Madison, a sawdust path between booths for canes, umbrellas, pennants, candy, the usual knickknacks, and the hopeless ring-tossing ‘games’ for prizes of dolls and pocket knives.”

Later a Ferris wheel and merry-go-around went up (complete with the sounds of a calliope but with immobile horses that did not move up and down). Vaudeville acts that performed at the Orpheum performed here during the summer. Finally, various sources indicate that the pine-wood roller coaster was built in either 1912, ’15 or ’17. However, a closer look at the photograph below tells us that in 1912 the wooden roller coaster had already been built.

Look closely through the partitions of the writing station just left of
center and one can make out the lattice-like work of 
wooden supports for 
the East End Park roller coaster. 
Photo dated 1912.

Two men & two women in car #7 of the Figure Eight coaster ride
in East End Park. 1910’s, Memphis Public Library, Gift of Pink Palace, 1976

To further the when-was-the-coaster-built controversy, a glance at the 1907 Sanborn map earlier in the article reminds us that there was some roller coaster in the park prior to 1912.

The End of East End
In 1920 came this little thing called Prohibition, making liquor sales illegal, putting an end to the beer garden and taking the fun out of Vaudeville acts and the revelry out of the trolley revelers. Then, in 1923 a fire destroyed the park’s pavilion, and the park shut down. The pine wood roller coaster was dismantled, and was re-assembled a mile or so south at what is now the Fair Grounds, where it became simply the "Pippin." Years later, with the development of Liberty Land, the Pippin would be "Zippin!" 

After 1923 the parkland to the north at Poplar was sold off and subdivided into what is now the Belleair Neighborhood. Jefferson Avenue was extended east through the parkland, and Stratton was renamed Morrison (after Anderson B. Morrison, who managed the old Majestic Theater on South Main, the Orpheum, and East End's Summer Theater) and the street was extended north through Madison. What remained of the park sat at that north end of the property at Jefferson; a new dairy occupied the property on Madison after 1927.

Sanborn map, 1927. No more roller coaster, no more carousel.
Courtesy Memphis Public Library

City directory listings for East End Park disappeared from 1924 to ’26, and again from 1932 to ’35, but East End Park didn’t die easily. From 1927 to ’31 there were listings for either an East End Park or an East End Gardens. And in 1936 the East End Amusement Co. was formed and on the north part of the property this group built a dancehall at East End Gardens, and later the East End Skating Rink and East End Swimming Pool. 

This part of the park would last until around 1941 - the skating rink and swimming pool would drop off the directories after 1941 - but the dancehall would remain in use into the 1950s.

The Dairy

In 1927 and ’28 the Forest Hill Dairy was built. 

The Dairy, then and now. The picture above comes from a
1942 souvenir guide produced by the dairy. The picture
was taken by the author in July.
1942 image courtesy 
of Dave French and Historic-Memphis website

The dairy served local customers, good ol’ fashioned milk men delivering milk in the early morning hours in small trucks and returning to the dairy to hand-write their orders for the next day. Pure Americana.

Both images from a Vintage Souvenir Booklet of the Dairy - 1942, 
courtesy of Dave French and Historic-Memphis website

The dance hall that has stood since the mid-1920s would be altered somewhat in 1954 and taken over by the Memphis Jewish Community Center (seen in the map below). In the 1950s the dairy would be operated by Swift Co. Ice Cream, when it would begin the first of at least three more expansions.**

Originally nowhere near the size nor capacity it is now,
the old dairy sat directly in between its neighbors,
the Swift Co. Ice Cream Factory to the west and
a small auto body shop to the east.
1954 Sanborn maps, Memphis Public Library

Between the late 50s and through 2011 dairy ownership would eventually buy out its neighbor’s properties to the east, west, and north, including the building that housed the old Jewish Community Center. That property would for a few years house the Backstreet Night Club. 
Today there is virtual no sign that there was once a place called East End Park. No pillars or pylons remain, and no markers yet exist. The sounds of revelers and the laughter of children have long ago died off. And the rumbles of a roller coaster now long-gone have been replaced with the rumbles of 18-wheelers at all hours of the night. 

But still the myth of East End Park lives on.

*I pieced together this draft from a variety of sources: from a couple of websites, Commercial Appeal archives, the Memphis Public Library and their digital collection, “Ask Vance” articles in Memphis City Magazine, and from the invaluable Memphis and Mid-South books of Paul R. Coppock.

**Josh Whitehead’s creme-de-memph blog post on the Forest Hill/Turner Dairy. For more reading on the dairy’s developments, take a look at his 2015 post:

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Memphis, One Year Later

"Memphis doesn’t announce itself with silver skyscrapers and streets of gold. It’s not a blond bombshell kind of seduction. It’s the pretty, demure girl by the fireplace who conveys intelligence and quiet confidence… who seeks a connection that only the soulful can embrace. Memphis comes alive for you only if you’re smart enough to love her body and soul, embracing her flaws and all her scars."
Mark Fleischer, April 2016

In August Memphis celebrates Elvis Week and in May we have Memphis in May. For me, the last week or so of October into the first couple of weeks of November will from now until always represent my Memphis Pilgrimage, when my California feet took root in the Memphis mud.

Two weeks into November last year my wife and I finally completed our move into Midtown, and it was October 24, 2015, the third Saturday in October, when we crossed the de Soto Bridge - The M Bridge - over the Mississippi, completing a four-day drive to Memphis. 

