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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Alamo, Alamas, Alamat

Memphians proudly say that Memphis has torn down more history than most cities ever had. With all due respect to Memphis’s lack of respect for its historic structures--and it has been considerable--that is no doubt a slight exaggeration, and, having seen the changes in my current city of residence, Durham, North Carolina, over the past thirteen years, I would imagine that any city could make such a boast—if a boast it is.

One excellent guide to the history that has been torn down in Memphis—indeed, one excellent guide to Memphis, period—is Eugene J. Johnson and Robert D. Russell Jr.’s Memphis: An Architectural Guide. Published in 1990 by the University of Tennessee Press, the book is an enormously valuable catalog of existing, as well as “lost,” buildings and houses in the Bluff City. Among the lost the authors especially bewail are the Cossitt Library, the Romanesque, turreted structure made of red sandstone (thankfully, a portion of the old building, attached to the current Cossitt Library building, still exists); Temple Israel, with its horseshoe-arch portal and twin towers; the Memphis Steam Laundry, a “genuine Venetian palace”; and the Alamo Plaza Motel, a Spanish-Colonial-style complex with a double-arched frontispiece that, until 1988, stood at 2862 Summer Avenue.

By the time I came of age, most of the lost buildings Johnson and Russell document were already, well, lost, but not the Alamo: I remember seeing the picturesque motel on our weekend drives along Summer Avenue en route to the zoo or Confederate Park. Of course, at the time, with little experience behind me, unaware that what is here today can be gone tomorrow—the heartbreak!—I took the Alamo—its special appearance, its place in the history of the American motel—for granted. As our green and stifling Torino station wagon rolled by, my three siblings and I shoved into the back where the air conditioning didn’t reach, I didn’t think, “There’s the Alamo! Isn’t it wonderful? Look at its false façade!” I was probably too busy punching my sister in the arm and fending off her considerable counterattacks to think about anything at all. If a thought did cross my mind, it was probably why the Alamo was here, in Memphis, when it was supposed to be in Texas; I would have then no doubt tried to imagine Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie hiding behind the hotel’s beds and vanities, patiently awaiting their tragic fate.

Since the publication of Memphis: An Architectural Guide in 1990, many more old buildings in Memphis have been torn down, although hardly any of them were as irreplaceable as the old Cossitt Library or the Alamo Motel. The two losses that hurt me the most were the old Buntyn restaurant on Southern and the main library on Peabody and McLean. Neither was architecturally important—consider that in a book as otherwise comprehensive as Johnson and Russell’s is, neither is granted an entry; but at least they were in some way unique. And that’s the point; on my numerous visits to Memphis over the past twenty years, I have more and more found myself at intersections in the heart of the city at which I am surrounded by the any-town sameness of chain-store “architecture.” Last year, the Union Avenue Methodist Church, built in 1923 and which does have an entry in Johnson and Russell’s guide (they did not think much of the building in relation to its cramped site), was sold to the drug-store chain CVS, which razed the old building and replaced it with one of their drug stores. And just this past January, the old Fortner Furniture building at National and Summer, with its landmark red clock, was torn down for what will be a Family Dollar store.

But Johnson and Russell’s book is not for what has been lost but for what is still with us. I won’t count them, but I’d estimate at least four hundred houses, school buildings, government buildings, commercial buildings, and the like are documented in the book. At least four hundred! There are twenty-two entries alone for the Vance-Pontotoc district. Browsing through the book’s 394 pages is like strolling through the city, running into old friends (“Hello, Pink Palace! How are you, Memphis Brooks Museum?”) but even more so encountering ones that have been under your very nose all this time but were never noticed before.

Here are excerpts from entries on some of Memphis’s still-existing iconic structures:
  • Lowenstein and Brothers Building, 1882 (72 North Main Street): “This is one of the great remaining commercial structures of the nineteenth century in Memphis, and probably Baldwin’s [the architect, Mathias Harvey Baldwin] finest building. On the long Jefferson Avenue side there is a clever play in rhythm between the cast-iron and brick piers. . . . Even in its ruinous state, the building still exerts its quirky power.”
  • “I Have Been to the Mountaintop,” 1977: “A memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by one of the leading black sculptors of the day [Richard Hunt]. . . . an abstract mountain of Cor-Ten steel that rises directly from the pavement. . . . The Hunt sculpture is not as rhetorical as the speech [for which it is named], but it makes its point eloquently.”
  • Kimbrough Towers, 1939 (corner of Kimbrough Place and Union Avenue): “One of the finest Art Deco structures in the city. Particularly strong are the vertical projections that articulate each side of the asymmetrically planned mass. 
  • Memphis College of Art, 1956 (Overton Park): “To get the commission for this building, the architects won a competition juried by Philip Johnson and Paul Rudolph. Once finished, the building got an award from Progressive Architecture, a blessing few other buildings in the city have received. . . . The building has a grace and an openness that fit it well into the large trees that rise around it.”
  • Agricenter, 1986 (7777 Walnut Grove Road): “A powerful steel-and-glass building that is one of the most exciting structures built in Memphis in recent years. . . . Architecturally, this is a much more interesting exercise in pyramid-building than the [actual] Pyramid [downtown].”
Agricenter. Photograph by Thomas R. Machnitzki. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I was surprised by the discussion of the old Dixie Homes housing project that stood in the 900 block of Poplar Avenue (it was demolished in 2006 and replaced by a development named Legends Park), which, say the authors, represents “one of the high moments in the history of Memphis architecture.” In the book is a photograph showing a bird’s-eye view of the project that reveals its “Baroque qualities,” which, the authors explain, are reminiscent of the grounds of Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles. “Indeed, the quality of the design is rarely matched in public housing in this country or even in Europe.”

Writing in 1990, before the unimaginable and utterly remarkable transformation of downtown took place—certainly the most significant development in Memphis since I left in 1989, even more significant than the election of our first black mayor, in 1991—the authors were not sanguine about the present condition of the city or its prospects. Ravaged by urban renewal, forsaken by white flight, and its development conditioned not by sound principles of urban planning but by the wantonness of the private automobile, Memphis was “fragmented”; the city had “turned its back on the original reason for its existence,” leaving downtown standing “forlornly apart, facing away from the rest of the city.” “The urban tragedy of present-day Memphis is that it is now trying to be a city without a center,” they wrote, and they quote an article from the Commercial Appeal that predicted that the cylindrical Hilton Memphis Hotel at Poplar and I-240 will be “the maypole around which Memphis will revolve.” Memphis is still a city without a center—but so are all American cities. America does many things well, but cities are not one of them.

As icing on the cake, the book is also a primer in architecture, containing a helpful eight-page glossary of architectural terms and a list of suggested readings.

For more on the old Alamo Plaza Motel, including photographs, see this post from December 2008 in Ask Vance.

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