Anticipation Builds for New Law School

By Bill Dries

A LITTLE LOOK-SEE: University of Memphis Law School alumni Friday toured the lobby of what will be the new Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. -- Photo By Bill Dries

It's difficult to know for now what to call the brass, marble and stone building Downtown that stands at the end of Madison Avenue.

In about a year and a half it will be the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law for the University of Memphis. It was the Front Street Post Office for nearly 40 years until the law school renovation began recently. And before that it was the federal courthouse for the Western District of Tennessee.

Before that the city's Customs House stood on the site. The Pony Express riders represented on the bronze and brass doors had stopped delivering the mail just 23 years before the Front Street site became the center of federal government activities in Memphis.

Then and now

The building's structure has changed radically in the intervening 124 years. Clock towers have come and gone. There were major renovations and additions in 1903 and 1930. The 1930 cornerstone on the northeast corner of the building bears the name of Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon, an industrialist, financier and philanthropist whose legacy as founder of the National Gallery of Art is mixed with the distinction of being head of the Treasury when the Great Depression began.

In 2006, the U.S. Postal Service agreed in principle to move out once another location was found and a $5.3 million deal worked out to turn the property over to the University of Memphis.

University of Memphis Law School alumni got a look at the start of the latest changes last week. The tours didn't take in the old and soon-to-be courtroom on the upper floors. But there was a bronze and marble hint of what is to come in the Front Street lobby that was open to the visitors.

The VIP reception was a prelude to the university's Distinguished Alumni Awards Gala at The Peabody.

For some, it was a look into the future. For others, like Lewis Donelson, it was a glimpse at the past.

Donelson, an attorney, former Memphis City Council member and state finance commissioner, clerked in the building in 1942 for U.S. District Court Judge John Martin.

"I think it's going to be absolutely wonderful. It's a magnificent building," he said as others looked over the brass grills on now unused teller cages and perused blueprint drawings taped to a glass partition from the Post Office days.

"I tried a lot of cases in the courtroom here. They only had one judge," Donelson said.

These days the Western District has five judges - four in Memphis and one in Jackson, Tenn.

Attorney Charles Newman clerked for federal Judge Bailey Brown in the building in 1963 and also tried cases in the courtroom before making the transition to the present Federal Building a few blocks north on Front Street in the late 1960s.

"It's wonderful for the school and Downtown. ... It's an extraordinary old building," Newman said.

Acting law school Dean Kevin Smith said the renovation has about 16 months to go. About two months after that the first classes should begin and the old courtroom will again see action.

"It'll be nice to refurbish it a bit and actually train some lawyers as opposed to trying cases," he said.

"The fact that we're going to be just a couple blocks away from the federal and state courthouse, major law firms, big corporations, will allow for our students to have opportunities as externs and clerks - an opportunity to bring in judges and practitioners to speak to our students, to use our law library. There will be a great deal of interaction between the law school and the legal community."