The Hernando de Soto Bridge, locally known as the M Bridge,
from Arkansas and into Downtown Memphis

I did not know what to expect. If you’ve read my earliest blog posts, you know that upon arrival into Memphis my Bluff City vision had not yet matured. My looking glasses at the time were limited to the local news and by some of the, well, um, let’s call them opinions that prevail east of The Loop and from those who hadn’t been to Downtown in years. 
This time last year I didn’t know the meaning of the Grit ’n Grind - I imagined it was something served with Louisiana hot sauce in bowl. I thought the Choose901 bumper stickers I kept seeing represented a past local political movement. I thought the corner of Poplar and Mendenhall in East Memphis would offer the best grocery shopping (Whole Foods) and dining experiences (Houston’s) I would have in this sprawling city. (Although I still love both for a splurge). And I thought I needed to lock my car doors wherever I went.

I didn’t yet understand the depth and width of this town’s tapestry: the live music options every day every where, the excitement of Wednesdays when the new Flyer comes out, and the passions of the community over something called a Greensward.

But after we had crossed the veil of East Parkway in mid-November and the holidays marched past we finally settled into Midtown. And it didn’t take long for this big small town to wrap its arms around me, heart and shoulders, embracing me with its music and food and people and soul. 

So on my first anniversary of living in Memphis, and with a bow to our own Holly Whitfield, here’s my personal #ilovememphis Ode to Joy:

I love that I now know there is more than one Gus’s and Muddy’s and Pizza Cafes and Fino’s, and that I know which ones are unquestionably (to me) the very best: Gus’s Downtown, of course, Muddy’s on Cooper, the Pizza Cafe in Overton Square and Fino’s from the Hill at Madison and McLean. 

I love that I have an argument now for the question of Just where is Midtown? For the record, my record, its street borders form a shape that looks like Nevada without Las Vegas: North Parkway up, East Parkway right, Southern Ave east of Lamar down, Lamar (Hwy 78) at a 90-degree angle up, and finishing off at Cleveland Ave to the left. 

I love that for my entire adult life I’ve been acronym-challenged but here in Memphis suddenly I have EMLFMA - Embraced My Love For Memphis Acronyms. I can rattle off the neighborhoods and groups I’ve come to love and are a part of: CGA, OPA, the MMDC and the MAC. I love that I’m five minutes from CY and that I finally understand just what the DMC does! 

I love that I’m not the only one who gets a kick out of the fact that seemingly every organization in the entire city has “Memphis” after its first name:

Advance— and Arts— and Ballet— Memphis

CoWork— and Emerge— and EPICenter— Memphis

It’s like a song—

Innovate— and Leadership— and Livable— Memphis

Make— and New— and Opera— Memphis

I love that in this small, two-degrees-of-separation town that I know someone from virtually every one of those organizations. (Now he’s just bragging). But it’s true! Since 1993 I spent fifteen years in one organization and seven years in another and I STILL did not know as many people as I already know here in Memphis. It’s one of those truisms that seems like an exaggeration but isn’t.

I love that almost everywhere I go I run into someone I know. Makes me feel as though I have finally become part of the fabric of this town, no longer an audience member just watching everyone else play their part. I now have a speaking role in this play called Memphis, getting my hands dirty helping board up and save an historic birthplace, putting my sweat into helping reinvigorate a couple of historic streets Downtown, and joining the community in helping to save a green from becoming a parking lot.

I now know that McLean is pronounced Muh-clain, that some lifelong Memphians pronounce Cooper Cupper, and that there are at least two pronunciations of Binghampton: Bing-um-ton, and Bing-hamp-ton. Though I can’t claim to know which one is more acceptable.

I now know the differences between South Main and South Bluffs and South Junction. And to you folks who haven’t been Downtown in years, Halloween is well over and I can tell you that the streets west of Danny Thomas are safe! They are far from boarded-up, drug dealers aren’t skulking around every corner and ladies of the evening aren’t hanging around outside Earnestine & Hazel’s (at least not in plain sight). I’m happy to tell you that those areas are thriving with new restaurants, new apartments, new developments. 

This corner at Florida St and Carolina Ave was once empty.
Now it is filled with the new South Junction Apartments (left) and
the music and food of a "repurposed" Loflin Yard (right)

I love that I put on over ten pounds since we moved here. And this exchange with my doctor, in July: 

Doc: You ever had a cholesterol problem?
Me: Nope. Never.
Doc: No? You may now. What happened?
Me: Wow… Well, Gus’s happened! Memphis happened! I couldn’t not try out the best in BBQ and shrimp ’n’ grits, in fried catfish and chicken, and the best burgers anywhere. Can’t resist!

I guess I’ll have to cut back a little.  

I still love the way Madison Avenue rolls past the Trolley Stop through the Edge District and gives us one of the more dramatic views into Downtown. Or the thrill I still get whenever I pass Sun Studios. 

Downtown approach on Madison Avenue

Or the view from Martyr’s Park of the trifecta of bridges that take trains and automobiles, and now bicycles and pedestrians, across the mighty Mississippi to and from Arkansas. 

1916 or 2016?
The Harahan Bridge (1916) is visible here in front of
the Frisco (1892) and the Memphis & Arkansas (1949) bridges

I love that whenever I see food or travel shows that feature Memphis - people gushing with love for Memphis - I get teary-eyed.

I love that whenever I hear The Stones’ Honky Tonk Women I turn up the volume and get chills with the line “I met a gin-soaked bar-room queen in Memphis.”

I love how every other guy in Midtown is a musician in a band. And when you hear him play - we're not talkin' covers here - he's very good!

I love that I can rattle off the numbers 901 and 201 and the 104... and know what I'm talking about.

I love how everyone posts Instagram photos of last night’s Grizz Game in the Grindhouse.

