Garage Demolition Site Locale of Notorious War Prison

By Bill Dries

The parking garage being demolished on North Second Street east of Court Square has a past.

Court Square Prison

(Courtesy of Harper's Weekly)

To be precise, it’s the land on which the garage has stood for decades. Before the garage, the land was the site of the Irving Block Prison, part of the city’s Civil War history.

Demolition on the garage began in December by Adam Airman, owner of that property as well as a neighboring vacant office building that fronts 147 Jefferson Ave.

By the time Airman bought the properties in 2010, both had been vacant for several years. He worked with the commission.

As part of a settlement with the Downtown Memphis Commission, Airman agreed to begin demolition on the parking garage by the end of 2012 and clean out the office building, which hasn’t been used in three to four years.

So far, it doesn’t appear demolition is to the point where excavation of the lower parts of the structure below street level has begun. That would be the level at which archaeologists in any federally funded demolition would begin looking to see if there are any historic relics.

“They are not obligated under the law to do anything,” said Guy Weaver, owner of Weaver & Associates LLC, which does such excavations and searches for historic material.

Airman was unaware it was the site of the prison. But he doubted there would be anything left, citing his own look at the enormous basement and at plans for the garage.

“They dug out everything that I know of. The building had a huge basement so you know they really dug down there,” he said. “The footing goes down 20 feet or so. They dug out everything, I think.”

Even if the site was excavated to basement level when the parking garage was built, Weaver said old wells and cisterns could still reveal lots of the past.

“There could be things from the prison. There could be things from even much earlier in the city’s history. That part of the city was settled in the 1810s and 1820s,” he said. “Wells could be 40 feet deep and maybe they got the upper section. When they demolished the old King Cotton (hotel) and they pulled back the slab that was in the basement there, there were features of one brick-lined well that extended another 40 feet down, just chock full of stuff.”

The building was demolished during the Great Depression.

The original building was constructed in 1860, according to “Tennessee: A Guide To The State” in 1939 by the Tennessee Writers Project as part of the federal government’s Work Projects Administration.

“This section of town was notably tough and iron slats were used to cover the windows,” the guide reads.

A Harper’s Weekly magazine sketch of the building shows a fence surrounded the four-story structure with a guard box on the Second Street side at street level.

The building was first converted to a hospital run by the Southern Mothers organization. It even had an early version of an intensive care unit, said Doug Cupples, history professor at Christian Brothers University.

After the June 1862 gunboat battle on the Mississippi River at Memphis, the city was again part of the Union under terms of martial law and the building became a prison for soldiers – Confederate and Union – as well as civilians who ran afoul of the terms of the military occupation. That included Memphis Mayor John Park as well as women suspected of being spies for the Confederacy or who were suspected of trying to get medical and other supplies through Union lines to Confederate forces south of the city.

Complaints about conditions at the prison prompted a Judge Advocate General’s study and report on conditions that went to President Abraham Lincoln.

The prison conditions became a scandal as the war intensified with both sides stopping prisoner exchanges at several points that had been common practice at the start of the war.

The result was prisoners at Irving Block who remained in chains for months at a time, Cupples said.

“It became for want of a better word – a hell hole. It began notorious,” he added. “It had a very bad reputation.”

Judge Advocate General J. Holt wrote Lincoln in April 1864 that Lt. Col. John F. Marsh found the prison to be “the filthiest place the inspector ever saw occupied by human beings.”

“The whole management and government of the prison could not be worse,” Holt continued. “The whole management and government of the prison could not be worse. Discipline and order are unknown. Food sufficient but badly served.”

Meanwhile, the prison was among the Memphis targets of an August 1864 raid on the city led by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest that included a more famous target, the old Gayoso Hotel where Forrest’s brother, William, rode his horse into the hotel.

Lincoln ordered the prison closed in 1865.