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Atomic Architecture Destined for Detonation

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.

Late 1950s commercial building;

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.

Red Cross Building 1962;

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.

Interview Source:

Judith Johnson


“A Survey of Modern Public Buildings in Memphis, Tennessee from 1940-1989,” Askew, Gorman, Pounders, 2010





Art Apparitions

Masonic Contemporary art show at Memphis Scottish Rite

Attending an art show is typically a brightly-lit, sophisticated event with wine, cheese, and erudite chatter, but Masonic Contemporary is a haunting, entrancing, and multi-dimensional experience –perfect for the month of October. I went on the opening night with a friend, knowing we would see wonderful art then very soon wondering if we would actually see a ghost.


Entering the Memphis Scottish Rite building in the medical district on Union Avenue, I was at first completely taken by the historic space. The foyer was muted with thick dust. Graying photographs of long-dead men peered ominously from the towering walls, their passing time measured by an antique grandfather clock stained as dark as the heavy trim. A symbolic mural hovered high-above entrants on the vaulted ceiling.

Jason Miller, the curator, greeted my friend and me there, handing us a guide to the show. It covered three floors for us to wander. Coming in as stragglers in the last hour, the huge building was almost empty.

Richard Knowles “Coast” (oil on canvas)

The first art piece in the show was in the foyer, a vibrant blast of color on top of the time-softened, traditional space. It was an oil on canvas by Richard Knowles. The juxtaposition of bold, contemporary art in an antique space continued, with his works and others, around the dining hall, at the end of the foyer.

The pieces certainly stood out on walls, pale yellow either by age or design. It was odd skirting around coffee-stained, linen-covered tables, fully set with pastel china, to look at contemporary art. img_0097Just as it almost felt like the show might be in the old building because no other gallery space was available, we turned the corner outside of the dining hall to the stairwell, and that’s where it got creepy.

Blood-red, backgrounding a gouache and pastel piece by Larry Edwards, matched

Larry Edwards “Mad Ophelia’s Bath” Gouache & Pastel

crimson carpet covering the stairs. The equally morbid and entrancing subject, a person –either dead or resting –in a claw-foot bathtub with flowers, introduced evermore eeriness to the show, which continued upstairs. The stairwell itself was a beautiful fixture. Its wood-carved banister looped through four stories, which you could look through either up or down and see a spiral like a snail shell.

Memphis Scottich Rite stairwell

The stairs swirled us onto the second floor, into quiet intersections of mysterious hallways. Juan Rojo’s neon pieces jumped out like ghouls. His hot pink oil paint electrified the shadows, lighting up his scared, imprisoned, or submissive female subjects. Perfectly placed pieces, such as the surrealist stills of Robert Moler or the hyper-pigmented photographs of John Mireles, on cracking walls in dim corridors continued to create a multi-dimensional experience.

I Know How Hillary Feels

None of us can really know how another person feels, and I certainly don’t presume to have some special interconnection with a powerful politician’s emotions. But I do know what it feels like to throw myself head first into the betterment of something, working so strenuously and ceaselessly it nearly sucked the life out of me but I was glad to do it because I believed in my cause, only to have it be taken away by an inexperienced and unqualified man. So if Hillary Clinton feels frustrated, jaded, disappointed, and even a bit hurt then I would like to say: Mrs. Clinton, I know how you feel.

A couple of years ago I was promoted from sales manager to ultimate boss lady at a recycling company. Promoted is a tame word. I was handed a shit show. To give you an idea: the company was hemorrhaging money, employees were stealing, and we weren’t in compliance with anything required to keep a fleet of trucks running on the road. Due to that last point, the transportation manager was inevitably fired. All too coincidentally, we were soon informed by the department of transportation that we were going to be audited. I was sitting in my office, with a transportation consultant, literally discussing how we could survive the audit without going to jail, when a call came in that driver had flipped over a 3,000 gallon tanker truck –it was that kind of place.

But with many late nights, hundreds of spreadsheets, new hires, new protocols, terminations, and entire department overhauls, the work started to pay off. Operations were going smoothly, I produced a 500-page report to the department of transportation that kept us in the green, employees were trained, monitored, and generally happy. The word “profit” was actually starting to enter business conversations.

Then along came this guy. For privacy, I will refer to him as AJ. The company had cut off a region of our operations, because it was not profitable to run from our headquarters and needed a local hub. It was formed into a partner company and handed off to friend of the CEO’s to manage: AJ. AJ was new to the business, pretty clueless, and regularly called me for advice. However, he had this tendency to not do something I recommended or do things I suggested he not.

But whatever, it wasn’t really my problem –until he ran that company into the ground. With nothing left to ruin, he started showing up at our offices. He was suddenly taking part in meetings where I was no longer invited. None of my employees liked him. He was erratic, irrational, and demanding. He started making new rules that didn’t make sense, and took his own authority to implement them. Afraid for all the work my coworkers and I had put into making things function, I argued heatedly against AJ’s decisions. He wanted to dehumanize the company and implement operations so lean, they looked brilliant on paper but would be completely unsustainable in practice. But my higher-ups had his back. Anything I said in opposition was disregarded as if, after re-directing a train wreck into a joy ride, I had no idea what I was talking about. Within six months, I was fired, and AJ was handed the throne.

So what can I do? What can Hillary do? What can we as women do? Yes, my position was taken by an incompetent man. Yes, the presidency was handed to another unqualified man. Yes, we can do something; we can look at the huge lesson of this election: sexism is still rampant in this country.

Keep taking steps towards change. Support equality and empowerment and education for women. Let’s, please, stop fighting over if the prettiest or skinniest or youngest woman wins. These are the things that fuel misogynistic beliefs of men like Donald Trump. Woman are beautiful and mysterious and feminine and intuitive and nurturing and sexy. We are absolutely those things on top of the brilliant brains, beating hearts, and breathing lungs that already exist as human beings. I like to think my womanliness is an added bonus to my humanness. This election, my experience, and every cat call I get on the streets is a lesson that this truth needs more light shed upon it. Let’s learn, light the way, and move forward.

And as for AJ back at the company? Last I heard a heating tank blew up.

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