"Dining and dying." Whether I'm speaking before a Senate Congressional Committee or the East Memphis Iris Club, that's what I usually respond when asked what are the most common topics that I tackle in my monthly "Ask Vance" column. And that reply means that I receive a surprising amount of queries about old restaurants and cafes in Memphis, or unusual tombstones that readers have stumbled across. But there's a third category that's becoming increasingly popular: people asking me about houses and businesses, past and present. So here are a handful of intriguing questions about local real estate ventures that have recently taken me all over the city. >>>
Tailor-Made HomeDear Vance: I found this old photo (above) at the main library and have always wondered: Who lived in this nice old house, and what happened to it? — B.K., Memphis
Dear B.K.: Anyone who braves the traffic along Union Avenue today would find it hard to believe that this street was once a lovely residential boulevard. But it's true, and I've seen a number of photographs and postcards that show Union when it was lined with stately homes. For more tangible proof, just look at the former Rowland Darnell residence, constructed in 1909, that now houses the Nineteenth Century Club, or the grand home that today serves as headquarters for Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects.
In the old days, as you drove farther east on Union, the street became little more than a country road, with handsome homes shaded by stately trees, such as you see in the old photo. But over the years, businesses began to take advantage of the growing traffic along this major artery, real estate needs changed, and today the only residences along Union are stacked in condos and apartment buildings.
But back then, this area of Union was a well-established middle-class neighborhood called Cole's East End. The scrawled caption on the photo reads, "Our house, 2300 Union, Memphis, Fall 1942 — Dec. 1945," and with that information it didn't take me too long to discover that the owners of this nice home during that period were Roland and Aimee Alden. Roland was a professor at the University of Tennessee. The Aldens' neighbors, who occupied a row of similarly styled clapboard cottages, included an insurance adjustor, a dentist, a clerk at Elizabeth's Dress Shop, and a telegraph operator at Union Station.
The house was built in 1911 and saw a series of owners over the years. As the caption suggests, the Aldens lived here for just a little while. Then Roland apparently moved up in the world. After 1946, old city directories now list him as the chief of UT's anatomy division, and he and Aimee had moved to a more spacious home on Rosemary Lane in Central Gardens.
What's really surprising, considering how much change has occurred on Union over the years, is that this little house is still standing. In fact, though the adjacent houses came down to make way for parking lots and businesses, this one remained a private residence until about 17 years ago. That's when Nandwani's Custom Tailors moved in. Peter Nandwani expanded and updated the building, but the basic structure is still there, along with some of the trees you see in the old photo.
Paris in East Memphis
Dear Vance: I can remember when Morrison's opened in Eastgate, and it was quite an event. What happened to all the Morrison's Cafeterias around town? — J.G., Memphis
Dear J.G.: Anyone who attended a public or private school in America — and I imagine that would include quite a few people — cannot possibly have many fond memories of school cafeteria food. In fact, one reason I visit a cardiologist on a weekly basis is no doubt due to my weekly consumption of a heart-clogging lunchtime concoction called a "bologna boat" — a thick slab of fried bologna, topped with a scoop of mashed potatoes, crowned with about a quart of melted butter. Yum!
So I am constantly astonished by Americans' love for cafeteria food, which reached a peak in the 1960s, I believe, when people jammed into such places as Piccadilly, Britling, and Morrison's. But then those establishments, since they catered to adults, tended to serve much better fare than bologna boats, and I have to admit that Morrison's, in particular, offered a very fine (and plentiful) serving of fried shrimp.
I managed to find a full-page Commercial Appeal ad (above) from the early 1960s for the Eastgate Morrison's. Besides offering "luxurious dining surroundings, marvelous service, wonderful food, and low prices," the management of this particular eatery bragged, "The luxury and comfort of the Paris before World War I have been re-created for your pleasure. Rich paneling, handsome draperies, magnificent paintings, attractive colors, all contribute to the perfect atmosphere for delightful dining."
They certainly went to a lot of trouble, but all I can remember about the place is the shrimp.
