Friday, April 25, 2008

Memphis' Grand Illusions

Posted on Fri, Apr 25, 2008 at 4:00 AM

It took the Flyer almost 20 years to produce this, our 1,000th weekly issue. By the time we crank out issue number 2,000, Memphis as we know it may be unrecognizable. At the moment, developers and promoters are still presenting grand schemes for many of our city's landmarks: The Pyramid, Beale Street Landing, Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, the Mid-South Coliseum, the old Mid-South Fairgrounds site, and Shelby Farms.

It remains to be seen how many of these plans remain forever on the drawing boards. Not to be too pessimistic about it, but it might be instructive to look back at a few other grand illusions in our city's past.

Memphis, it seems, always needs a facelift. Back in 1924, the city hired the national planning firm of Harland Bartholomew & Associates to redesign the entire waterfront. The firm presented "an ambitious scheme" that would transform the cobblestoned area from Poplar to what is now the South Bluffs into a stunning Greek Revival promenade, with graceful bridges carrying pedestrians to Mud Island, which -- in these plans -- has been transformed from a barren sandbar into a public park with baseball diamonds and tennis courts. Bartholomew declared, "No immediate steps are necessary" to create this vision. And so none were taken. We never followed one page of this plan.

But we tried again in 1955, with the same firm, in fact. This time, Bartholomew and company reminded us that the riverfront "still presents a challenging opportunity." They met that challenge with a design right out of the Jetsons: a helicopter terminal and landing field on Mud Island, which, by the way, would no longer be an island since the Wolf River Channel would be completely diverted around it. The newly available land would include playing fields, a riverside stadium, parking for 5,000 cars, and an expressway running the length of the development. And again, we ignored this plan.

Other developers focused on other areas. In 1960, planners unveiled a new downtown center "for cultural life in Memphis, as well as a center of governmental activities." Plans included a new city hall, police station, and "restaurant pavilion." Soaring over everything was a dramatic structure -- a 500-foot obelisk called the DeSoto Memorial Tower. The Memphis Press-Scimitar called this whole scheme "one of the most ambitious projects Memphis has ever undertaken." Apparently too ambitious. We did build a new city hall, but the other components of the plan were scrapped. In the late 1960s, developers announced the Beale Street Tourist Plaza, centered around Beale and Second. A 15-story tower would house a 200-room Holiday Inn, which would be the centerpiece of a massive urban renewal plan that would include a "harbor beacon," along with a marina, enclosed shopping mall, and a "blue light entertainment district."

As usual, none of these things happened -- at the time. Some 40 years later, that area would include Beale Street, Peabody Place, FedExForum, and other attractions.

Other planners focused their attention away from downtown. The Mid-South Fairgrounds, then and now, attracted some interesting ideas -- none more bizarre than the scheme proposed in the late 1960s to enshroud the entire complex in a transparent dome. It wouldn't be hard plastic but an acrylic tent suspended by a network of poles and wires. Just why the fairgrounds needed a dome was never clearly explained, but a walkway would allow brave pedestrians to walk across the top of the whole thing. Showing a rare instance of common sense, city leaders were skeptical, asking the developer if the fragile-looking tent would withstand a severe storm. "This will stand up to a hurricane," they were assured. Somebody pointed out that Memphis rarely endured hurricanes but might suffer a tornado or two: Will the Fairgrounds Dome withstand a tornado? "Uh, no" was the answer, and that was the end of that.

There also have been plenty of grand schemes for the suburbs. One of the most unusual was a proposed development called Country Club Estates, which the Press-Scimitar called "a design for living." Modeled after a futuristic community that was actually built in Radford, New Jersey, in the 1950s, this neighborhood would cluster small homes ("contemporary architecture of the Nth degree") around a network of more than 100 coves. Tunnels would allow pedestrians to walk beneath the major streets to their own school, shopping center, lake, swimming pool, and baseball fields. But it never happened. The local planning commission fretted about all the tiny houses on tiny lots and declared, "This type of home will be slums in a few years." Developers eventually constructed only one part of the original plan -- Sea Isle Elementary School -- but the East Memphis neighborhood that is today embraced by White Station, Quince, Sea Isle, and Estate doesn't look anything like a "development of the future."

And let us never, ever forget Rakapolis, the Sidney Shlenker-inspired project that would have combined Mud Island and The Great American Pyramid (as it was supposed to be called) into a surrealistic Egyptian-style theme park focusing on American music. "Inclinator" rides at The Pyramid would carry thousands of visitors each year to the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame, located in the apex of the building. Meanwhile, over on Mud Island, visitors would board replicas of ancient Nile River barges, enter an underground passage through the mouth of a trumpet, and drift past displays focusing on American performers. The ride would end in front of a giant jukebox, which -- by pressing a button -- would play the hit songs of any year. No, we are not making this up. Rakapolis. Remember it.

Over the years, many of our city's most extravagant pipe dreams have turned to smoke. It remains to be seen which of the grand schemes presented today ever get off the drawing boards.

by Michael Finger

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