Landing on the National Register of Historic Places

511 acres. 83 blocks. 1540 structures. 

“We’ve got so much left to do.”

Such were the sentiments of Memphis Landmarks Commission preservation planner Lloyd Ostby. It was the summer of 1982, and as Memphis and Central Gardens waited for news from Nashville that would determine whether or not the neighborhood would be finally marked for preservation and added to the Historic Register, Mr. Ostby’s comments reflected the feelings of many. 

“You’ve got people who are becoming aware of what they’ve got and they want to preserve that,” said Ostby. And, “getting on the historic register is just the first step.” 

511 acres. 83 blocks. 1540 structures.

One thousand, five hundred and forty. Nearly two years earlier, in 1980, those numbers reflected the overall size that year of the historic neighborhood known as Central Gardens, located in zones 15 and 16 of West Tennessee, in the area of Midtown, Memphis.

The numbers had come out of the results of joint, partnering efforts: one a 1977 survey by the newly-formed Memphis Landmarks Commission (MLC); the second from an inventory listing supported by the MLC, that came out of the hard work of dozens of volunteers who helped compile the lengthy house-by-house listing required in adding the district to the National Register of Historic Places.

All the houses in the survey and listing sat on foundations within the less than one square mile of the geographic borders of the Central Gardens Neighborhood: Cleveland Street to the west, parts of Eastmoreland and Linden avenues to the north, most of Rembert Street to the east, and parts of Central and York avenues to the south. 

The path to gaining a listing on the National Register of Historic Places was, to quote residents at the time, “a huge undertaking.” The roots of this path could be traced to a late 1960s and ‘70s pioneering spirit in Midtown, Memphis; however, the inspirations for the efforts and the causes behind preservation went back decades.

The Roots of Preservation

The interest in historic preservation began in earnest during the Progressive Era in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1902. 

"For nearly 100 years, generations of Charlestonians have been aware of this city's singular sense of place… Charleston’s unique environment, people, and circumstances contributed to a tradition of preserving and protecting the physical evidence of past generations. Over the past century, Charlestonians have moved from saving individual buildings to entire neighborhoods to maintain the city's unique sense of place.” (Historic Charleston Foundation)

Charleston began their preservation efforts with private organizations and their acquisitions of key properties starting in 1902. This eventually led to the establishment of the first local ordinance designating a historic district, in Charleston, SC, in 1931. In 1936, New Orleans followed on the heels of Charleston’s efforts when activists’ efforts led to the approval by the New Orleans City Council of the city’s Vieux Carre Commission, which protected the city’s historic French Quarter from encroachment by developers and the wrecking ball. 

Fast forward to the 1950s. With the U.S. recovering from World War II and embroiled in the Korean conflict, national spending took the country into a post-war era of unprecedented growth and prosperity, giving rise to automobile makers transitioning into a peace-time economy. This atmosphere gave us the passage of huge federal bills that would change the look of cities for generations. These included The Housing Act of 1954 and the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. Both acts were designed to promote “speedy, safe transcontinental travel” and growth in American cities, and were widely seen as essential to help big business thrive and in allowing families to achieve “The American Dream” in pursuit of life, liberty, and a new car in the driveway. 

The legislation had their drawbacks, however, as they enabled states to use federal monies to bulldoze neighborhoods under their “Urban Renewal” initiatives, which allowed clear paths for the building of highways. They also promoted the development of suburban sprawl, crippled the infrastructure of city train and trolley systems, and led to racially-motivated “slum” clearance policies that gained the nickname “Negro Removal.” This lead to the leveling of entire blocks of downtown neighborhoods in Pittsburgh and Boston; San Francisco and Atlanta; and from Niagara Falls, New York to Beale Street, Memphis. 

The highway-building initiatives would eventually threaten historic neighborhoods in New York’s Greenwich Village, SoHo, and Midtown, and helped to create the environment that allowed for the sale and demolition of New York’s iconic Pennsylvania Station, in 1964.

People from all around the country fought back. Activists, preservationists, and even First Lady Lady Bird Johnson were leaders in the responses to this destruction, and their collective efforts raised enough public awareness in a push to have Congress pass the National Historic Preservation Act, in 1966. 

There had been other efforts by the federal government in their involvement in the preservation movement - the Antiquities Act of 1906, the Historic Sites Act of 1935, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1949 - that were focused on historically-significant sites and structures and that provided preservation assistance. But the 1966 bill became noteworthy in that it finally gave local governments the power to create regulatory historic districts. It also created the National Register of Historic Places, which maintains “the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation,” and it placed the register under the authority of the National Parks Service, which was established in 1916, fifty years before the Preservation Act.

Meanwhile, Back in Memphis

 Aerial view in 1978 of Downtown looking east. The new MLGW building off Beale Street, center, dominates a mostly barren landscape. Courtesy Memphis Public Library & Information Cente

One of more unfortunate examples of urban “removal” reached devastating depths here in Memphis with the destruction of most of Beale Street in the wake of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in 1968. Following the fear and unrest of that landmark year, Memphis city planners embarked on a series of Beale Street redevelopment plans that resulted in the demolition of 474 structures along eight blocks of Beale from Main Street to Lauderdale. The destruction was enough to eventually threaten the district’s status on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation that it had been granted in 1966. (City officials successfully turned away the National Parks Service efforts to remove the district from the listing in 1987.)

