An Iconic Corner Puts Neighborhood Guidelines to the Test
By Mark Fleischer
To this day, many long-time Midtowners and Central Gardens residents will talk wistfully about the passing of the Main branch of the Memphis Public Library, which held the hearts and minds of Memphians on the northeast corner of Peabody and McLean for generations, from 1955 to 2001.
Others, though lamenting its new millennium move a couple of miles east, knew that the library had outgrown its spot in the neighborhood. After all, this was no local neighborhood branch. As the city’s main library, it housed all the amenities and resources one would expect from the main branch - meeting rooms, children’s facilities, multimedia rooms, floors and floors of millions of books and media storage, files upon files of city historical archives, research facilities, a bookstore - while also meeting large scale parking needs. Below are the 1959 and 1981 aerials.
What is now a source of trivia in the history of Central Gardens was at the time a test of the neighborhood association’s revised architectural guidelines and their influence on city planning and land use in Midtown. With the city’s decision to move the library and vacant this important corner, it put the city and the neighborhood at a crossroads with how to repurpose the land: Go commercial? Or return the land to residential use? And how?
When the library’s construction began in the early 1950s, Downtown Memphis had yet to show signs of the decades-long decline that would follow, but like much of the country the city’s migration patterns were moving toward the suburbs in pursuit of the American Dream, when neighborhoods like High Point Terrace, Buntyn and Colonial Acres east of East Parkway were becoming the new, ideal places to raise families, and Memphis’ eastern borders were being expanded along the paths of a proposed Interstate 240.
Our Midtown - which until the ‘50s was still considered “East” Memphis - was becoming a kind of go-between that connected Downtown with “new” East Memphis neighborhoods. Union Avenue, long a thoroughfare of stately homes mixed with small, family-owned businesses, was later expanded to accommodate commuter traffic east and west before the I-240 was built to handle the load.
Midtown and Central Gardens felt the inevitable effects.
“It has been said there was a mass exodus from Central Gardens in the 1950s, that real estate was run down, and the neighborhood was full of boarding houses and unsavory characters. There was speculation that residents moved out east in droves to escape what the neighborhood had become.” Realtors didn’t want to show houses in Central Gardens, saying that “the neighborhood was on its way down.” The “fringe areas of the neighborhood became a little iffy,” and was “somewhat on the seedy side in the fifties.” (Stories of a Neighborhood)
“But,” residents said, “there were enough prominent residents that the neighborhood never really declined.” Many young couples began to realize in the fifties there were bargains available in the neighborhood, and new residents invested in improving and modernizing their homes. “It was probably at this time that Central Gardens evolved as one of the best-kept secrets in town,” on its way to its “second prime.” (Stories of a Neighborhood)
Such was the landscape in 1952 that helped bring the new library to Peabody Avenue, on the northeast corner of South McLean Boulevard, across from the Beethoven Club. But long before the city and the library’s board of directors considered moving the library from the landmark Cossitt Library on Front Street downtown, this was a corner that had its own unique history in Memphis. (1938 aerial picture of Peabody-McLean)
1890 to 1955 - Appeal Land and Barksdale
In the 1890s the land of this northeast corner belonged to the Reverend W.H. Barksdale. Peabody in those years was called Appeal Avenue, and some maps referred to this subdivision as “Appeal Land” (a short-lived nickname applied to the area by land owners who also shared ownership of the old Memphis Appeal newspaper, which later merged with the local Memphis Commercial).
Writer Perre Magness, in a 1990 Commercial Appeal article, described how this corner at McLean and Peabody was the original home of Idlewild Presbyterian Church, built in 1890, “where a white frame church was erected for the new congregation. (…) The new church grew rapidly, and a larger lot at the southwest corner of McLean and Union was purchased. On June 22, 1895, the town witnessed an unusual sight. The frame church building was placed on rolling devices and rolled down the street to its new home” (where the empty Country Hearth Inn & Suites is located. The “new” Gothic structure for the Idlewild Presbyterian Church was built in 1926 at its present location on Union across from Kroger).
In 1910 the Barksdale Mounted Police Station was built, at 189 Barksdale, next to today’s alley that backs up to Walgreens, and by the 1930s and ‘40s there were “a group of shops on Barksdale where the library parking lot (was)” opposite the corner of Linden, including a barbershop, a drug store, and “the original location of the Barksdale Restaurant.” (Stories of a Neighborhood) This little sixteenth of a mile on the west side of Barksdale was also once the home of Piggly Wiggly store #42, between Peabody and Linden. (image: group of shops, at 227 to 243, c. 1934-35, about where the houses at 247 and 255 S Barksdale are located today)
In the years before the library, Linden Ave did not end at McLean and pick up again at Barksdale; rather, it ran through the Barksdale land area, in what was more of a wooded or gravel path versus a full road. And the stretch of South McLean from Peabody to Union during these years was still a two-lane road (it would be widened at this corner with the construction of the library).
