George Mahan: Architect of
the Rich and Fancy
by David Royer
Photographs by Fred Asbury
A wealthy client of George Mahan's once reportedly remarked to the architect that she didn't care much what style her new house was built in, so long as it was fancy. No doubt, Mahan delivered. He had an uncanny knack for keeping his finger on the pulse of the well-to-do in Memphis, and his always tasteful residential designs dominated Midtown and East Memphis between 1914 and 1938, especially in the exclusive Evergreen, Central Gardens, Hedgemoor, and Chickasaw Gardens neighborhoods.
George Mahan Jr. was a Memphian from his birth here in 1887 until his death in 1967. Despite his middle-American roots, his stylistic palette absorbed exotic ornamental elements from European and Mediterranean architecture, which he then applied liberally to the traditionally stark and puritan forms popular in America-- the foursquare, the bungalow, and the cottage. When Mahan's clients left him to his own designs, symmetry and stylistic rules usually went right out the Craftsman window, and even a simple airplane bungalow could become a pseudo-Spanish Revival showpiece.
Mahan began his career after leaving high school in the 11th grade. He
took a correspondence course in architecture and at age 16 entered the
firm of Shaw and Pfeil, probably as a draftsman. Shaw and Pfeil specialized
in turning the less-than-monumentally scaled buildings of downtown Memphis
into ornate, if somewhat naïve, civic landmarks by applying powerful
classical motifs wherever possible. During the "Boss Crump" era, they
were responsible for the Tennessee Trust Building (now the Madison Hotel),
the Businessmen's Club at 81 Monroe, the old abandoned police station
on Adams, and the Welcome Wagon Building on Court Square.
Mahan left Shaw and Pfeil in 1907 to work in the firm of renowned Memphis architect Neander Woods. Although not a principal architect, he was heavily involved in the design and construction of both the Exchange Building and the First National Bank Building that tower over the northwest and southwest corners of Madison and Second. While working for Woods, he met his future partner, J. J. Broadwell, with whom he would produce many of his most celebrated works. The two organized the firm of Mahan and Broadwell in 1910, at first specializing in schools. He would design 15 of them in Shelby County throughout his career.
One of the pair's earliest works stands on the campus of the University of Memphis, then the brand-new West Tennessee State Normal School. Only three buildings stood on campus when it held its first classes in 1912, and one of them was Mahan and Broadwell's Mynders Hall, the girls' dormitory. Despite the building's institutional purpose, its wide veranda gives the feeling of a comfortable old Southern home. Mahan was brought back by the college in 1929 to design Manning Hall, now home of the Anthropology and Physics departments. Though it is a somewhat unassuming building, Mahan added an ostentatious entry with two Doric columns supporting an engraved entablature, balustrade, and segmental pediment.
When designing a public or commercial building, Mahan generally used a little more restraint in his decoration. This is evident in the Cotton Exchange Building he designed with Broadwell in 1925. Now the home of Archer Malmo and other offices, the building anchors the former center of Cotton Row at Front and Union. The ornamentation is controlled, symmetrical, and somewhat spare, but still a mixture of the classic styles he absorbed from Shaw and Pfeil and Neander Woods earlier in his career. Either with Broadwell, or alone, or with other architects, Mahan designed several other public structures such as the Pontotoc County Courthousein Mississippi, the Lichterman and McCord pumping stations, the Peabody Hotel Skyway, and the old Hotel King Cotton, demolished in 1984 to make way for the Morgan Keegan Tower.
But it was his residences that really made his reputation. During the 1920s, the bungalow became the dominant form of residential architecture in Memphis. Most were of the modest Craftsman variety, which were simple and cheap enough that they could be bought pre-fabricated from the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog and assembled by their owners on site.
Mahan had different ideas, and turned the prosaic bungalow, as well as the ever-popular cottage, inside-out in a quest to find new styles to apply to them. Notable examples include the Spanish-influenced Herbert Samuels house at 449 Stonewall, called by more than one author "the best little bungalow in Memphis," the classically-influenced McElroy House at 2240 North Parkway, and Harry Schmeiser's first Tudor cottage at 279 North McLean (Mahan later teamed with Nowland Van Powell in 1938 to build Schmeiser's landmark second house on Walnut Grove).
In each of these, Mahan used decorative elements lifted from a range of sources to turn otherwise modest American house plans into memorable works. South McLean near Central was another hotspot for Mahan and Broadwell. Many of the Tudor and Italian homes from 687 McLean south to Central owe their designs to the pair. In South Memphis, the Mason House at 10 East Norwood looks like a Cubist painter's impression of a hacienda, but with a front porch and porte cochere lifted from the bungalow.
Mahan and Broadwell designed their own homes side by side on North McLean close to Overton Park Avenue in 1922. The two were obviously bitten by the Spanish Revival bug that swept through Memphis in the early 1920s--their stuccoed, tile-roofed houses were nearly mirror images of each other, and many of their residential designs throughout the rest of the decade had traces of the style. Mahan's house, along with at least three other Spanish homes he designed along Autumn, was unfortunately lost in the aborted Interstate 40 demolition process, but Broadwell's house and several more of the pair's "haciendas" remain, giving the neighborhood around Autumn and McLean a subtle Mediterranean feel.
Development was already moving well east of the Parkways by the late 1920s,
and Mahan followed the money to the new Hedgemoor and Chickasaw Gardens
subdivisions. He dropped his old partner Broadwell, and his use of the bungalow,
instead opting for more grandiose Tudor and Colonial designs. Two very
visible examples of this shift in style are on Walnut Grove. The William
Fisher House at 4680 Walnut Grove is an example of nearly perfect stark
classical symmetry, while down the street Harry Schmeiser's second home
is a rambling Tudor castle. Despite their obvious contrasts, the two were
designed in the same year, 1938.
Mahan's work trailed off after 1938; he may have gone into retirement around this time. The Great Depression took its toll on Memphis's architectural community, and many of Mahan's contemporaries such as J. Frazer Smith, Walk Jones Sr., George Awsumb, and old co-worker Everett Woods took jobs designing public housing projects for the federal government. Apparently, this line of work wasn't for Mahan. He never joined them, instead leaving as his legacy the show houses he designed for the city's elite during his golden years in the 1910s, '20s and '30s. It's probably just as well. Mahan had already made his reputation designing some of the fanciest buildings in Memphis.