In our Midtown fears were on the rise that our mid-city was becoming less a set of quiet neighborhoods and more a high-speed automobile pathway toward the developing suburban neighborhoods to the east. Thru Midtown, Union Avenue was becoming more and more like another highway-like thoroughfare for East Memphis commuters. In Central Gardens east of Cleveland Street, east-west streets like Carr Avenue and Vinton had become major cut-throughs for commuters avoiding stop-lights on Union and Peabody. 

These fears came on the heals of the development in 1966 that “broke the camels’ back” - the proposal to open Belvedere Blvd to more vehicular traffic by removing its iconic landscaped median - that galvanized the neighborhood into creating the “Central Gardens Area Association,” in 1967. 

For most of the 1960s and into the early ‘70s, numerous historic structures and neighborhoods throughout Memphis were becoming victim to the wrecking ball in favor of new construction and in the name of progress. This trend was of great concern to many Memphians of the day, who feared that they’d eventually lose much of what they had grown up with and which made their Memphis so unique. 

However local preservationists - from organizations like the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities and the Memphis City Beautiful Commission, historian and author Dr. Charles Crawford and individuals and homeowners passionate about preservation - continued to lobby the old Memphis Housing Authority and the Memphis-Shelby County Planning Commission to form the type of conservation authority allowed by the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act. What resulted, in the passing by the City Council of Ordinance 2276 in 1975, was the forming of the Memphis Landmarks Commission (MLC). The MLC in their mission was mandated to preserve and protect “the historic, architectural and cultural landmarks in the City of Memphis.”

During the same years in Midtown and Central Gardens, local residents witnessed development after development that were quickly changing the traditional and charming characteristics of their neighborhood. Decades-old family-owned commercial structures were continually under threat of demolition along Union Avenue, and developers were taking advantage of zoning loopholes to build high-rise apartment buildings along Central Avenue that were out of character with the historic and stately mansions and four-square homes of the neighborhood. 

But to area residents, these developments were galvanizing. Local architect and neighborhood resident Jim Williamson, whose leadership and contributions to neighborhood preservation are now a bit of local legend, said in a 1998 interview for Stories of a Neighborhood, “In the seventies, there was a great sense of being a pioneer, of solidarity, and of banding together to make a go of this neighborhood. People who had moved here had a feeling of being beset by outside forces and skepticism which pulled them together more tightly. We felt the need to work together on projects of common interest, and there seemed to be more a sense of urgency to be part of all aspects and activities of the neighborhood.”

The continued threats to the neighborhood and the pioneering sense of urgency led the neighborhood to hire William S. Pollard Consultants, Inc. for assistance on a new plan. With neighborhood input, together the consulting team and residents performed an area study and produced a plan that included proposals to create bicycle lanes, a walkway system, new street signs and entrance gates, and new parks and an educational center. The plan was critical to preserving the small-town and family-orientated integrity of the neighborhood and became the neighborhood’s first since the writing of the neighborhood constitution in 1967. It was published in the fall of 1975 as the Central Gardens Area Neighborhood Improvement Plan.

With its zoning-like proposals, the plan became a source of inspiration in the efforts of neighborhood residents to add the district to National Register listing. Under the tutelage of and partnership with the new Memphis Landmarks Commission, the effort was organized in the late 1970s by architects Mr. Williamson and his associate, Carl Awsumb. 

Two weeks before Christmas in 1980, with the nomination and required inventory form finally complete, Jim Williamson submitted the 188-page document to the Memphis Landmarks Commission, who would go on to forward it to the Tennessee Historical Commission in Nashville. 

The wait for approval from Nashville would be almost two years, with word finally arriving in the summer of 1982, from a July 8 afternoon Memphis Press-Scimitar and the following reporting by staff writer Jill Johnson:

“Two historic districts, three landmark buildings and 12 city schools in Memphis will be reviewed in Nashville tomorrow for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. 

“The Memphis Landmarks Commission will present the nominations before the Tennessee Historical Commission state review board. If accepted… about 1,500 buildings in the Central Gardens area and 100 structures facing South Main… would double the number of Memphis buildings on the register.

“Lloyd Ostby, preservation planner for the Memphis Landmarks Commission, said he expects all the nominations to clear without opposition… ‘The Central Gardens area represents the best and largest collection of early 20th-century architecture in Memphis, Ostby said.’”

Another two weeks passed before Tennessee Historical Commission Executive Director Herbert L. Harper officially signed the nomination into the historical record, and another six weeks before the district property was officially certified to be “included in the National Register,” on Sept 9, 1982.  

It was, as described in Stories of a Neighborhood, “a great victory for the neighborhood.

A victory, but with another 35 years of battles yet to come. 

Mark Fleischer |