Normal Station

Cultural Resource Survey of

Normal Station

Census Tract 74
Memphis, Tennessee
December, 2001

I. Description of the Survey Area

Normal Station, bounded by the major arteries of Southern Avenue on the north, Park Avenue on the south, Highland on the west, and Goodlett on the east, encompasses about one square mile on the border between east Memphis and Midtown. This historically middle-income neighborhood displays a diverse assortment of the modest 1920ís Craftsman bungalows and 1930ís and ë40ís cottages that typified suburban neighborhoods in the first half of the 20th century. A handful of homes in styles ranging from Queen Anne to American Traditional to Dutch and Spanish Revival also remain, remnants of the neighborhoodís inception as a small suburban town on the outskirts of Memphis. A restaurant occupies a historic commercial building integrated into the neighborhoodís interior.

The expansive main campus of the University of Memphis borders Normal on its north side. Still the heart of the neighborhood, it was the Universityís inception in 1912 that gave rise to the surrounding Normal Station neighborhood, and the two continue to grow alongside each other 90 years later. Today, much of the northern blocks of Normal Station between Southern and Spottswood are populated by students in rental housing, fraternity houses, or in modern apartment complexes. From a historical and architectural point of view, the immediate relationship to the University may have been somewhat detrimental to the character of the area, as when entire blocks of housing were demolished in the 1960ís and ë70ís for parking lots, athletic facilities, and infill apartments. However, it is precisely this relationship of proximity that has continued to breathe new life into Normal Station year after year.

Streets inside the neighborhood, most of them laid out around 1911-1913, run along the cardinal direction grid pattern commonly seen in early 20th century neighborhoods. Most homes maintain a 40 foot setback from the street with concrete sidewalks and a neutral strip. Many yards are carefully landscaped and maintained, and mature hardwood trees shade the neighborhood throughout. Three of the boundary streets for the survey—Highland, Park, and Southern Avenues—are mainly commercial thoroughfares. The majority of Southern Avenue is University-owned parking lots and athletic facilities. For the purposes of this survey, private commercial buildings were noted, but University property was not. Audubon Park borders the neighborhood on the east, the East Buntyn Historic District on the west. The Black Bayou, bridged and channelized in the 1940ís, runs along the west side of Goodman and splits into several tributaries inside the neighborhood.

1138 structures were surveyed in September and October 2001. 844 of these (74%) were considered contributing structures. However, redistricting to exclude the outer commercial areas and multifamily housing could bring the total to over 80%, qualifying it for a National Register listing.

II. Statement of Significance

Memphis Heritage has determined the Normal Station neighborhood to be potentially eligible as a historic district under National Register Criterion C. It is an exceptional sampling of the residential architectural styles prevalent in the southern United States from 1912-1952, namely the bungalow and the double pile cottage. These unpretentious homes represent Normalís distinctive cultural history ranging from its beginnings as a relatively isolated farm community in the 19th and early 20th century, to a small town that sprang up around a college and rail station in the ëteens and twenties, to a middle-class suburb supporting a community of hospital workers, college students, and faculty in the 1940ís and beyond. Abusive alterations to individual homes and intrusions by surrounding University and commercial areas are minimal, and do not degrade the overall character of the neighborhood.

III. History

The land on which the subdivisions of Normal Station stand was divided from the Dillon and Rhodes Tract, a 5,000 acre land grant given to Revolutionary War veterans Tyree Rhodes and William Dillon by the State of Tennessee in 1823. Almost since its inception, the railroad has been a part of the landscape. The present Southern tracks run the course of the LaGrange and Memphis, the regionís first railroad, chartered in 1835. Over the course of the 19th century, the acreage south of the railroad was variously divided among heirs and parceled out to others. After Dillon and Rhodes, William Bradshaw became Normalís next landowner, immediately selling his 412 acres to William F. Eckles for $2,062.50 in 1835. When the Eckles moved in, a group of Indians still maintained a hunting camp near Park Avenue on the Black Bayou. Along with Park Avenue, Highland Avenue (then called the Pigeon Roost and Raleigh Road) had been cut. Southern Avenue developed by accident rather than planning as carriage drivers cut along the railroad to the next street over, rather than make a u-turn when their street dead-ended at the tracks.

At the turn of the 20th century, Normal was known simply as the Eckles tract, a nameless part of Shelby County east of the small town of Buntyn. However, after an annexation bid by Memphis in 1909, the land lay only 2 and a half miles outside the city limits and directly in the path of Memphisís relentless eastward expansion. The rural atmosphere began to change in 1911, when construction began on a new public college on the outskirts of the city. Today the school is a major regional university, the University of Memphis. In 1911, however, it was a two year teacherís college called the West Tennessee State Normal School.

West Tennessee State Normal School was dedicated with a small ceremony on September 3, 1912. Three buildings then existed on campus to serve the first yearís class of 200 students: the main teaching hall (now the Administration building), the womenís dormitory (renamed Mynders Hall after the schoolís first president), and the presidentís home (now gone, replaced by Patterson Hall). The school was a godsend to bright but economically challenged students who could not afford an expensive private education. Aside from a two dollar registration fee, “Normal,” as students called it, was completely free to Tennessee residents. The only requirements: students had to be white, 16 years old, and an elementary school graduate. An alternate four-year program was offered to students without an elementary school degree. (This was dropped in 1925 in favor of a full four-year degree, at which time the school became State Teacherís College in Memphis.) Normal also had a Demonstration School where young teachers could get hands-on classroom experience teaching local students. The Campus School still trains teachers today.

