With the holidays approaching, I wanted to share with you a nice old postcard showing a fine nativity scene on the grounds of the George Vincent Hotel. And in the not-so-holiday spirit of "killing two birds with one stone" (has anyone ever done such a thing?) this gives me the chance to chat about two things: the hotel, and the talented artist who created the nativity scene — among many other things in Memphis — a fellow named Hardie Phipps.
Let me say right now that I don't know who George Vincent is, or why he had a hotel named after him. What I do know is this little 75-room establishment was located at 855 Union, in the Medical Center area. From what I understand, the rather plain-looking brick building originally opened as the Lucy Brinkley Hospital and was converted into a hotel in the late 1930s or early 1940s. Union was (and still is) a major traffic artery through town, so the place stayed busy, but in 1956 it was purchased by the University of Tennessee and converted into dormitories for its medical students, along with some offices.
In 1975, the complex was bulldozed, and the fortresslike Dunn Dental Building now stands on the site. So much for the George Vincent Hotel.
So now let me tell you about Hardie Phipps, a scenic designer who created some of the best outdoor displays this city has ever seen. Largely self-taught after graduating from Whitehaven High School, he trained under Mike Abt, the Tech High School art teacher who was a longtime Cotton Carnival float designer, and then branched out on his own. If you lived in Memphis during the 1960s and 1970s, it would be hard to miss his work: floats, department store displays, trade signs, Christmas ornaments, and nativity scenes — including the one that stood for years in the front yard of Graceland.
Projects included a 16-foot candle mounted on the roof of a store on Summer, a replica of a Spanish galleon mounted on wheels, a fiberglass gorilla and other creatures for the old Lakeland amusement park, and a giant Martian head for a Boy Scout circus in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Hardie and his family lived in a rambling old home, tucked away on two acres of land at Lamar and Democrat, and the place was just overflowing with some of the bizarre things he had constructed out of plaster and fiberglass. A newspaper reporter who visited the compound in the 1960s encountered this scene: "As you drive down the narrow lane leading to the place, you get the impression that you are approaching a carnival midway. Dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures are coming out of hibernation. Lions and gorillas are on the prowl. Indians are looking for palefaces to scalp. Pirates are wandering about looking for loot. Flowers as big as old-fashioned washpots are blooming. Prospectors are wondering if there's gold in them Gulf Coast sands."
Gulf Coast? Well, during the slack time following the Christmas season, Hardie and his wife and three boys would venture down to Panama City, Florida, where he put his design genius to work on a number of memorable tourist attractions. He built and operated a place called the Magic Forest, peopled with animated elves and dwarfs, and then another place called Ghost Town and Petticoat Junction (named after a popular TV show — remember it?). People would ride an old-fashioned steam train through the Florida pines and encounter Phipps-designed pirates and Indians. A resourceful fellow, he would borrow elements from other displays — say, a Santa Claus — and with a few deft changes transform him into Blackbeard the Pirate.
Most of those creatures were built here, and one year Press-Scimitar columnist Eldon Roark commented on the menagerie headed to the Gulf Coast: "Hardie is getting ready to take off for Panama City with the gosh-awfulest collection of plastic and paper-mache people and animals anyone ever saw — gorillas, lions, tigers, donkeys, mermaids, pioneers, horsemen, pirates. He even has a castle on wheels, a log cabin on wheels, a house trailer, and a large boat."
Back to the George Vincent Hotel, while I'm thinking about it: That nativity scene caused a sensation when Hardie unveiled it, not only for its sheer size (all the figures are life-size), but because he set up everything in May. Motorists on Union probably thought they were seeing things, but Hardie wanted to check out the placement of the figures and fine-tune certain details and colors. Then everything went back on the truck until December. Among other things, Roark reported, "He is experimenting with the use of real hair beards on the wise men and thinks they will be big improvements over sculptured beards. Some of Mrs. Phipps' curls have gone into the experiment."
Hardie Phipps died in 1993. Most of his creations were sold off over the years to various collectors. I spoke with one of his sons, Hardie Phipps Jr., some time ago, and he told me, "I really admired what he was able to do on a shoestring. He was a very creative man, very hard-working. As kids we helped him paint some of his figures, but none of us apparently inherited his creative talent."
Quite a fellow. Memphis needs more like him.