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VOL. 122 | NO. 26 | Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Rich With History

Central Gardens neighborhood to be nexus of annual preservation series

By Andy Meek

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SHOWPLACES: Midtown’s Central Gardens neighborhood figures prominently in this year’s preservation series by Memphis Heritage Inc. PHOTO BY ANDY MEEK

In 1906, Edward Boyle, a member of the well-known Memphis family of developers, helped fashion a grand boulevard through the Central Gardens neighborhood.

Scores of influential Memphians have lived in the Midtown community's bungalows, foursquares and Tudor estate homes, including former Memphis City Council member Florence Leffler and federal judge Julia Gibbons.

The picture-perfect, tree-lined neighborhood also offers as good a starting point as any in telling the story of how Memphis evolved over the course of the last century.

Take the Victorian-style home at 532 South McLean Blvd., built in the 1850s. Around 1867, Almarion Young, a minister who once lived on the South McLean property, founded the church that became Idlewild Presbyterian. Today, Idlewild's brick Romanesque building is one of the most eye-catching structures along Union Avenue.

Gibbons' current Central Gardens home, built in 1912, formerly was occupied by the granddaughters of Robertson Topp, the prominent Memphis attorney and businessman who built a mansion for himself and his wife on Beale Street in the early 1840s.

One for the books

Next month, Memphis Heritage Inc. will ensure such historical gems are put on prominent display.

Each Monday in March, MHI's long-running preservation series will host a slate of speakers who will regale attendees with stories of the evolution and unique architecture found in Central Gardens. As if they were cracking open the pages of a dust-covered history volume, the lecturers also will draw from some of the earliest accounts of the neighborhood to tell its story.

This year's series is the fourth under the banner of "Great Neighborhoods." It's also the first that will be held in MHI's stately new digs, the historic Howard Hall home at 2282 Madison Ave. That's the Italianate mansion donated to the group last year by native Memphian Hal Howard.

"I think people are going to be awed and amazed at the amount of history and architecture and all the wealth and the stories of the people who have lived over there. It's pretty neat."
- Judith Johnson
Architectural historian

"We previously held the series at the Junior League and several churches, and now we have Howard Hall," said MHI executive director June West. "And this is something we'll continue to do here annually in March, this lecture series on historic preservation that's pretty intensive."

Roots that run deep

Incidentally, she has a firsthand familiarity with the urban neighborhood at the center of this year's series; West lives in the Central Gardens home on Peabody Avenue that her mother grew up in and which her grandfather built in 1927.

The preservation series, which includes four lectures on Central Gardens plus a walking tour, will cost $60 to attend. And for the seven speakers who will make presentations during the series - plus two leading the walking tour - there's plenty of ground to cover.

The neighborhood abounds with the fingerprints of history, from the homes to scenic streets like Belvedere.

Belvedere - which means "beautiful view" in Italian - is the boulevard laid out in the early 20th century by Boyle, his brother Charles, and an engineer. Today, it's generally regarded as one of the most picturesque roadways in Memphis.

One of the children of Young - the minister who owned the South McLean property - was a soldier in the Confederate army and rode with calvarymen in the U.S. Civil War. Other influential Memphians also have called the area home at one time, including current U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis.

"Central Gardens was the new suburb of the early 20th century," said architectural historian Judith Johnson, who will be talking primarily about the history and development of Central Gardens in her lecture on March 5. "All the old families, all the nouveau riche, wanted to move out to Central Gardens and abandon Downtown, so it was fashionable out there. And all the homes were new and exciting."

'Pretty neat'

Johnson, who's also a Realtor, will be couching her presentation on the neighborhood within the larger context of the development of Memphis, then will focus on the area as a Midtown neighborhood with a matchless history and architectural setting.

Michael Sicuro, a preservation analyst for the City of Memphis' Division of Housing and Community Development, will join Johnson in recounting Central Gardens' history. The following week, on March 12, the theme will be Central Gardens' distinct architectural style, a topic presented by architect John Tackett. Among his other professional credentials, Tackett has studied at the L'Ecole des Beaux Arts, the fine arts school in Paris that was founded in 1648.

On March 19, Memphis architects Keith Kays and Charles Shipp will talk about what went into actually building Central Gardens, using examples of custom and market residential work as well as several infill projects. On March 26, the topic will be Central Gardens as it exists today, and presenting that will be Dr. James Ramsey of the Memphis College of Art and Nancy Willis, Central Gardens Neighborhood Association board member.

A walking tour of Central Gardens will be led by neighborhood residents Reb Haizlip and Marsha Hayes, at a time still to be determined.

"I think people are going to be awed and amazed at the amount of history and architecture and all the wealth and the stories of the people who have lived over there," Johnson said. "It's pretty neat."

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