Airport Envisioned Through Winning Collaboration of
Harrover and Mann
by Corky Neale
Imagine: Memphis on the cutting edge of kool. The Memphis Airport, shrouded now by military vehicles and armed National Guard troops, reminds travelers that old hopes and dreams are often changed by reality. But at its conception, the Memphis Airport terminal was all about the new and unknown world of jet travel, and Memphis was on the cutting edge. The terminal building came together as the inspired co-creation of Bill Mann and Roy Harrover. We often think that great architecture is a function of great design skills coupled with creativity unleashed. In order to get built,however, someone has to sell the project. Without the salesmanship of Bill Mann, the clean modernistic design of Roy Harrover would not have happened.The combination of Harrover's design talent with Mann's promotional talent made an inspired and winning collaboration.Collaborative Beginnings
Airport in the Air
The new enterprise won the design competition and achieved national recognition with their design. One of the competition jurors was the editor of the heralded trade publication Progressive Architecture. Not surprisingly, once finished, the building for the Memphis Academy of Art and Performing Arts Center became a cover for the magazine. Up to this time no other Tennessee building had been so honored.
Magazine covers do not pay bills. The principals had to earn a living. They concentrated in 1957-58 on schools in Arkansas where Mann could make the sale, and did some residential projects. The team had at least one wonderful school project in Memphis--the 1957 Richland Elementary School on Rich Road. In this case, Mann's persuasive powers came to bear since he evidently lobbied the school board for design freedom so long as the project came in on budget. Mann also worked on the Goldsmith's at Poplar and Perkins, the Pine Hill Community Center and the Speech and Hearing Center, for which he won a posthumous award from Progressive Architecture. Around this time, Lee Williams' interest in the firm was bought out by Mann and Harrover. Harrover suggests that Lee was really more attuned to designing redwood houses in California. The firm for a time worked out of Bill Mann's shotgun house overlooking the river, in the general location where the Rivermark Apartments now are situated. This was,at the time, a gritty urban neighborhood; everyone who lived there was no one, except for author Shelby Foote, whose house was across the street.Urban renewal displaced them all. The firm found quarters on Cleveland behind Stewart Brothers Hardware. In 1958 word seeped out that there was a plan to build a new Memphis airport terminal. Mann and Harrover decided they really wanted this job. Bill Mann began to work his ways, gleaning information from city insiders and politicians. At this time the airport was still under the jurisdiction of the City of Memphis; the independent Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority did not arrive until 1969. The decision on the design firm would be political, but a 'politics only' strategy in getting the job was sure to fail. There was great civic interest in the airport and the project was cast as a 'make or break' project for Memphis. Mann and Harrover embarked on a risky strategy to win by informing the decision process.
Envisioning the Future
The late 1950s was the dawn of jet aviation. Memphis, however, was just beginning to awaken to life after World War II. Mann and Harrover dipped into their pockets and began traveling to all of the major airports in the country to discover how airports looked and were organized. Harrover traveled west, Mann took the east coast junket. Major airports of the day were of a pre-World War II vintage that had grown by accretion and without the monumental civic architecture characteristic of train stations in great cities. Mann and Harrover converged in Chicago to view a commercial jet. There they witnessed a Continental Airlines flight crew clad head-to-toe in gold jump suits practicing rolling up the stairs to the jet and unrolling red carpets. This was the travel world of the future!Interestingly, Mann and Harrover were wined and dined by I. M. Pei and Phillip Johnson, a friend of Harrover's, in New York, in an attempt to join the design team. They concluded they could do it by themselves. From their journey they brought back photos and stories to the decision makers. Mann sold the vision of how a modern airport should work. Seeing the gold flight crew struggling with mobile stairs and red carpets, Mann and Harrover realized that a modern airport to accommodate jet aircraft needed to be a two-story structure to allow for jet-ways. The jet-way concept had been designed but never applied. Eero Saarinen's JFK Airport TWA terminal was under design but not built, and this was three years before Dulles International. By Christmas 1959, Mann and Harrover learned they had won the airport design project. They won without any drawings or renderings or design. They won on the strength of the idea of how the future of aviation would unfold and how an airport terminal should work. This was inspired. Bill Mann never saw the June 1963 ribbon cutting-- actually a rocket launching-- for the new terminal by U. N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson.
Bill Mann never even saw the completed design. This was especially tragic since only months before he had returned from a Mexico honeymoon thinking he had contracted some bug. It was cancer. Mann died December 31, 1960, at the age of 37. Bill Mann was larger than life and his ebullient ways found expression in selling Memphis on the future potential of jet travel.In a perverse twist of reality, Harrover was able to site and design the Unitarian Universalist Church of the River on the renewal land which wiped out the gritty neighborhood of shotgun houses where his collaboration with Bill Mann began.
Approaching the airport at night and especially during the holidays with the colored lights washing the concrete piers up to the expanse of the umbrellas, one has a sense of arrival at a grand welcoming front porch.