I love that we have the best ballpark in the minor leagues in AutoZone Park, and one of the best in all of baseball. 

AutoZone Park, opened in 2000 at the corner of Union Ave
and B.B.King Blvd (3rd Street), and
home of the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds

And I love that we’re a work in progress. 

That I am here to see new life being breathed into places like the Tennessee Brewery and the Old Dominick whiskey distillery Downtown, to see the old Sears building on Cleveland being transformed into the Crosstown Concourse, to see the historic Clayborn Temple, an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, being restored to its former glory.

That I’m here at a time when attitudes are changing, when native Memphians all over are more hopeful for a different kind of future for Memphis. That in the circles I travel there is hope and faith, a belief that Memphis can fulfill its unique and collective dreams, if everyone plays their part. 

If everyone plays their part. 

As a city official said to me shortly after I arrived here, “Memphis is what you make it. It can frustrate the hell out of you, but it can also be the most exhilarating experience of your life.” So far, his words have proven spot on. And I am proud to play even the smallest part in this new Memphis renaissance. 

Not to become another Nashville or another New Orleans. And not even to make the same types of comebacks as a Detroit or a Pittsburgh. But to help it stand on its own shoulders. To not compare itself, ourselves, to other cities, but to become the Memphis that only Memphis can be. 

In April I wrote that Memphis “doesn’t announce itself with silver skyscrapers and streets of gold. It’s not a blond bombshell kind of seduction; it’s the pretty, demure girl by the fireplace, who is already talking to friends, smiling, who conveys intelligence and quiet confidence. She seeks a connection that looks past the emptiness of the bright lights, and instead to depths and complexities that only the soulful can embrace. Memphis comes alive for you only if you’re smart enough to love her body and soul, embracing her flaws and all her scars.”

I wrote it then and I love that I not only still feel that way, I am living it and embracing it, even more than I imagined I would. I love that I still need Memphis, and Memphis still needs me, even more so now than that day a year ago when I crossed that bridge, planted myself into its streets, and became part of its soul. 

Opening day of Big River Crossing, Oct 22, 2016.
I like to joke that the City of Memphis held a bridge party for me
on my first anniversary of arriving in Memphis.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Autumn Says She’ll Be Here Soon

It's September and the late-summer heat and humidity is back. But this past Friday and Saturday mornings autumn sent us a teaser of a message, with cool mornings and a full lineup of college football, and told us she was boarding the plane soon and would be here before we knew it.

I will consider the fall of 2016 to be my first autumnal experience here in Memphis. We arrived last year in late October but didn’t move into our place in Midtown until mid-November, spent most of our time unpacking, settling in, in Oxford and Collierville for the holidays, and just like that I was finally exploring Midtown and Downtown in barren bits ’n pieces in December and January. So this year’s fall will be the first I can enjoy from the first scarf to the last autumn leaf. And I’ll tell ya, I can’t wait. 
Because we didn’t have a traditional fall in southern California. We had fire season. (Or as recent history suggests, an extension of fire season). On Labor Day weekend, when much of the country was finishing up their summer novels and looking forward to cooler temperatures, we in SoCal would be dreading the arrival of the dry, hot Santa Ana winds that blow in from the desert and turn sparks into multi million-dollar disasters. 
I know, many people like the year-round mild weather SoCal has to offer. Me, I found it boring and sometimes maddening, and even a little gross. Southern California sits in a basin, ocean on one side but otherwise surrounded by mountains, and the weather just sits. That’s why LA has its reputation for smog. The air has nowhere to go. Changes in the weather? Maybe in a few months it’ll drop below 60. We didn’t get the thunder storms - we might have had one a year at best - there were no sudden afternoon downpours followed by sunshine and rainbows. And with none of the trappings that come with it: no Cicada serenades, no dancing lightning bugs at dusk. 

And no sneak peeks of the crisp autumn air to come like what we had at the beginning of this past weekend. 

Autumn colors surround the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade over
Central Park West (courtesy The New York Times)

As a kid I longed for the nostalgia that arrives with a traditional autumn, and I would watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade thinking That’s what autumn is supposed to look like! Thankfully over the last twenty years I had huge helpings of it with visits to New York and New England. And I got tastes of it last year with drives down Central Avenue and Walnut Grove, driving through endless showers of crisp orange and red leaves against backdrops of bright blue skies, looking forward to warming up to boots, wool coats and turkey dinners. 

And football. The opening of the college football season is as much a sign of fall as the changing leaves. And college football in Memphis, like everywhere else in the South, means so much more here than it does in California. Here it means many things to many people. Saturday afternoons and football parties and chips and beer and raw emotions. And to some it’s blue and gray, to others it’s orange and white. To some it’s red and blue, to others it’s white on maroon. 

As for me, frankly, I’ve always been more of a baseball fan. To me fall means pennant-fever baseball, when the season is winding down and teams are battling for those playoff spots, when every game seems so critical. Some of you know by now that though I grew up in Cal, I have deep roots in New York. My great grandfather, my grandfather and my father all attended baseball games at the big ballpark on 161st Street, the Bronx, New York. That’s Yankee Stadium. Of course, that makes me a Yankee fan (insert jeers here if you like). A fourth-generation Yankee fan to boot. 

I’m not one of those fans who latched on in the late 90s when the Yanks were baseball juggernauts. My allegiance goes way back, to before I was ten, when a guy named Bobby Murcer was still patrolling center field in the old Yankee Stadium in the early 70s. It’s been in my blood ever since. From the Bronx Zoo Martin-Munson-Jackson years to the hopeful 80s when Don Mattingly - my favorite player ever - anchored first base. From the sad early 90s teams to the record-setting Torre and Jeter teams of the late 90s, and to Jeter’s goodbye in 2014. 