In addition to Eastgate, Morrison's opened other locations on Union and South Parkway. But like Piccadilly and Britling, it wasn't a local establishment. Some fellow named J.A. Morrison opened the first restaurant in 1920 in Mobile, Alabama, and the chain spread throughout the Southeast, eventually operat-ing more than 150 eateries. The company then branched out, with Ruby Tuesday's, L&N Seafood Grille, Silver Spoon Café, and other brands. But many of those places turned out to be more popular than the cafeterias, so I understand that in the mid-1990s Morrison's sold out to Piccadilly. The Eastgate location housed a shop called the Broken Pot for years, but now it stands empty. I have a feeling it no longer conveys "Paris before World War I." Few places in Memphis do.
Dear Vance: Wasn't White Station Tower originally built without the revolving restaurant on top? Was it added later? — K.F., Germantown
Dear K.F.: As you can see from the cover (right) of the original promotional brochure for the building at 5050 Poplar, it was certainly conceived without its distinctive circular restaurant. In fact, the brochure notes, "The roof is designed to include a lounge, sun deck, and eating facilities."
But revolving restaurants were all the rage in the 1960s — others were placed atop the 100 North Main Building Downtown and the Mid-City Building at Claybrook and Union — so by the time construction began, the restaurant was certainly part of the plan.
Though thousands of people drive past this building today without thinking too much about it, you have to understand that in the 1960s, White Station Tower was a very bold venture. Developed by William B. Clark and Company, it was the first high-rise office building in East Memphis, and it set the stage for so many others to follow. In fact, the promotional brochure fairly gushes with excitement, beginning, "The message on these two pages concerns the unusual, the exciting, something never done before in Memphis. We are sure you won't regret the 150 seconds it will take to read it before you turn the page."
I guess they had their copywriters read the booklet aloud while somebody timed them with a stopwatch. It took me more than 150 seconds, but I'm a bit slow these days.
They continued: "In this building we are offering an entirely new and forward-thinking concept in office facilities which we think is superior to any yet conceived in the city of Memphis. In addition to being the largest and tallest office facility outside of Downtown, its design creates a very beautiful building of architectural concrete, embellished with a 50-foot decorative plaza containing water fountains and garden-type plantings." (What, I wonder, is a "garden-type planting"?)
The developers also made a claim that was no doubt considered incredible at the time: "Actually, this is probably the most centrally located area in the city of Memphis from the standpoint of accessibility." Within just a few years, that would certainly prove true.
The 22-story structure offered 343,000 square feet of floor space, with enough room to house a workforce of more than 2,500 people. When it first opened, you could lease office space in it for as little as $4.25 per square foot per year . Something tells me the rent has increased just a bit since then.
For many, its most distinctive feature was the rooftop restaurant, which originally opened as the Embers. Newspapers called it (perhaps incorrectly) "the largest revolving restaurant in the world." But the thing didn't spin fast enough to make diners dizzy; a complete revolution took a leisurely two hours and five minutes. Other restaurants later moved in — a nice place called The Pyrenees comes to mind — but today that dome houses executive offices. And no, they don't revolve.
Shortly after opening White StationTow-er, however, the Clark Company embarked on a far more ambitious project that — literally — put White Station Tower in the shadows. They erected a gleaming white skyscraper next door which, at 33 stories, tended to dwarf the first building. And by putting their name on it, calling the newer structure Clark Tower, the owners gave it an identity that the neighboring structure never really had, for some reason. Even today, people call the taller building Clark Tower and usually identify its older sibling as "you know, the shorter building next door — the one that years ago had that revolving restaurant on top."
Dear Vance: I've got an old sales brochure for Jim Walter Homes in Memphis. What I'd like to know is: Who was Jim Walter? — L.M., memphis.
Dear L.M.: Thanks for sharing the old brochure (above). Titled, "Presenting Homes for Easy Living," it's certainly a fascinating look at residential real-estate designs and prices from the late 1950s or early 1960s. The various models included such distinctive designs as the Jacksonian, the Twin Gables, the Southern Belle, the Biscayne, and the Capri. As you probably gathered from those names, most of these homes were built in the South. What's really astonishing, though, are the prices. The one-bedroom Lakeshore went for $1,095. Yes, that's right — just over one thousand dollars. For a house. The top-of-the-line Belmont — three bedrooms, one bath, spacious living room, and covered carport — sold for $3,295.
