West Talks Memphis Heritage

“The last five years in Memphis we’ve had a wave change,” June West told members of the Midtown Republican Club at our Tuesday meeting.

The executive director of Memphis Heritage explained. The organization that has fought the demolition of historic places such as the 19th Century club and Ashlar Hall is now “the spark, the incentive to keep these from demolition. Our successes have brought out people in the community who said ‘we don’t want that.’ Groups who find out when something is going wrong come to us and we can help them.

“The mission statement of our group is we educate and advocate. The first thing that got us on the map was in 1978 with the old Hill mansion,” she said. Although they lost that effort, so much opposition to the plan to demolish it surfaced that it “built up the membership. We were not successful in stopping it. The building on Union was demolished and became a Roy Rogers restaurant. That was torn down, then it became a Shoney’s and it’s now the Cupboard. The two stone lions that had been there are now at Brooks Museum.”

The loss of the Hill mansion was part of a trend in the 70s towards urban renewal. “The city started tearing down long lasting, European crafted buildings that had wood and materials that can’t be gotten anymore. They were made to last hundreds of years. What we’re building now can’t last.

“We came to realize that a sense of place means something in our community.” Many people argue that some buildings have outlived their usefulness. West begs to differ and points out “that the oldest buildings have paid the most taxes. Think about that. It’s longer than you’ll ever get out of a McDonald’s built out east.”

West, who has been director at Memphis Heritage for 14 years, credits individuals who appreciate that “what we’re doing is very special and they have made a difference.” In particular, she credits Hal Howard Jr. The Memphian who was a successful investor gave the group his 1910 ancestral home at 2282 Madison at Edgewood just west of East Parkway in 2006. Having that headquarters – and such a nice one – has allowed the group to flourish. Activities are held there for schoolchildren and adults even had an event recently featuring a chef from the old Justine’s restaurant. Four special items from the menu were prepared for a party fundraiser.

Other successes have been the 19th Century Club, which after much back and forth will now become a French Japanese restaurant. Memphis Heritage helped save the Chisca Hotel, Tennessee Brewery and parts of Overton Square among other recent victories.

West has her eye on another project – Madison Avenue. “It’s one of the oldest streets in Memphis and very walkable, going all the way downtown.” She wants to make sure its history and accessibility are kept.

West will also be working with Mayor elect Jim Strickland’s transition group. He has signaled to them his interest in preservation.

Ms. West also urged more membership in Memphis Heritage. You can become a member for just $25 or you can volunteer to help with archives, publications, speakers and community outreach. Their website is www.memphisheritage.org.

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