I’m not a fan of the big new and overpriced Yankee Stadium that opened in 2009 - I miss the old Stadium. I was never an A-Rod fan - my favorite Yankee third-sacker was Craig Nettles. 

However, shortly after arriving here in Memphis I quickly grew fond of our ballpark downtown, at  200 Union Avenue. Now I’ve been to many ballparks around the country, major and minor leagues, and for my money AutoZone Park is one of the very finest ballparks in all of baseball, period. In addition, as a baseball fan over the years my favorite all-time National League player happened to be Stan “The Man” Musial, one of the best hitters to ever slap a fastball into the gap in right-center, and a life-long St. Louis Cardinal. 

Memphis' own AutoZone Park, home of the Redbirds, Triple-A
affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals

So you know where I’m goin’ with this, right? Yep. I proudly root root root for the Redbirds, keep an eye on the Cardinals, and cheer on my transitioning Bronx Bombers. Cardinals-Redbirds-Yankees. Memphis-New York. It’s a happy marriage. Ask our new Redbird’s owner. He’s from New York and owns a minor interest in the Yankees. 

And this New York-Memphis connection? It’s an interesting phenomena. Many Memphians are apparently big fans of the Big Apple, and some are even New York transplants! It’s great to be able to talk about a city, the NY, that has no real rivalry with Memphis, but instead a kind of kinship that I still haven’t completely figured out. 

Kinships and rivalries. Takes me back to football. And you may wonder, where are my allegiances? Who’s he pullin’ for?

In my college days in southern California I attended classes and extension courses in no fewer than four schools. I spent six years, from Orange County to Hollywood, in classes for the arts and film and theater and writing and screenwriting. Pledge a fraternity? Nope. Go to football games? Nope. I was Acting or Writing or Directing. And Working! Working to pay my way through college and cheap rents. 

I did however root for UCLA. It was the school I had set my sights on when I was still a cocky high school kid. I had the grades and the qualifications but in terms of distance and expense it just wasn’t in the cards. 

So he’s a Bruin fan? Well, more or less. I keep on eye on Bruin basketball and I check the Sunday sports pages for Bruin football scores. And that’s about it.

But that kind of casual fandom doesn’t sit too well here in the South. Ya gotta pick a team here, son! Who’s it gonna be? The Vols? The Tigers? Ole Miss? Don’t tell me Miss-sippy State?! 

Well now that’cha got me backed into a corner, I’ll say this: My brother-in-law’s alma mater is that university down in Oxford. I’ve side-stepped the mud through The Grove. I’ve watched games with my dear brother from another mother late into Saturday evenings and yes, found myself rooting for the Rebels of Ole Miss. 

But that was last year, and something happened this year on this side of the Tennessee state line. As many more of you know, I fell in love with this town. I fell in love with the neighborhoods, our fine people, our history, and our way of life here in Memphis and Midtown. And some of my favorite drives are out along Central Avenue and past Highland, or down along Southern Avenue, and past the former Memphis State. 

With my love for all things Memphis, how then could I not be a University of Memphis Tiger’s fan?! I simply must root for the blue and the gray. I have to open up the CA’s sports page (what’s left of it - if I wanted to read dumbed-down USA Today I would have) and check out how our new coach is doing, how the defense stacks up, how our new up-tempo offense will fair, or why we were inexplicably dropped from Big-12 consideration. And I have to curse and wonder when the SEC network or a local station doesn’t air the damn game on the opening Saturday night of the 2016-17 college football season! 

The Liberty Bowl, home of our Memphis Tigers
(courtesy of the ilovememphisblog)

So I’ve become a Tigers fan. And in adding Tigers’ football to my Memphis experience, I can truly say that this fall really will be my first. Last year I hadn’t even gotten my feet wet. This year I’m knee deep in it, and lovin’ all of it. 

Once an afterthought, college football now takes up significant blips on my radar screen. And pro football just adds to it. (As for my NFL allegiances, I just can’t root for a team out of Nashville - the Titans - and I’m not a big fan of Atlanta in general. That leaves what, the Saints? The Cowboys? Sure, I’m an NFC guy anyway, and I’ll keep my eye on them. But remember that New York thing? I still gotta pull for my NY-football Giants.)

Call me a convert. Once I refused to acknowledge football season until after the last out of the baseball World Series. Now I look forward to the very first kick-offs. Beyond playoff baseball I once looked upon the arrival of September and October with the blahs. Now, I can’t wait to see the slow transformation of our Midtown streets. I can’t wait to see the scarves and wool coats come out. Once I ignored the onset of Halloween, now I look forward to seeing how all the neighborhood kids dress up (although I still don’t think I can swallow the macabre house decorations).  

So if you’re one those Memphians who still think It’s better somewhere else, think again. Because for this city, just like the oncoming fall, change is coming soon. Just as it does every three or so months, and every year, things are changing for the better. You don’t live in the upper Midwest or the Northwest, where the joke is always “We have two seasons: winter and August.” You don’t live in basin-like cities where the weather stagnates like bad bathwater, and you don’t live in a city where changing seasons mean deep freezes that last until June.

One of my first Instagram posts, in November of 2015

You don’t have dream of idyllic fall days and autumn leaves, because we have them here. You don’t have look out over the country with envy that everyone else is getting a real fall. You can live it. You can experience the richness that a Tennessee autumn has to offer. 