But here's the catch. First of all, that price didn't include the lot. You had to buy the land somewhere. Furthermore, if you read the fine print in the brochure, you'll see that the homes weren't complete. The houses "are completely finished on the outside, and unfinished on the inside except for flooring and partition studding." In other words, they lacked such niceties as walls, doors, wiring, and plumbing. So in that regard, they were very much like the Lauderdale Mansion today.
But the whole idea was to get you started , and then you could do the rest. "Jim Walter started developing and building homes with one thought in mind — that no family should be without a home of their own," says the brochure. "Many thousands of these economical, beautiful homes have been built across the country."
Well, that concept must have worked, because the Jim Walter Homes company is still in business today. Walter was not a Memphian, I'm sorry to say. The Tampa, Florida, native built his first "shell home" in 1946, sold it for a $300 profit, and never stopped until his retirement half a century later. He died in 2000 at the age of 77.
The company recently moved its local sales office to Olive Branch, Mississippi. The new home models are considerably fancier (and larger) than the ones in the old brochure, and I have to admit that many of them look quite fine. Something tells me they don't sell for a couple of thousand dollars anymore.
Dear Vance: At one time, John Gerber Department Store opened a branch on Union. Where was it, and what happened to it? — T.K., Memphis
Dear T.K.: John Gerber was one of the "big four" department stores Downtown, along with Goldsmith's, Lowenstein's, and Bry's. John Gerber — yes, he was a real person — opened a small retail establishment at the corner of Main and Court in 1880, and over the years he expanded until it eventually filled the entire block overlooking Court Square. In 1949, Gerber's added the first escalators ever seen in Memphis. Newspapers not only devoted stories to the newfangled "moving stairs" but someone at the old Memphis Press-Scimitar even calculated that the store's five escalators "can move the entire population of Memphis in less than 80 hours."
Of course, Memphis was a lot smaller then.
In 1941, Gerber's opened an "East Memphis" branch at 1699 Union, just east of Belvedere. A full-page ad in The Commercial Appeal explained, "Memphis is alive! It is increasing in area, growing in number, widening its influence. Life throbs in the city and in the ever-increasing suburban territory. The people in the out-lying section of the city have expressed a desire for a suburban store that can present fashions and render quick, expert service."
Hard to believe, but at one time, Union and Belvedere was considered "suburban territory" and an "out-lying section of the city."
Judging from the illustrations I've seen, the new store was grand looking, a sturdy brick and stone edifice with rows of arched windows and an imposing entrance (p. 39). It surely stood out along that block of Union, since its neighbors at the time included considerably more humble establishments, including a Toddle House, Johnson's Greenhouses, and something called the Tropic Shop.
But for some reason, Gerber's didn't survive very long on Union. Within ten years, Berliant's — a women's clothing store — had moved into the building, and in the 1960s it housed Interiors by Grenadier. Today, a Kentucky Fried Chicken and an Independent Bank occupy that corner. And if you're still determined to shop at Gerber's, don't bother driving Downtown. That one closed in 1974.
Dear Vance: At a local estate sale I found a promotional packet for Dillard Mall. Was such a mall ever built in Memphis? If so, where? — H.T., Collierville
Dear H.T.: Well, yes and no. Such an establishment did open here, but it was considerably altered from the scheme presented below.
Your sales brochure from the late 1960s pitched an enclosed shopping mall, a concept that was so unusual at the time that the developers — Wilkinson & Snowden, Inc., and E.H. Crump & Company — felt compelled to point out what we would today consider fairly obvious advantages. "There are no 'no-traffic' days because of foul weather," according to the brochure. "Mall business increases at a time when other stores are hurt by bad weather." What's more, the stores will have "bazaar-like fronts which create a warm, human, exciting atmosphere. Year-round planting, art displays, pools, fountains, and birdcages help create this atmosphere."
The centerpiece of Dillard Mall would be a "Wonderfall Fountain," which the developers called a "new concept, producing the attractive, soothing motion of rain by having liquid flow down nylon strands."
Still not convinced? "There are many impulse sales as the shopper relaxes his guard in the vast assortment of attractive goods. Shopping at a mall is a real pleasure."
