Secrets of the City


Looking for a free place to park downtown? Wonder who's buried in the woods at Shelby Farms? Ever ponder whose faces are carved above the door at Idlewild Presbyterian Church? And why would anyone put a giant hand in their front yard?

Read on, and we'll give away some of the many secrets in our city.

Unpaid Parking Tickets

Here's a secret City Court Clerk Thomas Long wishes we'd take to our grave. Or that he could get changed in the state legislature.

In March, Long told the City Council that Memphis loses $1.5 million to $2 million annually in unpaid parking tickets, because, under state law, the statute of limitations for parking tickets and other non-moving violations is only one year.

Which means, if you don't pay your parking tickets within a year, they just sort of go away.

Long wants the council to ask the state legislature to review the situation, but at least for now, the law stands.

The Faces of Idlewild

click to enlarge MICHAEL FINGER

When local architect George Awsumb designed Idlewild Presbyterian Church in the 1920s, he decided to immortalize his two children, Richard and Georgianna, by having their faces carved above a doorway there. His own likeness, eyeglasses and all, adorns a top corner of the soaring bell tower, but you need binoculars to see it. Please do not try this as you drive down Union.

Chi Omega's Cabin

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When grocery-store magnate Clarence Saunders built his Pink Palace mansion in Chickasaw Gardens, he had a log cabin constructed by the lake behind his house. After he lost his fortune in the 1920s, a Memphis family bought the cabin, dismantled it, and donated it to Southwestern (now Rhodes College) so Chi Omega could use it as the college's first sorority house. Publicly, the Chi Os were grateful for the gift; privately (based on cranky letters in the college archives), they — and the new school's architect — were mortified that they were dwelling in a dinky log cabin when the other Greeks were erecting impressive stone lodges. So Chi Omega eventually covered the cabin with stone; the original logs are still inside the walls.

No Meter, No Meter Maid

Parking downtown can sometimes be a pain, especially in these recessionary times. Downtown garages can cost $10 or more an hour, depending on who's playing the FedExForum or if there is a baseball game at AutoZone Park. Parking meters require exact change and are only available for two hours (if you're lucky — some are one-hour meters). And parking illegally can be more expensive if you get towed.

Enter the almost-mythical meterless space, a parking space that is painted and lined but does not require any pay to play. At the corner of Peabody Place and Second, right in front of a popular bar, are two such spaces.

We've heard that there are others out there ... you just have to find them.

The Warren Street Castle

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Some people think big. When a property owner in South Memphis (who didn't want his name used here) decided to open a little "sundry store" on what was essentially a residential street in the 1980s, he got a bit carried away and ended up with a castle, complete with battlements, turret, and drawbridge. Missing were key details like windows, address marker, signs, and parking lot — the usual stuff that might attract customers. The property was sold a few years ago, and the new owner of the Warren Street Market added all these things, but for years the place looked like this, just one of the city's many mystery buildings.

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Plaza Theater Spire Built in 1952, the Plaza Theater on Poplar was an art deco showpiece, all curves and glass and yellow brick and stainless steel. Bookstar purchased the property in 1987, and for some reason the stainless-steel spire disappeared during the building's renovation. A few years later, it ended up at the University of Memphis, where it's tucked into a nook on the southeast side of the Fogelman business building. Go see for yourself.

Tsunami's Bar Fly

When this popular Cooper-Young restaurant was in its infancy, Tsunami picked up what could only be called a hanger-on.

As workers poured the last layer of epoxy onto the top of the bar, a fly landed on it. Most of the people there were freaking out, trying to find something to get it out of the goop, when — as the story goes — someone apparently said, "Leave it! It's [chef and owner] Ben's [Smith] first bar fly!"

Though over the years that top layer of epoxy has been worn away, the bar fly — what's left of him, anyway — can still be seen.

Morgan Keegan's Monsters

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Massive stone griffins guard the lobby and escalator of the Morgan Keegan Building downtown, but why? Turns out they are ornaments left over from the old Hotel King Cotton, which once stood on this site until it was brought down with a blast of dynamite in 1984. The massive griffins were originally perched on stone ledges jutting out from the top corners of the old hotel. Getting them down in one piece was quite a feat, but here they are.

Free Days

Looking for something high-brow but low-cost?

Many people know that the Memphis Zoo has a free day — after 2 p.m. each Tuesday with a valid Tennessee driver's license — but the zoo isn't the only one.

The Memphis Pink Palace Museum and the Lichterman Nature Center are also free each Tuesday, from 1 p.m. until closing. Free admission to the Pink Palace doesn't include IMAX or Planetarium shows but does include the museum's regular exhibits.

The Memphis Botanic Garden bucks the trend on Tuesdays and is free to the public every Wednesday from noon to 6 p.m.

And general admission to Mud Island River Park is free every day.

