photos by Vance Lauderdale
Hard to believe, but in the early 1930s, a Texas businessman named E. Lee Torrance visited Memphis and told a reporter, “[Your city] has the most careful drivers I ever saw. They sure obey the speed limit, too.”
Based on that observation, I think we can safely say that: 1) Mr. Torrance was insane, or 2) Memphis drivers have sure changed a heckuva lot since the early 1930s.
At any rate, for other reasons that we may never know, Torrance decided that the Bluff City seemed to be a “good business town,” and so he decided Memphis should be the next link in his nationwide chain of Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts. After all, as he explained, “If people are speeding through town, they won’t be able to see my tourist courts.”
Speeding or not, it would have been hard to miss the Alamo Plaza, which opened in October 1939 at 2862 Summer, just east of the viaduct. A gleaming-white stucco facade, designed to resemble the famed Alamo in San Antonio, concealed a sprawling complex that would eventually include some 42 separate buildings, a landscaped courtyard, and a 20-by-50-foot swimming pool.
When the place first opened, rates were just $2 a day, and the management was very careful about who could stay there. “We cater to tourists and traveling salesmen,” said Torrance. “We don’t admit couples with local driver’s licenses” who might use those rooms to — oh, you know. None of that hourly rate stuff for Torrance. He looked for, and apparently found, people who stayed there for months and even years.
In 1957, the motel’s owners invested more than $100,000 in improvements, adding air-conditioning, carpeting, and other features that newspapers said “will make it one of the outstanding motor courts in the 20-state chain.” And so it was — at least for a few more years. Over time, however, the Alamo Plaza began to show its age, the new expressways allowed business travelers to bypass the city entirely, and the surrounding neighborhood began to decline. The complex was torn down several years ago, and the last time I drove by, I think a used-car lot occupies the site today — a sad state of affairs for those Memphians who still “remember the Alamo.”