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VOL. 121 | NO. 90 | Thursday, April 27, 2006

Local Properties Vie For Historic Register

If approved by Landmarks Commission, proposals will be sent for state review

By Andy Meek

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CRUISING THE RIVER: Capt. William Lozier, who owns and operates Memphis Riverboats Inc., could have a historic landmark on his hands if his ship, the Memphis River Queen II, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A proposal to include the boat on the register will be considered tonight by the Memphis Landmarks Commission. If successful, the possibility will be considered at state and national levels. -- Photograph By Andy Meek

They've all outlasted at least 10 U.S. presidents, Sun Records and suburban sprawl, in addition to pre-dating the creation of an Interstate system, FedEx and the rebirth of Downtown Memphis.

Not a bad record for the group of Memphis properties that could be the latest local additions to the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, the Memphis Landmarks Commission is meeting to review nominations that include an office high-rise, a 50-year-old riverboat, a smattering of college campus buildings and the Downtown church building where sanitation workers were headquartered during 1968's garbage strike. After that, the proposals will be sent to a state review board before they're finally passed on to the National Register office in Washington D.C.

Distinguished company

If the properties eventually are added to the register, which is the nation's official list of cultural resources worth preserving, they would join such colorful Memphis landmarks as Graceland, Central High School and the Hunt-Phelan mansion.

The four properties being considered are the Edway Building, a 12-story office building at 147 Jefferson Ave.; Clayborn Temple at 280 Hernando St.; the Memphis Queen II, docked at the foot of Monroe Avenue and Riverside Drive; and four Gothic stone sorority houses on the Rhodes College campus.

If those walls could talk, they would spin a tale of Memphis back in the days when it was struggling to become more than a sleepy river town. Some structures, such as the Rhodes buildings, were architectural trailblazers.

The Clayborn Temple is a throwback to the tense marches, boycotts and other struggles that were hallmarks of the civil rights era. A hurricane of redevelopment has swept around it, but the Edway Building remains the first high-rise built Downtown after the Great Depression. And it was the first that was built with air-conditioning.

"The owners of the Edway Building approached me about putting it on the national register, which would also make historic tax credits available to them," said architectural historian Judith Johnson, who was also involved with the nomination of the Memphis Queen II.

She said the building, owned by One Forty Seven Jefferson LLC, was the first example of international-style commercial building in the city.

A group of local properties is being considered for the National Register of Historic Places. Up for discussion are:
The 12-story Edway Building at 147 Jefferson St. It was the first high-rise office building constructed Downtown after the Great Depression.
Clayborn Temple at 280 Hernando St. It served as the center of activity during the 1968 sanitation strike in Memphis.
The Memphis Queen II riverboat. The boat, which is part of the Memphis Riverboats Inc. fleet, was the prototype for passenger excursion boats built between 1955 and the mid-1980s.
Four European Gothic-style sorority houses at Rhodes College.

The building was developed according to the sleek theory of design that promotes smooth lines, right angles, box forms and few trappings.

The Edway's 11,130-square-foot property was appraised at $1.8 million in 2005, and its current owners were quitclaimed the building in 2003. It currently houses such tenants as The Body Shop Healthplex and Partners for the Homeless, as well as a few law offices.

The law firm that was started by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr., formerly the county's public defender, also is inside the Edway.

"When it was finished in 1956, the building was also the first Downtown to provide off-street parking, through a garage that was attached to it," Johnson said. "There was not another modern international-style office building that was built until the early 1960s.

"Basically, it was the first high-rise built Downtown since the Depression. The Sterick and William Len buildings were built right at the beginning of the Depression, then nothing else got built until the Edway."

A moveable feast

Half a mile to the southwest sits another proposed addition to the national register.

The Memphis Queen II was the prototype for passenger excursion boats built between 1955 and the mid-1980s.

Its all-steel body and two twin screw diesel engines are unmistakable features, and today the Memphis Queen II is part of the Memphis Riverboats Inc. fleet.

The founder of MRI, Captain Thomas Meredith Meanley, grew the fleet from one to five passenger boats and a tug, most of which he built himself. The vessel hosts hundreds of sightseeing trips and dinner cruises each year and counts Mother Teresa as its most well-known visitor.

"It's interesting," Johnson said. "The Memphis Queen II is neat because it was the first all-steel excursion boat and was built in 1956 at the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works company in Iowa."

A measure of men

On the other end of Downtown, there's a permanent marker of the scars of the civil rights struggle in the form of a church house that was built in 1891.

During the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968, 1,300 workers were demanding pay increases, overtime pay, better working conditions and other job improvements. They marched with signs that read "I Am a Man." Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to help the strikers in March 1968 and was assassinated the next month, on April 4.

Clayborn Temple was the nexus of the strike's activity. The day before the funeral of King, his widow, Coretta Scott King, led a march of 19,000 people from Clayborn Temple to Memphis City Hall.

The building, appraised in 2005 at $1.3 million, already is listed on the national register. The current proposal involves bolstering its significance from local to national.

A limited distinction

Many people might not know it, but anyone can suggest a property be added to the national register, said county historian Ed Williams. That's true even if the property owners don't want it to be.

The designation is not necessarily a golden ticket that protects structures forever. Libertyland's Grand Carousel and the Mid-South Coliseum, for example, are listed on the register. However, the carousel is being auctioned off, and funding for the Coliseum has very nearly run out, leaving it on course to be demolished or sold.

Even so, "Memphis probably has got more than the average amount of properties on the national register than other cities do," Williams said.

Members of the public are welcome to throw in their two cents at tonight's meeting, which starts at 5 p.m. in the City Council Chambers at City Hall, 125 N. Main Street.

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