Why does our fine city have such a penchant for tearing down some of the coolest-looking buildings ever constructed? Case in point, the Venetian-inspired Memphis Steam Laundry building, designed by noted architect Nowland Van Powell.
Begun by Jules Rozier way back in 1882, the Memphis Steam Laundry Company operated downtown for many years before moving to 941 Jefferson in 1927. Except for Dryve Cleaners, laundries aren’t usually noted for their architecture, but for some reason, Powell — at the time the principal designer for architect E.L. Harrison — decided that this normally humdrum industrial building should be modeled after the Doges’ Palace in Venice — much like the north wing of the Lauderdale Mansion. The facade was just slathered with patterned brickwork, elaborate arches, and terra-cotta ornamentation. The sides and back, however, were just plain brick. Much like the north wing of the Lauderdale Mansion. Hey, we had to cut costs somewhere.
“Few cities are lucky enough to have a genuine Venetian palace in which the citizens can have their shirts laundered,” wrote Eugene Johnson and Robert Russell in Memphis: An Architectural Guide. “What connection Harrison and Powell saw between cleanliness and Venetian Gothic we shall probably never know.”
Although the building was, I presume, admired in its day, it became less so in the mid-1960s when the growing Medical Center began its quest for more space. While Johnson and Russell called the Memphis Steam Laundry “the best piece of eclectic architecture the city ever had,” others thought differently, and in heated debates about a better use for the property a Memphis Housing Authority director even called the laundry a “monstrosity, that in years to come will be obsolete, and an eyesore in the whole area where new buildings are going up.” (Hmmm. I’ll bite my tongue about my own opinion of some of those new buildings.)
Few of the arguments over the structure commented on its striking design; everyone was more concerned about the valuable space it was occupying. So in 1973, under the guise of “urban renewal,” bulldozers pulled down the “Venetian palace.”
“Why it could not have found a place in the Medical Center many of us will never understand,” lamented Johnson and Russell in their book. The Med stands on the site today.
PHOTO COURTESY BENJAMIN HOOKS CENTRAL LIBRARY