The fate of mid-century modern in Memphis, TN
Think of a few things that make Memphis famous. No doubt the sensational sound of Elvis, who recorded his first hit in 1954, comes to mind. The tragedy of Martin Luther King Jr. forever resonates around the country, since his tragic assassination in 1968. And the savory taste of barbeque has made the city famous, since it became commercially popular after World War II. Notably, these pivotal pieces of Memphis history stem from the middle of the twentieth century. So if the 40s, 50s and 60s are such a shining highlight on Memphis’ timeline, why doesn’t the urban landscape reflect that era?
Mid-century modern architecture was born after the second World War, influenced by the social movement of modernism of the 20s and 30s in Europe. It gleamed throughout American cities in the middle of the twentieth century, including Memphis where shiny new structures such as the Chisca Plaza Motor Lodge, Clark Tower and the airport modernized the cityscape. While cities like Denver, Phoenix, Austin and Washington D.C. carefully preserve with pride their mid-century modern relics, it’s a rarity in Memphis these days. Where are the cantilevered roof lines, clerestory windows and brise soleils that were the haute de rigueur of their day?
In search of mid-century modern in Memphis, Judith Johnson is the woman to turn to. “I felt it needed a champion here. It doesn’t really have one,” she said, when interviewed about the local demise of modern architecture. Johnson is the principal of the historic preservation firm Judith Johnson & Associates, and a local real estate broker. She is an architectural historian with a passion for mid-century modern architecture as scintillating as the Atomic Age from which is sparked.
Johnson thinks the problem is due to a lack of appreciation for mid-century modern architecture among the general public. “We’re a conservative town with conservative tastes,” she said. Many modern buildings are being left to decay, covered up with rustic adaptor kits or –at worst, demolished. The Student Services Building, a 1968 construction on the campus of The University of Memphis in 1968, was demolished in 2007. The Bell South Building, a 1962 construction on Madison Avenue, was demolished in 2009. The Sears building in the Laurelwood shopping center, constructed in 1958, was demolished this year.
What does not get torn down is often left to decay. Think of the Red Cross building, a 1962 construction on the outskirts of Central Gardens, with its thematic breezeblock facade. 100 North Main, completed in 1965, towers onerously empty over the downtown skyline. The Mid-South Coliseum, completed in 1964, also stands empty and is listed as an endangered property.
The architects of these buildings were ivy-league educated and award-winning. Such spaces were the visions they had for an entire city that was forging the road for rock and roll, spawning a catalyst for civil rights, and producing a new culinary genre, all within a few radical decades.
Despite these losses, there is hope for resolution by education and awareness. “You’ve got to take it to the street,” Johnson said. She would like to see more mid-century modern buildings opened for people to experience, to get a firsthand appreciation of the architecture. Memphis does provide some examples where this is possible. The Memphis College of Art in Overton Park, completed in 1956, is a living illustration of modernism and its unifying design between indoor and outdoor space. Take a walk through Memphis Civic Center Plaza, which was conceived in the 50s to be pedestrian-friendly, neatly aligned with a new city hall, and federal and state office buildings, and with sweeping outlooks over the Mississippi River.
“I see a world in which this community really accepts mid-century modern as historic and as an authentic architectural style,” Johnson said. She hopes that with increased awareness people will be less inclined to “rip out pink bathroom tiles,” and embrace mid-century neighborhoods as historically important. “Let’s preserve our historic environments for future generations,” she said.
From open, airy commercial spaces to modern age neighborhoods, Memphis stands to lose an irreplaceable piece of its heritage by overlooking its mid-century modern treasures. Through education and appreciation, the city can hope to preserve the buildings that embodied the events of its special past.
“A Survey of Modern Public Buildings in Memphis, Tennessee from 1940-1989,” Askew, Gorman, Pounders, 2010