Dear Vance: I recently bought an old photograph that purports to show the Elks Club in Memphis (above). Where was this building, pray tell, and what happened to it?
— D.G., Memphis.
Dear D.G.: I'm sorry, but I normally don't answer any question that uses the word "purports" or the phrase "pray tell." You'd have to be a Lauderdale to understand. But then I glanced at the photo and decided it wasn't even taken in Memphis, and you had wasted your money and had suffered enough, so thought I'd at least investigate just where this particular Elks Lodge might have been located.
And what do you know. Everything purports to indicate it was indeed one of the first — if not the first — Elks Clubs in our city. The real clue was the building at the far right in the photo, bearing the humble sign "Hopkins House." I journeyed to the University of Memphis Special Collections, where they have a nice set of old city directories, and in 1903, a hotel/tavern called the Hopkins House stood downtown at 67 Jefferson. Sure enough, those same books show the Elks Club next door, at 69-71 Jefferson.
It's a fine-looking structure, a two-story brick building with a matching pair of gently curving bay windows. Look closely, and high above the entrance is the figure of an elk's head, and "ELKS" is even etched into the glass of the lantern. I don't know when the club was built, but you didn't ask that, D.G., so I don't feel so bad about glossing over such a pesky detail.
Back in the early 1900s, the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks couldn't have found a better place to erect a festive clubhouse. That block of Jefferson, between Main and Front, held a variety of interesting businesses that would have appealed to their all-male membership: Ralph Mitchell's Grocery, Matt Monaghan's Produce, Fisher & Co. Meats, Lewis Hat Company, Sambucetti Cigars & Tobacco, Louis Aehle's Soft Drinks, Samuel Lebovitz Clothing, and more. And it was also home to three saloons. In addition to the Hopkins House, you could heft a mug of beer at a joint called Nixon & Alston's or the Equitable Saloon.
The Elks called this nice building home until 1926. Then they tore it down, along with everything else on the block, and embarked on one of the most impressive structures ever erected in our city — the 12-story tower they would call, quite simply and logically, the Elks Club Building.
Crafted by the Memphis firm of Mahan and Broadwell, this was a combination lodge and hotel at the southeast corner of Jefferson and Front that was, according to a promotional brochure, "attractive in design, mammoth in size, and furnished luxuriously and in excellent taste — simple dignity without in any way losing the informal, homelike air of a true club." Erected at a cost of some $1.3 million (an enormous sum in the 1920s), the new Elks Club featured "150 delightful rooms with bath and outside exposure, circulating ice water, free electrical fan service, and a new and sanitary coffee shop." That was just the hotel portion of the building, which was available to the public.
The Elks themselves enjoyed considerably fancier amenities (right). The building included a complete gymnasium that would allow members to "enter the day's work with new zest, boyish vim, and vigor"; a billiards room with "first-quality tables, balls, cues, and scoring equipment"; a huge indoor swimming pool with "crystal clear waters"; a "spacious, airy, and inviting" six-lane bowling alley; a handball court "pulsing with life and action"; and "one of the most attractive ballrooms in the city." All that was in addition to the Club Grille, the coffee shop, the library, the lounge, and the Turkish baths, where Elks members "may receive the expert attention of trained masseurs, and sally forth thence refreshed and invigorated."
Unfortunately for half of this city's population, all these wonders were reserved for the men. But the new Elk's Club did have one feature designed with the women in mind. On the top floor was the Ladies Writing Room, complete with fancy desks and comfy chairs, "an ideal retreat, where feminine correspondence may receive its proper attention."
This stunning structure — all brightly colored terra cotta and spires, with four stone griffins perched at the top — was called the Elks Club Building for only a few years. When Clarence DeVoy, the Elk's Exalted Ruler, died in 1931, the name of the building was changed to the Hotel DeVoy — a very classy name indeed. In 1945, however, the name was changed again, to the one most Memphians remember today — the Hotel King Cotton.
That's right. One of downtown's most memorable hotels actually began life as an Elks Club.
But the grand building turned out to be a burden. Over the years, the tremendous cost of construction and upkeep became too much for the members to handle. In 1937, Memphis Elks Lodge #27, one of the oldest and largest in the country, actually surrendered its charter and moved out of its fancy headquarters. The million-dollar-plus building was sold at a foreclosure auction for just $200,000. The Elks, determined to survive, began to hold meetings in a cramped space above a Pantaze Drugstore on Main Street. In the late 1940s, they moved again — this time into a nice-looking former apartment building on Adams called the Cannon Flats.
For reasons I don't really understand (as a Lauderdale I was never an Elk, or a Moose, or a Lion, or anything, really — we were above all that), that building wasn't suitable either and was eventually demolished. I suspect they didn't really need their own building anymore. At one time, the Elks here claimed 4,000 members; by 1976 enrollment had dropped to just 300. I can't say what happened to the club over the years, but in the mid-1970s, the Elks actually returned to their former home, this time renting out meeting space in the Hotel King Cotton. It must have been a bittersweet experience, looking around and thinking, "At one time, all this was ours."
Well, they didn't have to feel sad for very long. On the morning of April 29, 1984, the King Cotton came tumbling down with a blast of dynamite to make way for the Morgan Keegan Tower. The magnificent stone griffins that once guarded the top four corners of the old hotel grace the lobby of the new tower. For awhile, the Elks met in the former Starlight Supper Club, a little place on Highway 51 North. Nowadays, they convene once a month in a somewhat industrial section of Atoka, Tennessee.
It's a sad story, really. When the Elks Club Building first opened, a promotional booklet gushed, "The new building will be a monument to the finest American ideals of physical expression and the fullest expression of true Elk fellowship." The Elks are still quite active in this area, as are the Moose lodges and other fraternal organizations, but they don't occupy a stunning tower that was a true Memphis landmark for more than half a century.
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Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103