Magnolia Tribute Circle

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Crawl beneath the big magnolia trees in Chickasaw Gardens — okay, don't do it; just take our word for it — and under most of them you'll still find old copper markers with names — J.A. LePrince, Camille Kelley, Abe Goodman, and others. When those trees were planted in 1931, the head of the City Beautiful Commission came up with the idea to pay tribute to prominent Memphians with the Magnolia Tribute Circle, and each year on Mother's Day (for reasons never made clear), several markers were unveiled. They finally stopped when they ran out of trees. There's even a tree dedicated to George Washington, who — as far as we know — was not a Memphian, but you'll have to find that one for yourself.

The Dog Fountain

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When Dr. David Granoff's beloved dog Cujo died in 1993, the Rhodes College alumnus decided to pay tribute to man's best friend by building a stone drinking fountain, with a bronze marker at the base. The fountain is still standing, close to the parking lot on the eastern edge of the campus, and — unlike most drinking fountains in Memphis — is still working. Cujo, we think, would be pleased.

Mid-South Fair's Time Capsule

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Whoever ends up developing Libertyland and the former Mid-South Fairgrounds has a challenge. In 1956, to commemorate the fair's 100th anniversary, Miss Mid-South Fair and city officials buried a time capsule close to East Parkway, marking the spot with a block of granite. Inside a glass jar are all sorts of artifacts designed to enlighten anyone who opens this thing in 2056, but they'd better be extra careful, because newspaper accounts report that the jar's top was sealed with "a radioactive substance."

Inspection Inspection

Since the 1930s, vehicles must have a yearly safety inspection before they can be registered in the city of Memphis. And to hear some residents tell it, they've been in line at the inspection stations since then.

In all honesty, the lines are almost always long and even longer at the beginning and end of the month. In somewhat cruel irony, the city suggests you turn off your radio and air conditioning while you wait but says you should leave your car idling (exactly the thing that creates the emissions the city is trying to regulate).

To see what you're in for, go to For the most part, the cameras confirm that there is a line, but at the very least, they can help you decide whether to bring a magazine or a copy of War & Peace.

Shelby Farms Graves

Many years ago, the city's largest park used to be farmland, and at least two of those farmers are still there — sort of. If you know where to look (along a trail by Gate 13 in the northeast corner), you'll find a weathered gravestone propped against a tree, inscribed with the names Robert and Mary Mann. Nearby are the bases of half a dozen tombstones. Who were the Manns, where did they live, what did they do, and why are they buried in these lonely woods? And — this is the really intriguing part — who keeps putting flowers on their graves? We just don't know.

The Giant Hand

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Not everyone puts a giant concrete hand in their front yard — or certainly not enough people, we say. But Jane Abraham and Keith Henderson, who operate the Hart Center, a treatment center at 1384 Madison, erected the hand as one element in their elaborate front yard at 256 Angelus. Abraham explained that the southern half of the yard is divided into three flower beds, representing the emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects of our nature, and the northern half depicts the four directions of the Native American medicine wheel. And the hand? It's a Hindu "mudra" — or symbol — that represents teaching and service. Plus it looks pretty cool, too.

The Airport's Little Pick-Me-Up

For a few years between 9/11 and now, people picking up passengers outside Memphis International Airport were forced into a kind of limbo. Get to the airport before your passenger got out the door and the almost-always surly security guards would wave you right along, forcing you to circle the airport like a plane waiting for a runway.

During recent renovations, Memphis International added a feature that many other airports have found successful: the cell-phone lot. Far enough away from the airport to not be a security threat, the cell-phone lot gives people a place to park while they wait for their passengers to get off the plane and make their way outside. It's located near the airport motel.

As Easy As A-B-C

Speaking of the airport ... a few years ago, Concourse B got a fancy renovation because the majority of the airport's passengers come through that concourse.

Which means that most of the airport's passengers also go through Terminal B security. But, and no offense to Memphis International, the airport isn't that big. If you're running late, it's a simple thing to go through the less-crowded checkpoints in the A or C terminals and then cut back to B.

We're not saying it's always faster, but we've seen days where the B security gate has a roller-coaster-like line, whereas C has two families and a business traveler.

Downtown's Shamrocks

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They look like brown shamrocks painted on various buildings close to the National Civil Rights Museum, but they are actually a grouping of four hearts — the logo of the now-closed Lucky Heart Cosmetics firm, which owned several warehouses in this area.

Bowers' Bulldogs

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In the early 1900s, Memphian Duke Bowers opened a chain of grocery stores, with the slogan, "You won't get bit if you buy at Bowers'." His trademark was a muzzled bulldog. Still standing today is the old Bowers warehouse on Florida Street, just south of Crump, and atop the entrance are two carved dogs, still wearing their muzzles.


The EPA estimates that Americans own approximately 24 electronic devices per household. So what do you do with those things when you're done with them?

You can recycle old computers, cell phones, and other hazardous waste at Shelby County's Hazardous Waste Center on Haley Road near Shelby Farms. That includes aerosol cans, automotive fluids such as antifreeze and motor oil, drain cleaners, pool chemicals, and pesticides.


