Monday, October 10, 2011

A Brief History of the Park System of Memphis

For the current installment of the semi-regular Hidden Memphis series for The Commercial Appeal (Park place: Establishing recreation system was linchpin of improving Memphis; Oct. 9, 2011), I jumped feet first into the history of the Memphis park system. The subject was a last-minute replacement when a person I wanted to write about proved to be impossible to contact. My editor asked what else I had and I impulsively suggested parks.

Promotional poster for the
Memphis parks system

It seemed simple, as I always think these stories will be, and then I went to the Memphis & Shelby County Room at the main library, asked Sarah F. for whatever they had on the park system and was inundated with files upon files of clippings, books and a listing of further collections. This is good, this is better by far than not having enough information.

The stories in this series take a lot of time and energy. There are usually copious newspaper clippings to go through, people to find and interview, and, often times, site visits. The story on the parks proved no different. Despite the effort it takes, and the disproportionate pay for work done, I really do get into the subjects and I feel that they're important for Memphians to know. Understanding why the city is structured the way it is, or who made it so, is part of what being a local is all about; it's this understanding that instills pride and gives us all a sense of place.

One interesting piece that had to be cut from the story was about the underground sewer system implemented here in the 1880s:
Memphis’s determination was made all the more evident as she was beautified from the underground up. Colonel George W. Waring Jr. of Rhode Island suggested, at a special meeting in Nashville in 1879, an underground system of separating sewer water and storm water. The idea was implemented immediately by Mayor D.T. Porter.
“This sewer design, known as the Waring plan in Memphis, became known as the Memphis plan in the rest of the world as city officials from afar came to see it,” writes Paul R. Coppock in his book “Memphis Sketches.” 
As usual, I had plenty of help on this story, from Sarah to Wayne Dowdy who helped find great old photos of parks and the parkways, the vast knowledge of the city in Jimmy Ogle's encyclopedic mind, and the wonderfully detailed writings of Perre Magness. Thanks to all of them.

If you have an idea for a story in the Hidden Memphis series, please send me an e-mail at

The story:

The founders had a plan, and it began with the parks.

When Memphis was established in 1819, parks and open spaces were as much a part of the vision as the Mississippi River, commerce and cotton. With a total of 36 acres decreed by the founders (the earliest being Court Square, Market Square, Exchange Square, Auction Square and the promenade along the bluff), Memphis established itself as a city on the cutting edge of culture, recreation and meeting the needs of the community.

Today, with activists and leaders suddenly intent on expanding and utilizing existing green space as an amenity to attract a creative class of people and industry, it's a resource the city has actually been cultivating and sitting upon since its earliest days.

As early as 1889, Judge L.B. McFarland began looking into the creation of a park system for the city. Nine years later, John C. Olmsted, son of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., the designer of New York's Central Park, visited Memphis to investigate the possibility of such a system.

The mood of the nation following the Civil War, Reconstruction and the yellow fever epidemics led to an avid progressive movement of city beautification.

The leaders of the day "rallied around the idea that the city could be rebuilt to the highest standard of quality and innovation, and, as an example, the city beautiful movement advanced those ideas in parks, open space and with the parkway element, not just as a scenic drive but as a way to create and improve the form of cities where they could be organized around beautiful, linear parkways that would also enhance development and real estate values," said Ritchie Smith, a landscape architect who drew up the 1988 Overton Park Master Plan.

Today, in the Memphis Park Services building on Avery (on land acquired by the Park Commission through a delinquent-tax seizure in 1936), the minutes of meetings for an infant commission are recorded in large, crumbling leather-bound books. With the flourish of a neatly written hand that allows us into the paneled offices of men who dreamed of the outdoors, the Memphis Park Commission was established in 1900. Ever since, it, and its subsequent entity known as Memphis Park Services, has maintained a patchwork quilt of turf, trees, pools, recreation centers and ponds.

Also recorded in the books is the commission's interest in land found "in the northeastern portion of the city," the 347-acre Lea Woods. It was soon purchased for $110,807 from Overton Lea, grandson of city founder John Overton. The park was called East Park before eventually being renamed to honor Overton.

City planner and landscape architect George Kessler of Kansas City, Mo., was hired in November 1901, and he drew up plans for a system of scenic parkways to connect the new Overton Park with Riverside Park in Downtown.

