Courtesy Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries
DEAR VANCE: Is it true that Clark Tower was originally built as a hospital?
— M.K., Memphis
Lately I’ve been receiving a lot of queries that I’m tempted to put into a growing folder called “Can’t Possibly Be True.” After all, anyone who grew up in East Memphis in the 1960s watched in awe as the William B. Clark Company erected the tallest building in East Memphis, a gleaming white office tower topped by one of the largest flags in Shelby County. From the day it opened in 1972, Clark Tower has been home to dozens of well-known Memphis firms, so I wondered where anyone could have possibly gotten the bizarre notion that such a landmark was conceived as a hospital?
Uh, well, perhaps because that’s what the banner headlines told readers of the Memphis Press-Scimitar back in 1966, announcing, “30-Story Hospital Planned for White Station.”
Sure enough, while rooting through the old P-S files now archived at the University of Memphis Special Collections, I turned up a folder labeled “White Station Hospital” and the first thing I noticed was this rendering which obviously depicts the building that we know today as Clark Tower (with White Station Tower just behind it), but just as obviously describes it as “PROPOSED WHITE STATION HOSPITAL.” That folder also held newspaper clippings that indicated this wasn’t just a pipe dream. The developers had already paid $1.3 million to purchase property adjacent to the White Station Tower they had constructed just a few years before — which included almost 30 houses along a street called Harvey Road. They had also consulted with hospital experts in St. Louis.
William B. Clark told reporters that he was planning to use that city’s new Queeny Hospital as a model for his own. “If we model it after Queeny,” he said, “our hospital would have 10 floors of parking, five floors of office and laboratories, and 15 floors for patients’ rooms.”
The new facility would have 500 beds, and Clark explained, “There is a tremendous need for a hospital in East Memphis. We don’t want to compete with our fine medical center, but a city as large as Memphis needs hospitals in outlying areas.”
Today, it’s somewhat amusing to think of Poplar and White Station described as an “outlying area,” but in the 1960s this really was on the edge of town.
￼What happened to the fancy new White Station Hospital, and the “desperate need” for more hospital rooms?
Clark also revealed that the new hospital would be the centerpiece of a major development, which would include a 290,000-square- foot shopping mall to be erected behind White Station Tower, and a pair of 10-story apartment towers along Mendenhall.
“Our main objective, however, is to get the hospital built,” he emphasized to reporters. “I have talked with administrators of Mem- phis hospitals, and they agree that we desperately need more hospital rooms.”
Under “ideal conditions” construction would take at least a year, so the White Station Hospital would be ready for patients by 1968 or 1969. Among other features, it would include “self-care rooms,” which would resemble “plush resort hotel rooms.” In Queeny Hospital in St. Louis, these were very popular with patients, with a reporter saying, “It is hard to believe you are in a hospital. The corridors are carpeted and decorated just as any new hotel would be. The rooms are decorated in either French or Italian Provincial style. Even the hospital beds are decorated in these styles.” What’s more, “a small bar and ice box are also a part of every room.” A nice touch, you must agree.
So what happened to the fancy new White Station Hospital, and the “desperate need” for more hospital rooms? Obviously, Clark Tower was eventually constructed as an office building, not a hospital, but no one could explain why these plans never left the drawing board. Officials with Clark and Clark, as the development company is known today, weren’t aware of this old project, and couldn’t tell me why it bit the dust.
And the White Station Hospital plans weren’t shelved because of St. Francis Hospital, constructed just a few miles away. That facility, originally conceived as a branch of the old St. Joseph Hospital downtown, saw its first patients in December 1974 — several years after Clark Tower had already opened.
But I think I know what happened. It’s one thing to build a hospital, but another thing entirely to operate it. Clark wasn’t in the hospital administration business, and in the newspaper articles he announced, rather vaguely, he was “negotiating with a religious group which was interested in operating the hospital.”
The group is never mentioned, so I assume those negotiations fell through, and Clark decided to turn the proposed building into the 34-story office tower still standing today. If anybody has a better explanation, then I’d like to hear it.
DEAR VANCE: What’s the story behind the handsome brick building, standing at the northwest corner of North Second and Looney, in the newly revitalized Uptown neighborhood in North Memphis?
— F.G., Memphis
DEAR F.G.: When people think of grocery store pioneers in Memphis — okay, that probably doesn’t happen very often, but just bear with me here. As I was saying: IF people think of grocery-store pioneers in Memphis, the first name that usually comes to mind is Clarence Saunders, hailed as the inventor of the first self-service grocery store. Now it turns out that others may have come up with that same general concept — it does seem fairly obvious, when you think about it — but Saunders turned his idea into the national Piggly Wiggly chain, and then used his fortune to build the Pink Palace, so he usually gets top billing.
But in Memphis at least, a fellow by the name of Duke C. Bowers is also part of grocery store royalty, if that’s the right word, because he also developed a successful chain of cash-only neighborhood stores, which he first called “Little Groceries” and then came up with a much better name: “Temples of Economy.” Now these were still the old-fashioned type of grocery, where you wandered in with your scribbled grocery list and handed it to a clerk, who pulled your boxes of crackers and cans of soup and bottles of Kentucky Nip. But performing such a mundane chore in a “Temple of Economy” somehow made it a special experience.
And that brings us (finally!) to your query. The building at 649 North Second originally opened in 1905 as Mr. Bowers Little Store #8, the newest of eight Bowers establishments in the city at the time (he would eventually have 40 stores all over the city). As I said, if you’ve been paying attention so far, the store later became one of Bowers’ Temples of Economy, but it still looked the same.
Back in those days, the grocery usually occupied the ground floor, and the family who owned or operated the store lived in quarters on the second floor, but for some reason the old city directories, which have proved so trustworthy to me in the past, don’t mention any residents in their listings.
At any rate, the building was a Bowers store until 1924, when it was taken over by another, somewhat smaller chain, called Arrow Stores. After that, it housed a succession of family-owned groceries over the years: Wood’s Grocery, Carter’s Grocery, and Principi Grocery. Throughout the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, it was home to Certified Market #2.
In the 1970s, a different kind of business moved in, and 649 North Second became home to Chambers Repair Service, mainly devoted to the upkeep of refrigerators, air conditioners, and washing machines. The old building, like many others around it, was definitely beginning to show its age by the time Henry Turley and Jack Belz joined forces to revitalize the neighborhood and transform it into the Uptown community, and I’m glad they were able to save this particular structure, because I think it looks quite fine, with its new coat of brick-colored paint. These days the former “Temple of Economy” serves as a ... hmmm, the building seems to be empty. Oh well, it still looks nice, so maybe the next owner will put it to good use. I suggest a Kentucky Nip sales center. Memphis really needs one.