In 1952, the four acres that would eventually be home to the new library belonged to two large houses, a back house, and an “auto garage.” Behind that land were two more small houses. And at 266 S. McLean, at very the corner of Peabody, sat a vacant acre or more of land, where a large brick-veneered house once stood. (image: 1952 Commercial Appeal photo of Peabody and McLean site)
The Peabody Branch, “a safe place to hang out”
When the new library opened in April of 1955, it was state of the art; a shiny, modern structure with “light, airy rooms,” an “amazing improvement over the dark, dingy archives of yesteryear which we sometimes associate with library book shelves.” It would be “known as the central library of the Memphis public library system… The magnificent new building, costing more than three-quarters of a million dollars, houses the latest and best in library service.” (The Commercial Appeal, April 3 and 4, 1955)
Memphis had outgrown and technology had outpaced the now sixty-year-old and historic Cossitt Library downtown at Front and Monroe. With the opening of the new library, it was announced that Cossitt would undergo extensive renovations to save its brick facade, construct a modern addition facing Front St., and transition the Downtown institution into a reference and research unit of the city’s library system. It would also, as announced, retain select volumes of books for local circulation.
The new Main Library was a success, becoming a neighborhood anchor for generations of Memphians and Midtowners, adults, and children. Although like the rest of the South in that era, it refused to admit African Americans into the institution until 1960, finally opening its doors to every color and creed in October of that year under new laws that desegregated all public libraries. (image: New Main Library from McLean, 1955)
Like the Cossitt Library, eventually, the Peabody branch found itself having to keep pace with a growing and changing Memphis. In 1971 the central library expanded, taking over the entire block bordered by McLean, Peabody, and Barksdale. Gone were the old neighborhood establishments along Barksdale: the pharmacy, Piggly Wiggly #42, and another four houses original to the neighborhood. In their places were the expanded library building - which doubled in size - and more surface parking. Another expansion in 1980 added more parking for library employees.
But as early as the late 1980s efforts were underway by library officials looking into yet more expansion and changes, culminating in an independent 1992 study which concluded that the Peabody branch was already too small, had too few parking spaces, lacked elevators, and had no room to expand.
In 1994 plans surfaced to build a new library at 3030 Poplar Avenue, a site that AutoZone was vacating under a city-brokered deal to relocate their headquarters Downtown. The prospect of a new state-of-art library, able to handle more patrons and more parking, came as good news to most Memphians. As a 2001 Commercial Appeal editorial exclaimed, “the years have taken their toll on the old library, which has needed frequent repairs and is too small for present purposes.” And the library that went by many nicknames - the Peabody Branch, the Central Library, the Main Library - for some had unfortunately become known as “Homeless Central.” (images of parking lot, 1970s)
(images of libary, 1982 )
Despite its size limitations and in being outdated, a 2001 CA editorial reflected what most Memphians felt at the time: “Since it opened in 1955, the main library has been a community anchor. People could find whatever they could reasonably want in the way of books, magazines, documents, maps, photos and anything else that such a facility offers. For some Memphians, the library was more than a building filled with books and information. It was the site of civil rights protests in 1960. Its parking lot, sadly, became part of one of this city's most notorious murders in 1977. In the past decade or so it has served as an after-school haven for neighborhood children who sought a quiet place to study, or just a safe place to hang out.”
Houses Return to Peabody
“10 years from now it will be just a trivia question”
While it was clear that the Peabody branch would be unable to meet Memphis’ growing library needs into the 21st Century, the library’s move raised the inevitable questions about what to do with the library building and site at Peabody and McLean. Through the late 1990s, proposals and rumors swirled around the fate of the site. Would city planning zone the property for commercial or for neighborhood business? Would the city advocate for the building of a new Midtown fire station on the corner? Or would the site be returned to residential zoning?
Our Central Gardens Association was obviously very interested in the fate of the building and property. The library property at Peabody and McLean was fixed in one of the main hubs of the Central Gardens historic district. Having become a preservation district under Memphis Landmarks in 1992, anything done with the building - demolition, re-use or otherwise - would require review by the Memphis Landmarks Commission as well as the Central Gardens landmarks committee. In addition, for the half-dozen years before the new millennium and through Central Gardens Association presidents from 1994 to 2001, what to do about the library site was a top concern year after year.
