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VOL. 125 | NO. 11 | Monday, January 18, 2010

Square's History as Varied as it's Buildings

By Bill Dries

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Overton Square’s Garcia Wells restaurant, which was TGI Friday’s in its previous incarnation, shut down in 2007 after the business failed. -- PHOTO BY LANCE MURPHEY

The idea of changing Overton Square may be controversial, but in its 40-year history, the entertainment district has been all about change of one kind or another.

The square's founders – none older than 25 but all with a knowledge of how businesses were financed – undertook a bold transformation of a set of pre-World War II storefronts along the border between the Munson Park and Trimbleton subdivisions.

James D. Robinson Jr., Ben Woodson, Charles Hull, Frank E. Doggrell III – and later George Saig – had an idea but not always a long-range plan. All of their plans hinged on Memphis voters approving liquor by the drink in a November 1969 referendum. The founders went public the day after the referendum passed.

North of the square was Overton Park – stomping ground of a socially conservative city’s answer to counterculture. Even so, the square's founders consciously avoided the idea of creating a hippie oasis.

“Our project is not designed for young people,” Robinson told The Commercial Appeal the next day. “It’s designed for people who think young – whether they are 18 or 80. It will be contemporary, up to date. We’re not interested in Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey. But we’re not interested in hippies either.”

The square’s cornerstone business, Friday’s, had its origins in Manhattan. Several of the founders had been to the only Friday’s then in existence. Once their plans for Overton Square began to gel, they traveled to Manhattan to talk with the owner about getting a franchise to use the Friday’s name. It was the very first franchise of what would become a chain of restaurants across the country.

The founders then returned to Memphis and began planning a Friday’s that would look nothing like the original.

It was the city’s first singles bar and the financial foundation for what followed.

Twenty Overton Square businesses opened within 18 months of Friday’s. That success showed the potential for such developments outside Downtown.

By the early 1980s, other nightlife east of Midtown in the Poplar corridor had developed and was drawing some of the square’s suburban regulars.

Solomon Alfred’s, the two-stage showcase music club that anchored the northeast corner of Madison and Cooper for eight years, closed in the summer of 1983. It was demolished months later to begin construction of the French Quarter Inn, the square’s solitary experiment with hotels.

By 1984, the original partners were no longer part of the square’s ownership.

PROPERTY SALES 56 56 9,658
MORTGAGES 49 49 10,665
BUILDING PERMITS 212 212 21,170
BANKRUPTCIES 49 49 6,157