Revel in it, like it’s your first time. I know I will.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Madison Avenue - 2282 and 2234

I’ve been saying for a while now that There’s just something about Memphis. It’s real. It’s got stories. It’s got soul. 
Cliches maybe, but true. A feeling of being captured by something greater than the sum of its parts. You feel its soul all around, in the obvious places and in the unexpected. In pubs and bars and restaurants all over the city, it’s not just the music itself that touches you, it’s how every musician’s cords and beats and rhythms seem to flow from Memphis history, that what you’re hearing is mixed from everything that came before it. 
And it’s not just that the food that is so damn good, it’s the love and tenderness and lineage poured into every mix, spatula flip and dip into the hot oil. 

And it’s not just the buildings. It’s the hands that built them. The care and craftsmanship that went into each brick. And it’s the lives that lived in them. Their stories. Their lives, their deaths. My grandmother worked there. My uncle built that building. My grand-dad worked on that railroad. I grew up in that house. 

The soul of the place, dripping from everywhere you look, grabs you and doesn’t let you go.

Turns out I’m not the only one who feels this way. Turns out there are many now who feel that way - I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many of them this year - and many who came before us who feel that way (I will only be meeting those Memphians in spirit.)

I discovered a few of those spirits in the two houses I explored for this post. Two houses along the north side of Madison, one house many of you may be familiar with - 2282 Madison - and another that many of you have passed by but never noticed: 2234 Madison. Two addresses east of Cooper, in the neighborhood of the former town of Lenox, in the old Coles East End Subdivision.

2282 Madison Avenue, Howard Hall

Starting down the north side of Madison from East Parkway, the first house one sees is not Howard Hall but the W.J. Crawford House (after original owner West J. Crawford, from Mississippi). It's the large, beautiful, red-brick and white-trimmed - get out your architectural guides - “Neoclassical” Greek (or Colonial) Revival style house on the corner. This stately house, set back on an elevation and behind an iron fence atop a low brick wall, actually faces East Parkway - it carries a 1 East Parkway North address - and I won’t be spending too much on it in this study, noteworthy as it is. But don’t forget about it just yet.

Crawford House, 1 East Parkway North
(google image)

However, the year of the Crawford House construction is worth discussing because it applies to 2282 Madison as well, as both were likely built between 1910 and 1913. Why likely? Well, the official city property assessment records indicate a year built of 1925, which historically-speaking does not add up. The architectural style, city records, various unofficial sources, etc., point to a construction year of something after 1910 and before 1915. 

But those city property records stamped with that 1925 date? Well, every house but one of the pre-1930s houses on this particular square block are recorded with a Year Built of 1925. I’ve asked around and checked various city archives and have yet to find out why 1925 in particular is listed, although it is possible that it may have something to do with the fact that 1925 is the year that the Shelby County Board of Adjustment was created and would have begun keeping records. The BOA as it’s called hears and approves requests for building “variances” under what is called the Unified Development Code.

Either way, recording errors such as those for 2282 Madison, though rare, exist in official property assessment records, especially in newly annexed townships in the early century. And correcting those errors? It’s an administrative nightmare, requiring the kind of documentation and building records that may no longer exist, or that are disintegrating in the bottoms of boxes in house attics or basements.

The Sanborn fire insurance maps. This one published in 1927. Here we see that the houses on both 1 E. Pkwy N and 2282 Madison are present. We can also see that the front garden room and the rear carriage house, included in the maps, must have been built with the original structure. (courtesy Memphis Room of the Memphis Public Library) 

But a quick study of common architectural styles in the early century tells us that the two houses on this block were very likely built between 1910 and 1915. The Greek/Colonial Revival style of the Crawford House at 1 East Parkway for example was a fairly common choice among builders in the south and northeast at the time. And, the 1990 Johnson and Russell Memphis, An Architectural Guide, lists George M. Shaw as the architect of the house, and lists it as being built between 1912-13. (We’ll take a look at 2282’s history and house style in a moment.)

(A note on architectural style: the Johnson & Russell Memphis guide lists the Crawford House as Colonial Revival. I however will be using as a reference the “definitive guide” of all American domestic architectural styles, Virginia McAlester's A Field Guide to American Houses, published in 1984 and updated in 2013. McAlester's guide tells me that the Crawford House is very much in the Greek Revival style. Architects, preservationists, and enthusiasts, I’ll be happy to hear your assessments.)

Finally, a thorough (and exhaustive) search of old Memphis city directories from 1909 to 1915 tells us that in 1911, there was no residence at 2282 Madison. But by the May 1913 publishing of the 1913 Memphis City Directory - which reflects 1912 businesses and residents, their addresses and early telephone numbers - there exists a resident at a house at 2282 Madison Avenue. That resident? A Mr. Caruthers Ewing, a lawyer who worked Downtown at the Memphis Trust Building, now referred to as the Commerce Trust Building. 

1913 City Directory. Note the listing for
Ewing, Caruthers in bold in the right column
(courtesy Shelby County Register)

Caruthers Ewing was in his early-forties when he built the house that stands at the corner of Madison and N. Edgewood. (Edgewood north of Union was in the 1910s called Lenox Avenue.) Mr. Ewing was an attorney who moved down to Memphis from the city of Dresden, in Weakley County in northern Tennessee, about 15 miles from Kentucky. 

The house itself, on about three-quarters of an acre, two and a half stories of eight bedrooms, four full bathrooms, can best be described as “Eclectic,” a term used to describe architectural styles that are literally a creative mix of influences.  

Howard Hall, in an undated photo
 (courtesy Memphis Heritage "The Keystone" publication)

Overall, the house fits the mold of the Colonial Revival style, so named for the “rebirth of interest in the early English and Dutch houses of the Atlantic seaboard,” as quoted in McAlester’s guide. It was the most popular architectural style in the early century all over the eastern states and in the South. 

