Dear Vance,Is it true that the modern-style house at 1803 Harbert is the only home in Memphis designed by Frank Lloyd Wright?— D.R., Memphis
Not too long ago, I contacted the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona, because over the years I have received several queries from readers who thought they detected the world-famous Prairie School architect’s influence in various Memphis buildings. Why, I’ll have you know that the Lauderdale Mansion itself has long been suspected of being a prototypical Wright design, but I have to confess that its most eye-catching features have nothing to do with Wright, and everything to do with, well, what’s wrong. My own residence’s “low-slung” architecture, a standard design element of many Frank Lloyd Wright homes, is the unfortunate result of the whole house settling because of termite-riddled beams, and the building’s distinctive curves are nothing more than warped vinyl siding.
So I’m sorry to confess that my own home was not designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. And neither was the very unusual home (above) you’ve noticed on Harbert. In fact, the nice folks in Arizona, who keep careful track of these things, told me that Wright never designed any structures in Memphis.
The house you’ve noticed, D.R., is officially called the “Second Peter Grant Home” for the simple reason that this was the second house that Grant designed and built here. Perhaps I should say “apparently” designed, because the actual records are a bit skimpy regarding the architect of this home. In fact, from what little I’ve found about Grant, he’s identified as a banker. But Eugene J. Johnson and Robert D. Russell Jr. give him credit for it, and his first home as well. In fact, the authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide pretty much do most of my work here, so I might as well quote them:
“Four years after he built his traditional columned house at 1655 Harbert, Peter Grant built the closest thing Memphis has to a house by Frank Lloyd Wright.”
His first house, which is decidedly more Colonial Revival in style, was constructed in Central Gardens in 1908; the “Second Peter Grant Home” was built in 1912, making it far older than many people suspect. In fact, because of its age, it’s often left out of any discussions of “modern” architecture in Memphis, though it looks as futuristic as anything constructed decades later.
Johnson and Russell note, “The deep overhangs of the roof parallel the horizontal line of the ground and make this a fine example of the Prairie Style that Wright had invented the previous decade.” And then the book authors touch on something that had puzzled me. While looking through city directories for this property, I noticed that Peter Grant didn’t live in this house, or any of his others, very long. Every few years, he’d move somewhere else. They say, “Grant, however, was a restless man. In 1917 he bought the Mann House next door at 1785 Harbert, and then in 1925 he moved to Germantown, into a very large house designed … in the Mount Vernon manner.” I guess Grant could never decide exactly what style suited him. At any rate, he died in Germantown in 1927.
The stone and stucco house on Harbert has had numerous owners in its 100-year-history, as you might expect, and I could name them here but they probably wish I wouldn’t. At any rate, I’m glad to see that all of them have worked hard to maintain the distinctive architectural integrity of this unique home. I wish I could say the same about the Lauderdale Mansion.
Dear Vance,What do you think the age could be of this little memo pad for C.P. Blake, a grocer in Memphis?— B.E., Memphis
Dear B.E.: Oh, you have no idea how tedious simple questions like this can be. Grocery and dry-goods stores opened on almost every street corner in town, street names and addresses changed over the years, listings in city directories aren’t as accurate as they should be, and — well, queries like these make me wonder whether this job is really worth the nickel a word I’m paid every month.
But I have to admit I liked the artwork on your little booklet, or memo pad, or whatever you want to call it. Christopher Blake — yes, you see I’ve already discovered his full name — was on the cutting edge of advertising. While other tradesmen of the day might have displayed an image of their products, or perhaps an illustration of their store, Blake went with the tried-and-true device of just putting a pretty woman on the cover. Works every time. So let’s see what I can tell you. Blake was born in 1876 in Ireland. I can’t say exactly how, when, or why he came to Memphis, but I do know that at the young age of 14 he was working as a clerk for a grocer named Duffy, and — this sounds sad, in a way — he even lived in the store, located downtown on Linden. In 1896, he teamed up with a fellow named Shea, and they opened Shea & Blake Grocers at the southeast corner of Linden and DeSoto (the latter street now known as South Fourth). It was a good location, I presume, right across the street from St. Patrick’s Church, and in 1900, Blake must have either bought out his partner or kicked him out of the store, because old city directories from 1900 to 1918 show the sole proprietor of that establishment was C.P. Blake. Old ads, and even your memo pad, B.E., advertise that the store offered “Fine groceries, fresh vegetables, choice Western meats, fruits, poultry and eggs.” Sometime around 1914, Blake must have decided to branch out, because old city directories show that he also owned and operated the Collins and Shea Coal Company, so maybe that’s where the Shea fellow went. At any rate, that venture didn’t last long, because just four years later, Blake was back in the grocery business exclusively, still at the corner of Fourth and Linden, but this time teamed up with a fellow named Ettore Bertasi.
The reason this complicated history is important, B.E., is because your memo pad just lists “C.P. Blake” on the cover, so if you’re asking for a specific date for this item, all I can tell you is that it was printed between 1900 and 1918, because those are the years that Blake was the exclusive proprietor of the grocery at Linden and South Fourth.
He left the grocery business in the mid-1920s, and city directories show that afterwards he worked as a salesman for various real estate firms around town. By 1940 or so, he was apparently retired, living with his wife, Elizabeth, on Oliver in the Cooper-Young neighborhood. Christopher Blake passed away in 1956 at age 80 and is buried in Calvary Cemetery. The old grocery store changed owners and names over the years, but you won’t find fine groceries or “choice Western meats” there today. It’s a parking lot for FedExForum.
CORRECTION: In my October column on Julius Lewis, I mentioned other downtown department stores that “failed and closed” and included Goldsmith’s in that sad list. Harry Goldsmith, a descendant of the store’s founders, pointed out that wasn’t quite correct:
“After its stock acquisition by Federated Department Stores in 1959, it continued to prosper. It continued to be operated as Goldsmith’s until the name of all Federated Stores was changed a few years ago to Macy’s. It continues to be so operated today.” The name (and distinctive logo) has indeed come off the buildings, but the store itself is still part of the local retail landscape.
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