And talk about location, at Poplar and Highland: "A recent study located the geographic center of the highest average income-per-household within two blocks of this location." What's more, "The tremendous drawing power of Poplar Plaza Shopping Center — directly across Poplar — brings extraordinary traffic into this area."
Despite all these attractions, the proposed Dillard Mall somehow turned into Dillard Square. Instead of an enclosed shopping mall, complete with birdcages, most of the new building housed Malco's Highland Quartet movie theatre, with a half-dozen shops and restaurants occupying the rest, all of them with entrances that are hardly "bazaar-like."
Even so, Dillard Square has endured, though Malco recently closed its movie theater at that location. But the other businesses seem to be doing well, and Buster's Liquors is always packed, especially when the Lauderdales are having a reunion.
One other interesting detail, though not mentioned in the sales packet. The mall/square got its name from John S. Dillard, the original land owner.
Dear Vance: Several years ago, my parents bought a home on Huff 'n' Puff Road out in Lakeland, and we've been told this was once part of an amusement park. True? — P.J., Memphis
Dear P.J.: Yes, it's true, and all I can say is how sorry I am for your parents. Let's face it, those are some mighty fine homes in that area, but an address on Huff 'n' Puff just doesn't carry the same panache as, say, Belvedere or Chickasaw Parkway. Do people snicker or smile when you tell them your address? And you have to make sure they don't spell out that all-important "n."
The amusement park, which opened in 1961, was called Lakeland, and developer Louis Garner promoted it — without any justification whatsoever — as "the world's largest playground." It really wasn't that large, some 1,100 acres along the shores of a manmade lake that he named after himself, but it certainly had an interesting range of attractions. The Huff 'n' Puff Railroad was an old-timey steam locomotive that rumbled along tracks that circled the lake, and a futuristic skyride salvaged from the 1958 Brussels World's Fair carried visitors high over the lake on gondolas dangling from cables. The Pepsi Palace was an outdoor dance pavilion that could seat 3,000, and Lakeland also offered midway-type rides, games, trampolines, a golf driving range, a fishing pier, and the largest swimming pool in Shelby County. And just down the road a bit was Lakeland International Speedway, a first-class dragstrip and road-racing course.
Garner promoted the venture tirelessly, but some of his bold plans never left the drawing board. Among them was a 280-foot observation tower with a restaurant at the top (prominently displayed on this matchbook cover) which visitors could reach by riding something Garner called an "elevair." He also enticed investors with dreams of a horse-racing track, hundreds of rental cabins, an "animated jungle ride," gardens "as nice as Bellingrath," and countless other attractions.
But Lakeland eventually failed. When Libertyland opened in 1976, Memphians could find better fun without having to drive so far out of town. The amusement park closed the following year, angering many investors who had bought stock in the venture. Before he moved away to Florida, Garner sold off most of the attractions and instead developed the land into a collection of upscale subdivisions, including Lakeland Estates, Windward Slopes, East Shores, and The Pointe. If you know just where to look, you can find the old dragstrip in the woods alongside Canada Road, but there are few other traces of "the Disneyland of the Mid-South." Other than your parents' unusual street address, of course.
Dear Vance: Many years ago, when my family lived in Memphis, we would pick up a bag of Flavor-Rich Doughnuts. I can still remember how wonderful they tasted. Can you still buy these doughnuts today? — B.W., Memphis
Dear B.W.: You can buy some very tasty doughnuts at Krispy-Kreme, Gibson's, and lots of other bakeries around town, but if you are searching for a bag of Flav-o-Rich (not "Flavor-Rich"), you'll have to find a time machine. The company that sold them was called Thornton's, and they've been out of business for years.
Back in 1953, a fellow who had worked for a bakery in Meridian, Mississippi, moved to Memphis and decided to open his own doughnut shop here. His name was Forest L. Thornton and he started business in a former McLemore's Open-Air Market at 2239 Lamar (above). Demand was so great for his sugary-sweet concoctions that within a year he quickly built a brand-new facility next door, at 2229 Lamar.
It was quite a place, with great neon signs, judging from the photos. Thornton even installed a drive-in window — one of the first in Memphis — to handle the customers who were buying as many as 70,000 Flav-o-Rich doughnuts every week. That number seems hard to believe, but that's what the Press-Scimitar said. Seventy thousand!