If you’re not schooled in architectural styles of the American house, you can identify many Colonial Revival houses of the era by a triangular “side-gabled” roof on each end, asymmetrical design, a decorative entrance, and for some houses, a one or two-story side wing or garden room. However what’s interesting about Howard Hall is that it has architectural touches beyond straight-forward Colonial Revival - I almost sense in it a little flavor of the French Eclectic style that was just beginning to take root, and the stucco siding versus the red brick of many Colonials (which also happened to be more expensive at the time - the original architect could not be reached for comment). And finally a feature that is seen all over early-century Memphis, the familiar porte cochere (pronounced port-ku-sher), the covered entrance for horse and carriage access, or motor cars years later, that is accessible from Edgewood via a curving driveway. 

The porte cochere over the driveway

Once inside, the house’s main entrance hall and foyer greets visitors with the elegance of the era: tiled floors, a grand staircase. 

An elegant staircase, typical for the era 

The library is to the left.

The main living area is to the right. The living area is now
used for meetings, presentations, and parties

The house was Mr. Ewing’s and his wife’s home until into the 1930s, when he and his wife Bessie Winstead Ewing traveled to Europe and then moved to New York. (Census reports into the '40s show that they had a New York Park Avenue address.) And according to Howard Hall’s official history, when Mr. Ewing moved, it was rented in 1935 by a Mr. W.J. O’Brien, who just happened to be the President and General Manager of Memphis Power and Light Company. 

But when Memphis Power & Light was sold to E.H. Crump in 1939, Mr. O’Brien moved out of the house, and Caruthers Ewing’s son, Caruthers Jr., moved in.

In 1965, Dixon Jordan purchased the house, becoming only the second official owner, and upon his death passed the house along to his daughter Jennifer Jordan Eldridge. It remained in Eldridge’s hands until her and her husband sold it to Mr. Hal Bowen Howard, Jr., in 1997.

Howard Hall is today the home of Memphis Heritage, the generous gift of Mr. Hal Howard, Jr., born in 1925 here in Memphis. He was last individual owner of the house. 

But Hal never lived in it. He bought it for his second wife, Suzanne, making some renovations for her in hopes that she would eventually move into it. But sadly, his wife never moved in. 

Hal was obviously a very sentimental man, and he was generous in ways many of us wish we could be. As his New York Times obituary read, he was dedicated “to superior education for those that might not be able to afford it,” and “devoted to give opportunity to people who otherwise would not have it.” 

He also had great sentiment and affection for Memphis and its history. And since his wife Suzanne wasn’t going to live in his house at 2282 Madison, he decided to give the house a different life.

“Tell me about Memphis Heritage,” he said in 2005 over a phone call with June West, Memphis Heritage’s Executive Director. 

And as June tells it, she was floored. In 2005 she and the MH board had been in search for a new home for the organization, and Mr. Howard’s house seemed a perfect fit. But months went by with no word from Hal, and June gave up, thinking that this wealthy man had forgotten about their conversation. 

He hadn’t. Months later she received an envelope from Paris, and a hand-written letter from Hal himself, declaring his intent on donating the house to Memphis Heritage. 

Hal Howard Jr. passed away Feb 26, 2015. His obituary mentions his life in New York, his travels, his family lineage, his philanthropy, as well as his sentiments for Memphis. So sentimental was he that upon transferring ownership of the house to Memphis Heritage, he had the deed written so that if for whatever reason MH had to resell the house, that it would be sold as a residence, insuring that future Memphis families could enjoy it. 

Our story could end here, as Hal’s donation to Memphis Heritage has been fruitful for many, and his legacy is intact. But after a tour of the upstairs of the house, Ms. West showed me the only “working” sleeping quarters in the house: the upstairs bedroom that is furnished as it was when the house was still a residence - the rest of the house is used for offices, storage, conference rooms, and the occasional party. 

It is the W.J. Crawford Room. Now used for out of town guests of Memphis Heritage. And W.J. Crawford? He happened to be Hal Howard Jr’s grandfather from his mother’s side, Marianne Crawford Howard. And remember the Crawford House at 1 East Parkway North, right next door? W.J. was the original owner that house. 

The W.J. Crawford Room,
furnished with Hal's grandfather Crawford's furniture

And so the ghosts and legacies of this little corner of Memphis’ history come full circle. Well, maybe a circle outside of another circle, because as serendipitous as the story of the Crawford and Howard houses are, another remarkable little synchronicity occurred around this house, and this room, in the winter of 2015. 

Meet Wanda Wilson. I will inevitably share a lot more about her later in my journey, but there are many a Memphian who know that name. She was the owner of the P&H Cafe - also on Madison, between McNeil and Willett and across from Minglewood Hall - but she was no ordinary owner. Hearing people talk about her makes one wish you had known her. The Flyer called her the Midtown muse, and she reminds me of a New York icon by the name of Elaine Kaufman, who presided over her own legendary hot spot Elaine’s for over fifty years on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Wanda held court at a far end of her bar, she inspired people, she dispensed raw tart-tongued advice. The CA’s John Beifuss, in his obituary for her, said she was “the patron saint, den mother, confidante and muse for the generations of artists, politicians and journalists.” She passed away in late January, 2015, one month before Mr. Howard.

The portrait you saw above was “her Stevie Nicks look,” and it was painted by legendary Memphis artist Paul Penczner (1916 - 2010). It is one of two portraits of Ms. Wilson that are now in the Crawford bedroom. 

