I just turned up a great old aerial photo of the Memphis Steam Laundry, one of our city's architectural marvels, so I thought I'd share it with you. And look — at the top of the image is Russwood Park, so this is kind of a two-for-one special.
Begun by Jules Rozier way back in 1882, the Memphis Steam Laundry Company operated downtown for many years before moving to 941 Jefferson in 1927. Except for Dryve Cleaners, laundries aren’t usually noted for their architecture, but for some reason, Memphis architect Nowland Van Powell — at the time the principal designer for architect E.L. Harrison — decided that this normally humdrum industrial building should be modeled after the Doges’ Palace in Venice — much like the north wing of the Lauderdale Mansion. The facade was just slathered with patterned brickwork, elaborate arches, and terra-cotta ornamentation. The sides and back, however, were just plain brick.
I like this photo because it also gives a good idea of the height of the laundry's smokestack, and its massive water tower, which were — in their own way — Memphis landmarks for decades.
I'm not quite sure what to make of that oddly shaped "park" (the open space with grass and a few trees here and there) to the right, which would have been west of the laundry (this view is facing roughly southwest). That is NOT Forrest Park, so it may just be an undeveloped piece of land in the area — hard to believe when you see how jam-packed the entire Medical Center area is today.
“Few cities are lucky enough to have a genuine Venetian palace in which the citizens can have their shirts laundered,” wrote Eugene Johnson and Robert Russell in Memphis: An Architectural Guide. “What connection Harrison and Powell saw between cleanliness and Venetian Gothic we shall probably never know.”
Although the building was, I presume, admired in its day, it became less so in the mid-1960s when the growing Medical Center began its quest for more space. While Johnson and Russell called the Memphis Steam Laundry “the best piece of eclectic architecture the city ever had,” others thought differently, and in heated debates about a better use for the property a Memphis Housing Authority director even called the laundry a “monstrosity, that in years to come will be obsolete, and an eyesore in the whole area where new buildings are going up.” (Hmmm. I’ll bite my tongue about my own opinion of some of those new buildings.)
Few of the arguments over the structure commented on its striking design; everyone was more concerned about the valuable space it was occupying. So in 1973, under the guise of “urban renewal,” bulldozers pulled down the “Venetian palace.” (Russwood Park was no longer a problem, since it had conveniently burned to the ground in 1960.)
“Why it could not have found a place in the Medical Center many of us will never understand,” lamented Johnson and Russell in their book. The Med stands on the site today.