During his career, Kessler planned hundreds of projects internationally and across the country, including Dallas, Cleveland, Indianapolis, El Paso and the grounds for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis.

Riverside's 379 acres had been used for emergency burials during the yellow fever epidemic and, later, to grow hay and vegetables that would be used to feed animals at the new zoo in Overton Park.

In 1913, a golf course was added to Riverside. A dam was constructed in 1952 to divert the river to the other side of Presidents Island, forming McKellar Lake with a marina built by the Park Commission. The park was renamed to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination.

Kessler, realizing that the open spaces were public and paid for by citizens, designed with an eye toward easy and ample access, even though there were only a handful of cars in Memphis at the time.

"In 1904, there were eight; in 1910, there were 1,000, and the speed limit was 8 mph," said historian Jimmy Ogle, who worked for the Memphis Park Commission in several capacities, including deputy director, and now offers a walking tour of Overton Park.

When thinking of parks, images of children playing, ducks and geese on ponds, picnics and sports fields spring to mind. The system of North, East and South parkways, however, is a shady, flowering trail designed and still maintained by Park Services. The system was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.

"They still are the best roadways that we have developed, and it has been 100 years," Ogle said. "Three lanes, park-like median, dedicated turn lanes, very few traffic lights." Last month, the city began restriping North Parkway for dedicated bike lanes to connect Overton Park with Downtown.

During the first half of the 20th Century alone, we had the additions of Bellevue Park, Morris Park, Lincoln Park, Williamson Park, Treadwell Park and the Pink Palace. In an effort to battle the Southern heat, public pools were opened in Orange Mound, at the Fairgrounds and in North Memphis.

Land encompassing the Indian mounds known as the Jackson Mounds, south of what is now Interstate 55, was purchased in 1912 and renamed DeSoto Park (again renamed Chickasaw Heritage Park in 1995). In 1913, 53 acres north of Chelsea were established as Douglass Park. Both were outside the city limits at the time, and both were designated for black residents only, part of the segregation of city parks that lasted until a Supreme Court decision in 1963 ended such laws.

The second half of the century saw the creation of parks Glenview, Gaisman, Belz, Gooch, E.H. Crump, Martyrs and the Spanish American War Memorial at East Parkway and Central.

During the 1960s and '70s alone, federal money made possible the acquisition of more than 2,500 acres and the creation of 50 parks.

Two parcels of land totaling 355 acres were purchased just outside the city limits at the time for more than $400,000. Former mayor Crump, a bird enthusiast, lobbied for the name Bluebird, but the Commission fancied Audubon. There was already a small park on Central near the Fairgrounds named Audubon, however, but the Commission took the name for the new park and renamed the old one Tobey, now home to baseball fields, a rugby field, volleyball pit, dog park and, soon, a new skate park.

The Ketchum Memorial Iris Garden was planted with 2,500 rhizomes from the garden of Morgan Ketchum, the municipal rose garden was relocated from Overton Park, the Memphis Area Wildflower Society created a sanctuary for displaced native plants, and, in 1964, the family of retailer Jacob Goldsmith dedicated the public gardens. It was renamed Memphis Botanic Garden two years later.

Audubon Park today contains the gardens, an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts and a 6-acre fishing lake. Once outside the city, it has become an oasis within, nestled among railroad tracks, a shopping mall, the University of Memphis and heavily trafficked streets on all sides.

It is this sort of oasis that McFarland and Kessler envisioned more than a century ago. It's a system that has been cared for and attended to by its keepers and citizens alike, though it has come under assault at times by eager developers.

Overton Park was nearly bisected in the 1970s by I-40 until a landmark Supreme Court decision averted that near disaster. It is a case looked upon by courts today and still the only point in the country where I-40 is broken.

The Memphis Park Commission was dissolved in 2000 under the Herenton administration and became a division of city government. Today, the Memphis City Council is considering allowing a conservancy -- like the zoo, Botanic Garden and Shelby Farms have done -- to overlook the management, fundraising and any restructuring of Overton Park.

"The Park Commission are assured of the fact that they can accomplish but little unless supported by a strong, favorable public sentiment," Chairman McFarland wrote. "The people must encourage and help the Commission and the administration in this work if they want a beautiful city."

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West entrance to Overton Park; McLean & Overton Park; 1914