And in late January 2015, an actor by the name of Jerre Dye was in Memphis for his stage role as Dr. Frank-N-Furter for the Playhouse on the Square’s revival of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A friend of June’s, Jerre had been staying in the Crawford room while in Memphis. 

He was in the room the very night Wanda Wilson passed away. As June tells it, “he definitely got a chill when he heard the news,” her image looking right back at him, as though her spirit had made a passing visit before moving on. 

Another spirit. Another life in another house along Madison. One of many I will encounter along this journey.  

2234 Madison Avenue

Shelby County property records indicate the house at 2234 Madison Avenue was built in 1915 (however in the 1914 City Directory there is already a listing at 2234 Madison). It is a two-story (plus third-floor attic) house, in the American Four-Square Prairie-style common to the era. Prairie-type houses are one of just a few that were not revivals from any European styles; they truly are American originals. Most were built in the ten years before World War I. 

2234 Madison, c. 1915. Note the driveway to the right,
and the garage in the backyard
(courtesy of Claire and Susan)
2234 Today. Prairie houses such as these are called
Four-Square quite literally because of their symmetrical,
squared design featuring four primary front windows.
(courtesy of Claire and Susan)

An image from the 1927 Sanborn Map, showing 2234
as the fourth house from the corner.
(courtesy Memphis Public Library)

It’s notable in looking at the map that in 1927 we can see the outside stairs in the back of the house that lead to the upstairs rear residence. The garage in the backyard has since been torn down. 
Susie Ratner and her partner Claire Ryan have lived in the house at 2234 since July of 2002, when they bought it from the McGuire Construction and Investment Co. They are but two of many Memphians who have resided at 2234 over the last one hundred years.

The original owners of the house were the Turcotts, Ludger Joseph (L.J.) and his wife Sallie Irene Brown Hay Turcott (don’t’cha love the proliferation of family names in those days?). We know this because of old deeds records, but also this little wonderful tidbit: 

Wedding announcement of the Turcott's daughter
Miss Addie Hampton Hay to
Mr. William Maydwell McNeely
(courtesy of Claire and Susan)

As noted in the 1915 clipping, (L.J.) Turcott and his wife Sallie hosted the wedding of their daughter in the house at 2234, giving away in marriage their daughter Addie Hampton Hay to the tall, blue-eyed and red-haired William Maydwell McNeely. 

One can easily imagine the palms and ferns and pink and white 
carnations all over the living and “library” rooms of the first floor

There were professional pictures taken at the ceremony and reception (those portraits are part of the family’s private collection).
Mr. Turcott hailed from Canada. He worked as a blacksmith and in 1915 his work address was 453 Monroe Avenue. Good luck finding #453 today, but in those days that address would have been on Monroe somewhere between Lauderdale and Marshall, across the street from and near where the High Cotton Brewery is today, and just a block over from the now-empty Wonder Bread Bakery building. Now Mr. McNeely, his new son-in-law, was a bookkeeper in 1915. But in 1917 his vocation is listed as a bread salesman, and his work address was none other than 400 Monroe, just a block or so away from Mr. Turcott’s work address.

City Directory listing 400 Monroe,
third column to the right
(courtesy of Shelby County Register)

The streets around Monroe and Lauderdale and Marshall were thriving and busy in those days, and those of you who know your Memphis addresses may recognize 400 Monroe as the address of the very same Wonder Bread Bakery. Wonder Bread the bread mill and factory wasn’t built until 1921, but from the early century until 1920 that address was the home of the Memphis Bread Company, and for a few years also the home of Aunt Mary’s Cake Co. 

I have no access to private family history, but it’s fun nonetheless to speculate that after William McNeely married L.J. Turcott’s daughter Addie, Mr. Turcott, in knowing many business owners in and around the blocks near his blacksmith shop on Monroe, may have had a hand in getting William a job as salesman. 

One can imagine the exchange, soon after their wedding, Mr. Turcott’s arm around William, asking “Son, ya gonna be a bookkeeper all your life? How’d ya like to try your hand at sales? I know a few people at the Memphis Bread Company, and they could use a young salesmen like you.” William wasn’t all that young in 1915 - he was already 27 - but it’s easy to imagine such a conversation. 

These were among the first events in the one-hundred-year-old house at 2234 Madison. And based on the use of the house for the 60-plus years that would follow, it’s evident that the McNeely newlyweds used the upstairs as their residence - through the 1980s the third floor attic had a full bath and a kitchen - and in 1916 the McNeely’s bore their first child in the house, daughter Addie Lucille. 

The back of the house, with separate access to the upstairs

The Turcotts and the McNeelys weren’t in the house for long. By 1918 the Turcotts were out, having moved to Angelus Street in the Evergreen neighborhood, as were the McNeelys, who by then lived at 357 North Lewis in North Memphis. William and Addie would have another child there, in October of 1918, a son. 

According to records, their son William M McNeely, Jr. was nicknamed “Little Bill.” And at barely three months old, on Christmas Eve at eleven in the morning, Little Bill succumbed to a bout with the influenza that was so common in the day. The death certificate indicates that there were visits by a physician each day for three days until Little Bill passed on one of the most sacred days of the year. One can only imagine the family’s pain amidst the joys of the Christmas season, a grief no parent could ever forget. 

William McNeely would later serve in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II, as a Lt. Commander in his mid-50s no less, and would pass away in 1957 at the age of 68. His wife Addie would live until the age of 78 with her passing in 1974. But the place in which they exchanged their marital vows will always be 2234 Madison Avenue. 

The house would have many residents in the years following the Turcotts. From 1918 to 1923, the house was owned or more likely leased to a Mrs Ida V. Cummings, an F.M. Longley, a J.J. Elvert for three years, and finally to a Eugene Skillern before being sold to a Mr. Guy Smith McClellan and his wife Nellie. 

