When you pass a historic building in Memphis, you just might have the folks at Memphis Heritage to thank for it. The nonprofit organization was founded in 1975, when a small but active group of concerned citizens met on the second floor of Stewart Brothers Hardware in Midtown. The goal? To prevent any more of the city's oldest -- and most vulnerable -- architecture from being demolished in the name of "progress." Since those struggling first days, Memphis Heritage has gone from a small grassroots group to, well, a small grassroots group. But, as Executive Director June West will tell you, small doesn't mean helpless. We sat down with the modern-day David to talk about Memphis Heritage's mission to give Memphis' past a future, the amazing gift the organization received in the form of a $1.3 million, 8,000-square-foot Midtown mansion, and keeping Goliath at bay.
Was there a building torn down that served as a catalyst for creating Memphis Heritage?
The Napoleon Hill Mansion at 1400 Union was torn down in 1978. There were marchers and protesters, the whole nine yards, but in the end it came down. It put the issue on the radar for a lot of Memphians.
How and when did you become involved?
I've always been interested in historic structures and anything old, really. I came on board in 2003. I was at a crossroads, and I met with the president of the Memphis Heritage board, William Chandler. It was a good fit for us both.
Tell me about your amazing new office.
I picked up the phone in our rented office space on South Main one morning last May, and a man was asking for more information about us. I could go on forever about our mission, which is pretty much what happened. At the end of the conversation, this stranger named Hal Howard asked if we'd be interested in having a home at Madison and Edgewood. The address didn't ring a bell, so I went to check it out.
What was your first thought when you saw it?
This can't be true. It's too good!
What's Hal Howard like?
So down-to-earth. You just don't meet people like him every day. He didn't even have any conditions upon which we could have the house, though he asked us to consider naming it for his parents. And I thought it was a wonderful idea, and Howard Hall was born. We moved in last fall. More than a gift to Memphis Heritage, this place is a gift to Shelby County. A place for preservation. In fact, every Monday in March we'll host a Preservation Series lecture from 7 to 8:30 p.m. This year's topic is Central Gardens.
Is there ever a case when you think a historic structure should come down?
Yes, Crump Stadium is a good example. The benefits of it coming down far outweigh the benefits of it staying up. Keep the gates and the brick walls -- that's what people remember. But the Landmarks Commission disagreed. So the kids at Central High can't have home games there. To save something just to save it is not effective.
Do developers have dartboards with your face in the middle?
No! [laughing] The irony is I was a developer before I came to MH, so I understand their point of view. I know they have to make the numbers work. But if you're creative, those structures that you think can't be saved really can. Once they're gone, they're gone forever.
What's the biggest misconception that people have about what you do?
That we try to save everything. That we're brick huggers. But we're willing to find common ground. We know we can't win them all, so we pick our battles carefully. I would love to say that 10 percent of Memphians cared about our historic properties, but it's probably 6 percent. If I could get that number up, and leave Memphis Heritage and know that it would be here forever, then I would have done my job.