Residents were able to voice their concerns through a petition, which was distributed and signed during the summer of 1996 and forwarded to Mayor W.W. Herenton. “About 1,500 residents of Central Gardens and other Midtown neighborhoods believe no less than a branch library should remain at Peabody and McLean once the main library moves east.” (The Commercial Appeal, October 1996)
“It's really been a big concern of a lot of residents,” said Central Gardens Association president Nancy Willis. “We have many, many people who use the main library as their branch library.” (CA, 1996)
Not unlike neighborhood concerns today - but before the days of FaceBook and NextDoor - Central Gardens and other Midtown neighborhoods had residents expressing library site concerns during annual meeting focus groups and through a Midtown political action committee. Hamilton Smythe IV, past president of Central Gardens and chairman of its library committee, said “We just simply feel, when you consider the fact there are 11 schools within walking distance, we really think they ought to provide a little bit of a library there.” (CA, 1996)
However, as the library move date neared, bringing homes back to the entire site became the most viable and favored option. Much like the coalitions of today that have mobilized on behalf of saving Overton Park’s Greensward, groups of concerned citizens met frequently from 1996 to 2001. This “task force” was made of up of a series of city officials and neighborhood representatives, and after years of debates they concluded the best use of the property was to return it to residential use; more specifically, a single-family residential development compatible with the surrounding neighborhood.
The plan to relocate the main library and build new homes on the site came amid changes to Central Gardens’ architectural guidelines, changes that had begun in 1995.
Mary Walker, who served as association president in 1995, said the 1975 plan had served the neighborhood well, but that its time was up. “The old (1975) plan helped the Central Gardens Area Association win zoning changes that paved the way for a renaissance of single-family homes, keeping affluent families from leaving for the suburbs. It planted the seed for the neighborhood's quest to become a local historic district, which happened (in 1992). It also proposed changes that didn't happen, such as development of bicycle and walking paths.” (The Commercial Appeal, February 1995)
The old guidelines also did not address a key concern that arose with the library’s move: new construction.
When the neighborhood drafted the guidelines in the 1970s, construction concerns centered around house renovations and improvements, backed by the desire to retain the architectural integrity of the early century into the 1930s, ‘40s and 50s. “There wasn’t much new construction in the neighborhood at the time,” said Joey Hagan, an architect who served on the Memphis Landmarks Commission in 2002. (MDN, June 2002)
The newly-revised guidelines played a big part in influencing how the new homes built on the proposed subdivision would look. And as the old library came down, “a host of developers, builders, neighborhood groups and government officials eagerly await the transformation of the site into a different kind of family gathering spot: a residential community known as Peabody Green.” (MDN, June 2002)
Peabody Green, proposed by general contractor James Shepherd and eventually approved by city planning and the Memphis City Council, became a 29-lot planned development that returned the property to residential use. “We’re excited at the prospect of the new homes,” said Lila Beth Burke, Central Gardens Association president. (MDN, June 2002)
Construction began in 2003 on the first phases of the project along Barksdale. Said the Memphis Daily News: “Lots were designed in keeping with many existing Midtown homes, with rear access only and no front-facing driveways. The larger lots will line Peabody Avenue and McLean Boulevard. A single gated exit/entry to the development will open to Barksdale Street. The homes north of Peabody will circle around a small private park, a fully landscaped 4,000 square foot green-space.”
Memphis Heritage executive director June West discussed at the time the importance of overseeing developer’s design proposals so that they conform with existing neighborhood design styles, which is crucial for preserving the historical and architectural integrity of a neighborhood. “There are ways to design (a project) that will give it character and make it fit into the neighborhood," West said in 2003. Said developer James Shepherd to the Daily News: ”We’re going to do the best we can to make it blend into the neighborhood… Hopefully, when we’re done, you’ll be able to drive down Peabody and never even notice it.”
Between 2004 and 2006 most (but not all) of the remaining homes of the development along Peabody near the corner at McLean were finished. They varied in styles, including English Tudor and French. Not every house design fit exactly within the character and architectural era of Central Gardens, but most blended right in. Not every Midtown and Central Gardens resident was happy with the new construction, and many lamented the loss of a library that was a short walk away. But all things considered, overall reaction to homes returning to the area was positive. Growing up in Midtown, developer Shepherd commented on all the time he spent at the old library - the site’s historical significance did not escape him.
And June West, in speaking again to the Daily News, said while most Memphians recognize the development as the old Central Library site, “ten years from now it will be just a trivia question.”
The last of the homes was completed in 2008. A smallish brick, chateau-style house, it was sandwiched between numbers 1844 and 1856, at 1850 Peabody. 1850 Peabody: ironically, the same address as the old Peabody branch library. Now there’s a trivia question.
Mark Fleischer | www.storyboardmemphis.com