Mr. McClellan was an an insurance agent, and he passed away in 1926. The widowed Nellie kept the house and from 1926 until past 1943 she rented out the back of the house to at least three residents, including a Samuel Jones in 1928, a John Connelly from 1930-34, and a Mrs. Sarah H Berry from 1936-38. 

After the 1940s Nellie McClellan sold the house. Fast forward to the 1980s (other owners from the 50s to the 70s are unknown as of this writing), when it was owned by a James W Lester Jr., and the upstairs and back was still in use as a rental. When Claire and Susan bought the house in 2002, however, having adopted children of their own, the couple had the house and upstairs renovated back to a single family use. Their only other major renovation was the library fireplace, which required a bit of a painstaking restoration. 

The beautiful lines common to early century design

When I visited Claire and Susan back in June, I had noticed a For Sale sign out, and eventually I asked why they were selling a home that they obviously loved so much. I won’t reveal details here, but like so many of us, eventually life and ailments take hold and walking up two flights of stairs day-in and day-out becomes a painful and dangerous chore. And I could tell by their demeanors that though quite saddened over having to move, they had come to accept that it was time to live in a single-story house.  

I left that day feeling like I had gathered just enough of a story from these the sweetest of ladies and their lovely home. But a few weeks later I realized I had forgotten a key question, and reached back out to both of them.

“Do either of you feel any connection to the original or prior owners of the house?” I asked. 

“We do, in fact,” said Claire. Over Labor Day weekend the summer they moved in, they had had a house warming party and got to bed late, after midnight. They were in bed in the back of the house in the upstairs master bedroom, their daughters in the front bedrooms. Around 2am they were both awakened. 

They were hearing the sound of a football, Claire said, “going from the second floor landing up to the third floor. We opened the door to see which child might be walking around at that hour, and found our younger daughter asleep in the southwest bedroom, and our older daughter coming out of her room on the east side of the house.”

They became frightened. “We could all hear someone walking upstairs” on the third floor. They quickly gathered their girls, grabbed the house phone and their dogs (who were in crates), and hid away in their car to call the police. 

The police found nothing. No signs of forced entry, no one outside, and no one walking around and playing with a football upstairs. 

The second floor hall. The bedrooms to the left face the
front of the house and Madison

“The next morning, we called our friend, Jane, who had lived in the house in the 1980s.  We said, ‘Jane? We think there may be a ghost in the house.’”  

"Oh, yes, there definitely is,” their friend told them. Claire went on, “She said that when she lived here, they heard the ghost frequently and had heard a story of the original owner having died in the house and she figured that's who it was.”

With my research I knew a few things. And I knew that original owners Mr. and Mrs. Turcott moved from the house around 1918. The McNeely’s baby boy died in 1918 up at 357 Lewis in North Memphis. And though there were gaps in the deeds records from the 50s through the 70s, I could not uncover any evidence of anyone dying in the house. 

Until I dug deeper into the City Directory of 1927, when the McClellans lived in the house, and noticed a “wid Guy S” after Nellie’s name - “wid” for widow.

I dug deeper. Mr. Guy Smith McClellan died on August 24, 1926, of cancer to the adrenal glands. He was just 47 years old. And place of death? The County of Shelby, Memphis, Tennessee, 2234 Madison Avenue. 

The poor man had died in the house. We don’t know exactly which room. But if you recall, his widow Nellie kept the house and rented out the rear of house to at least three residents until a few years past 1943. And it was the upstairs rear of house where Claire and Susan had heard those footsteps. 

“Over the years,” Claire would tell me, “we heard the sounds of someone occasionally, but more often, we smelled the distinct smell of cigarette smoke in the house when none of us smokes. It was usually out on the landing between the first and second floors.  No neighbors smoke, nobody standing outside those windows, just…smoke.”

Eventually their smoking visitor stopped making itself known. Or, who knows, maybe it quit smoking. Either way, they stopped hearing him, or her. “I think,” they said, it “finally trusts us.”

Like Wanda Wilson of P&H, another Madison ghost. Susie had known Wanda as well, I learned. She had known her quite well. And again I was feeling another instance of this connectedness, amongst the people of Madison, the places of Madison, the people and places of Memphis, and their stories. There’s a running joke I’ve been encountering as I meet Memphians, that everyone knows everyone else through someone. “It’s not six degrees of separation in Memphis,” I’ve said out loud, “it’s more like two.”

Yet another way in which Memphis has that something. Its heart. Its redemptive soul. 

Before I finished my chat with Claire and Susie, they revealed that years earlier they had passed up an opportunity to live elsewhere. “Why did you stay?” I asked. Susie looked at Claire, then looked back at me.

“Because Memphis needs me,” she said.

And so do, I think, its ghosts.


Please contact me if you have any additions, or corrections. 

Special thanks to June, Claire and Susan for their time. Thanks as always to the Shelby County Archives, the Memphis Public Library, and the Shelby County Register of Deeds site for references in this post.


After this post was published, Memphian Klay Lester reached to me via FaceBook. He shared these memories and this photo:

1986 photo courtesy of Klay Lester, brother of former
owner James Lester, who owned the house from 1979 to ‘86

“My brother (James) used to own 2234 Madison from 79-86! He lived there for a few years then rented it out after he moved to Dallas in ’81. I have (this) photo of the house from 1986. My friends & I threw a big Risky Business style party there while it was empty during renters. This photograph was taken the day before the party when we went over there to clean up. My parents still don't know. Guess I can tell them now. ROR!”