Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.
Dear Vance,I recently discovered a rather unusual house in our neighborhood. The architecture stands out from the homes around it, and as you can see from the photo, it doesn’t even have any windows. What do you know about this home?— N.L., Memphis
Dear N.L.: Well, you’re looking at it all wrong. The style of the house is certainly more modern than the traditional homes on Oak Grove, but the reason this particular home has no windows is because it’s backwards. By that, I mean you’re actually looking at the rear of the house; the builder turned it around so the windows across the front would give the owner a spectacular view of the dense woods behind the home.
It’s somewhat hard to believe that such a modern-looking house was constructed more than half-a-century ago, but this was indeed the private residence of a local architect named Frank Burt. Now Burt had built a practice of designing homes in more conservative, traditional styles for neighborhoods throughout Memphis. But for his own home, he wanted something different, so he recruited the services of another local architect, Alfred Grief Jr. The result attracted the attention of the Memphis Press-Scimitar, which featured the unusual home in a 1957 story headlined, “Builds House Unlike Anybody Else’s.” The newspaper reporter observed that Burt “has never been identified with anything except true Williamsburg, true French Provincial, and other traditional styles.” But Burt told that reporter what he planned here: “I’m still building the period houses, and I love ’em. But I think in six or seven years we’ll be seeing a trend toward what I call the transitional house. It won’t be dated like the contemporary house or any year’s automobiles.”
Maybe so, but the newspaper noted that Burt’s friends “can’t believe their eyes.” The split-level home featured adobe brick and rough-cut cypress on the exterior, with perhaps the most eye-catching element visible from the street being the massive balcony with outward-sloping walls and built-in planters. The interior was even more modern than the exterior, with a 12-foot “chimney wall” surrounding an adobe fireplace, freestanding stairs, and lots of “Bella Rosa” paneling, whatever that is. The back — wait, I mean the front — has a long brick terrace “for further enjoying the natural setting.”
Burt lived in the home for almost 10 years. He sold it in 1967, and it has had a succession of owners since then. The house is still standing, though now shorn of its distinctive balconies and certain other features. And the woods that Burt admired have been replaced with a subdivision.
Dear Vance,My grandparents ran a laundry somewhere downtown called Ponder’s Cleaners. Where was it, and what happened to it?— F.P., Memphis
Dear F.P.: Lately, readers of this column seem to think I’m ready to branch out and tackle the broader issues of the day. So I’ve been getting questions that smack of high-school homework assignments, asking me to tell them the history of Millington, the story of the Sultana, and the victor of the Peloponnesian War. So I was happy to receive such a concise, uncomplicated query — and one with an obvious family connection. I assumed that the “P” in your initials stood for “Ponder” and a leisurely search through various historical records would provide me — and you, F.P. — with a quick answer.
Well, I was wrong. My search got off to a good start. Although I had never heard of Ponder’s Cleaners, and didn’t really expect to find a vintage photo of the establishment, sure enough, the Memphis and Shelby County Room provided the one you see here. Now, this photo intrigues me. First of all, the work of the cleaners seems to be confined to one well-dressed gentleman, studiously avoiding the photographer, using some kind of elaborate ironing board contraption. I see some other mysterious equipment in the background, but none of the other things you’d expect to see if you walked into a cleaners today. And what are we to make of the curious stone fountain in the middle of the floor?
Peering through the plate-glass windows, you can dimly see some old cars parked at the curb, and the hand-painted sign on the window announces “Ponder’s Cleaners: The Last Word in Cleaning.” But, if you overlook the ghostly phantom floating above the head of the lone employee, the photo doesn’t tell me as much as I’d hoped.
So I turned to the old city directories, and all I can ask you, F.P., is this: Was your grandfather named Leonard Marshall or Benjamin Shawhan or Opie Barron or Harry McCleary or Charles Webb? Because in the short history of the cleaner’s existence, it changed hands year after year.
I mentioned history, so I might as well tell you that Ponder Cleaning — not Cleaners — apparently opened in 1932 at 1122 Union Avenue, operated in that first year by a fellow named Leonard Marshall. It stayed in that location on Union for five years, when it moved to 768 South Cooper, not the best location in town, it seems to me, since it was then located right next door to a competitor, Franklin Laundry-Cleaners. Two years later, according to the old city directories, it was out of business, replaced by an establishment called Smart Cleaners.
Today, both locations are gone. The original building at 1122 Union, which would have put it across the street from Fortune’s Jungle Garden, mentioned in this column about a hundred times, was demolished (as was Fortune’s) to build the expressway. The Cooper-Young address now takes you to a parking lot.
This simple query turned into a frustrating puzzle. During its short existence, no one named Ponder ever owned or operated it, so I don’t know what to make of the name. In its first year of business, I did locate another Ponder in town — Harry Ponder, who worked as a plant mechanic for Colonial Baking Company, but he had no connection with a laundry. So all that’s left is for me to ponder the meaning of the name behind Ponder Cleaning.
Got a question for Vance? Email: email@example.com Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103