The most surprising thing about Thornton's success was his variety — or complete lack of it. "We make what the customer wants," he told the Press-Scimitar , "and 99-and-a-half percent of all doughnuts we sell are glazed." If you wanted cream-filled or chocolate-covered you had to search elsewhere, but for the lightest, fluffiest glazed doughnuts in town, Thornton's was the place to go.
Dear Vance: What do you know about the really wild house (above) at 1796 Evelyn in the Cooper-Young neighborhood? — G.J., Memphis
Dear G.J.: Well, I knew that I had better drive there myself to see what, exactly, you meant by "wild" since that could be a good thing, or it might be a bad thing. My pesky neighbors have complained to various government agencies about the "wild" state of the Lauderdale estate, but I don't think they are happy about it. What can I say? We fired the gardeners years ago.
But in this case, as far as I am concerned, "wild" means funky and cool and eye-catching — all good things. As you can see from the photo, the house is painted in a bright orange with white trim, and has so many objects in the front yard — cactus plants, colored bottles stuck on poles, wrought-iron gates, and lots more — that you can probably pick out the property using Google Earth.
If you squint hard enough, you can make out a small sign over the front door that says "Karen Bottle Capps" and this is indeed her domain. Capps is a midtown artist of considerable skill, whose work incorporates all sorts of "found" objects — rocks, driftwood gathered along the riverbanks, and of course, bottle caps. She's even used such odd things as cigarette lighters, wire, bottles, and nails to create models of such local landmarks as The Peabody and the Tennessee Brewery. If you ask her nicely enough, I understand she'll even compile an image of your own house.
Dear Vance: This may be too far back for you to remember, but can you help me recall the location of the DeSoto Movie Theatre? I went there many years ago as a child. — T.S., Memphis
Dear T.S.: I know it may seem as if my columns are compiled from my often-faulty memory, but the sad truth is that all too often I actually have to research certain questions. And in this case, having never heard of such a movie palace, I turned to old city directories. I didn't find much, but here's what I do know.
The DeSoto Moving Picture Theatre, as it was first called, opened way back in 1914 at 870 Arkansas. It remained a movie theatre until 1948, when it was closed and the building was purchased by Bill Biggs. This fellow had a rather specialized business. He sold chairs, and not just any chairs, but used chairs — I would actually call them seats — for movie theaters. And what better place to sell movie theater seats/chairs than an old movie theater? I managed to find a photo of the place (below)while it was being used for this purpose.
The picture amuses me, because you really have to admire the man's self-promotion. If that isn't the largest sign ever painted on a building in Memphis, then I don't know what is. And look, there's even a giant arrow directing customers to the entrance, which also carried the Biggs name on the former marquee.
The picture was supposedly taken in 1951. By 1955, Biggs had moved his company to 870 Pennsylvania (it's strange that he kept the same number though it was a completely different street), where it remained for another ten years or so. After the mid-1960s, the city directories don't have any listing for either 870 Arkansas or 870 Pennsylvania, so I assume both buildings were torn down.
Dear Vance: There's a magnificent Art Deco building at 730 South Third. It looks abandoned now, but what was its original purpose? — E.R., Memphis
Dear E.R.: This particular stretch of South Third, just south of the post office, has quite a few buildings with very distinctive architecture. The one you noticed, with its rounded corners, nice yellow bricks, white stone trim, and semi-circular aluminum awning over the entrance, was built in 1948 to house the J.E. Dilworth Company.
Dilworth opened a machinery and industrial-supply company in 1920 on South Main, and a few years later moved to 353 South Front. In 1948, he paid $500,000 to have the new building (below) constructed, which included such innovative features as heating pipes placed inside the walls, and even underneath the driveway to keep ice from forming during the winter. The complete plant covered four acres.
Dilworth went out of business sometime in the 1960s, and a drapery manufacturing firm called Cameo Curtains moved in. Today Wurzberg Printing owns the property. Over the years, the huge letters spelling "Dilworth" have disappeared from the building, and that's a shame. That huge "L" would have looked grand in my front yard. M