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This seems like the answer to a scavenger hunt: Find a sculpture of the "Thunder God" in Memphis. We'd wager that most people wouldn't think to look outside the entrance to Sea Isle Elementary School in East Memphis, but there it is, a dramatic carving of Thor mounted high on a wall on the west side of the school. Close to the east entrance is a similar stone (or concrete) plaque, this once depicting a rather complicated scene from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam. As far as we know, no other school building in Memphis has similar ornamentation, and nobody at Sea Isle could explain the origin of these sculptures.


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The two brick pillars at Highland and Central once marked the entrance to a residence built in the 1920s named Birdwood, owned by William Webster, who turned a little pharmaceutical company here into the largest manufacturer of aspirin in the world. His wife, Lucy, was prominent in social circles, serving as president of the Memphis Garden Club, among other organizations. After their deaths in the 1950s, the estate was purchased by the Second Church of Christ, Scientist, which turned the mansion into their sanctuary and built a grand portico on the north side. The house itself is still there, by the way; the original entrance faced Highland.

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The Elvis Vault Most people with a basic knowledge of the life and death of Elvis Presley know that the King of Rock-and-Roll was originally laid to rest beside his mother, Gladys, in Forest Hill Cemetery. But he wasn't actually buried there. Instead, his body was placed inside a crypt in the cemetery's mausoleum. When thieves tried to steal the body one night in 1977, Elvis and Gladys were moved to Graceland. But the Presley crypt, guarded by a locked iron gate, has never been occupied at Forest Hill. Fans can still visit it and leave tributes. (Among cards and flowers and other things, they toss coins through the gate, for some reason.)

The Frisco Bridge Memorial We don't know what to make of

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this one. If you know how to get beneath the easternmost end of the old Frisco Bridge (and that itself is a secret — or at least a challenge), look up and you'll see a red metal plaque dangling from chains welded to the bridge. Neatly cut into the plaque is "SL Lipe 1943-2004." Who was Lipe and why is he memorialized in this fashion? We assume he was a railroad worker, but we don't know.

Strange Sculptures

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Patients at the Memphis Dermatology Clinic on Union at Kimbrough probably pay little attention to the pair of bas-relief sculptures flanking the front door, which depict people holding models of factories and doing seemingly nonmedical things. That's because the clinic originally housed the Kensinger Insurance Agency, which insured everything from people to businesses. The sculptures were carved by Ted Rust, former president of the Memphis College of Art, whose work is also visible at Rhodes College, the Benjamin Hooks Library, and other places around town.

Registered Male

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One imagines the Shelby County Register of Deeds website is used primarily for property questions: It has a database of property records, as well as aerial views of area land parcels.

But many people don't know that it also includes online versions of selected county archives, including photos of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination investigation and, almost more perplexing, the Memphis milk supply from 1920 to 1958.

But forget about the milk for a minute. Want to see James Earl Ray's mugshots from an earlier arrest? What about a shot of him holding a diploma from the Lau Los Angeles Dance School? Want to see his canceled Canadian passport (under the name Ramon George Sneyd)? Or his Canadian birth certificate (also for Sneyd)? All there.

The site also includes audio files from the police department's dispatcher the night of King's murder, Ray's arraignment, and the court proceedings.

And if you're interested in those milk records, they are there, too.

Memorial to a Boy There's actually a swimming pool in

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Memphis dedicated to a drowning victim. When 9-year-old Ronnie Jones was swept away by swift currents while playing in the Wolf River on July 23, 1954, citizens expressed outrage that there was no free (and safe) place for kids to swim in what was then East Memphis. Funds were raised to build the "Ronnie Jones Pool" on Macon, and companies and individuals donated their services. After the pool was built, however, the park commission decided to leave the poor kid's name off of it and didn't even mention him on the concrete "Memorial to a Little Boy" by the entrance. Only years later was a smaller bronze plaque attached, telling the story of Ronnie.

The Dogs of Court

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Two cast-iron mastiffs guard the entrance to Juvenile Court on Adams. They've been standing there, in essentially the same spot, for more than 100 years. The story goes that a fellow named William Decatur Bethell purchased the dogs in Europe in the 1870s for $5,000 ­— an enormous sum in those days. He kept them in his garden here and then gave them to his cousin, Mrs. H.M. Neely, when he moved away to Colorado. Neely set them outside the front door to the mansion that once stood on this site, and they watched over her property until 1965, when the big house was demolished to make way for the Juvenile Court building.

Facing Main Street

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An otherwise unadorned building at 326-328 North Main has two almost grotesque-looking faces carved in stone above the double entrance. They depict the faces of the building's original owners, John T. and Anthony Walsh, described by historian Paul Coppock as "the pre-eminent businessmen of North Memphis." Among other ventures, John was president of the North Memphis Savings Bank and Anthony ran the North Memphis Baking — not Banking — Company. In the late 1800s, this particular building housed yet another venture, the Walsh Brothers Grocery. John, by the way, is the fellow with the moustache.

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