According to a 1912 school bulletin, potential Normal students had to submit a certificate of “good moral character” from “some responsible person,” and had to be physically fit. “No one should think of becoming a teacherÖwho is not qualified to exert a wholesome spiritual influence upon the lives of children,” the bulletin stated. Many of these early pupils had received their elementary education in one-room rural schoolhouses, and went on to teach in much the same setting. In those days chickens resided in the Industrial Arts building and the lawns were munched by a herd of cows. The campus, today surrounded by the urban infrastructure of inner-city Memphis, was then surrounded by an 80-acre pasture. 65% of the first yearís student body was made up of females. Some students lived on campus, while others chose to commute out from the city via the streetcars that ran along Southern Avenue.

If the school was the heart of the neighborhood, the railroad and streetcar tracks were its arteries. In 1846, the Memphis and LaGrange railroad was extended and re-chartered as the Memphis and Charleston, and in 1898 was bought by the Southern Railroad Company. While Normal school was under construction in 1911, Southern built a stub track northward from the railroadís main line to transport materials to the site, while the East End/Buntyn streetcar line extended its tracks a mile east from its old terminus at Buntyn. The Southern Railroad established Normal as an official stop, building a new Craftsman-style waiting station in front of the school to serve both the rail and the streetcar lines. By 1912, streetcars were charging a fare of 5 cents to traverse the roughly seven miles from the center of downtown, at the corner of Main and Madison, to Normal in 40 minutes (at about 10 miles an hour). The Southern Railroad also maintained a busy passenger and freight service at the station. Students, upon their arrival at school, could have their bags carried to the dormitory by mule wagon, though many male students arrived with pushcarts and even rolling bed frames to carry the girlsí baggage for a small fee.

The railroad connected Memphis not only to the eastern United States, but to a string of suburbs and outlying small towns stretched out along the railroad. After passing through Normal, the train ran through smaller waiting stations at Cherry Road, Ridgeway, and Whiteís Station, whistle-stops which were later subsumed by Memphis in its eastward expansion. Several well-known trains passed through Normal Station regularly. At 5:00 a.m. each day the “Newsboy” ran through town carrying The Commercial Appeal and ice cream out to Grand Junction, Tennessee. It brought milk back to Memphis on the afternoon return trip. At 8:30 p.m. the “Memphis Special” and later the “Tennesseean” passed through on their way to Washington and New York.

With the steady influx of students and railroad passengers nearby, the sleepy rural landscape south of the railroad suddenly became prime real estate. Shelby County set to work improving Southern and Spottswood Avenues in 1911, paving the way for development in an area still characterized by small farms and estates. The Madison family, who then as now owned large plots of land along the south side of Southern Avenue, were the first to subdivide their property to accommodate the imminent suburb the University would bring. The Madisons had acquired their land 10 years earlier from a relative, Julia Eckles, who sold them the properties for ” $1, Love and Affection”, according to the deeds. The family operated several businesses on the property around Southern and Highland. Harry Madisonís tract adjoined Southern Avenue north of Spottswood from Highland to Hughes Street (then one street east of Echles). Civil engineer Richard Huston divided the Harry Madison tract to establish the Normal School subdivision in early 1911. Another of the Madisons owned tracts south of Spottswood between Patterson and Shotwell. These were sold off piece by piece between 1911 and 1914. Intent on keeping property values high, the plat maps specify that “Business houses and negros [sic]” were “restricted for a period of twenty-five years.” Anna Buck followed the Madisonís lead in October 1912, selling her land to developer Ben Goodman. The Normal School Place subdivision situated on Buckís land divided the rest of the northern block of the neighborhood all the way to Goodlett by the end of the year. In 1913, the C.E. Douglass subdivision took the boundaries of Normal School Place one block south to Douglass Street. These relatively large lots, about 170 ft. by 550 ft., never sold as planned and lay vacant until they were re-subdivided in the 1940ís. Hyattís Chancery Court, Washington Heights, and the Colonial Heights subdivisions filled out the southwest corner of the neighborhood.

Population statistics for individual census tracts are not available for 1920, but construction rates imply that growth was modest at first, relegated to a few pioneering homes mainly scattered in the area around Spottswood and Echles. Building obviously increased rapidly after 1920, especially concentrated along Spottswood, Kearney, Carnes, and Douglass. Older residents remembered in a 1979 interview that, with the opening of the Normal School, it suddenly became fashionable to live on the east side of Highland. Buntyn, the older and more established railroad town one mile west, became viewed as “old-fashioned” by its residents, who quickly began migrating to the new neighborhoods in Normal.

With the rise in area population, commercial buildings appeared along Southern and Highland. Harry Madison opened his general store at Southern and Highland in 1902, the first business on the east side of Highland. Madisonís business was replete with the typical trappings of a country store—locals sat and whittled on the front porch or talked around the pot-bellied coal stove inside. Later, Madison built a meat market on the site, now Southern Meat Market, which is reportedly the oldest continuously operating business in the area. Next door, Minor Madison operated the Madison Appliance and Feed Company. An early resident recalled that around 1920 the Brooks family operated a grocery at Southern and Echles, and Fletcher Harrison ran a barber shop. Two more small groceries were later located near this intersection. On the north side of the tracks at Patterson and Walker were the post office, the Normal Drug Company, and another barber shop in a structure called the Prescott Flats. Around 1925, Prescott Flats burned to the ground and the Normal Drug Company moved to the corner of Southern and Highland, in between a Mr. Bowerís Grocery store and McLaurineís Grocery and Restaurant. McLaurineís, which converted to a bakery when meat was rationed during World War Two, would remain a fixture of the neighborhood until its closing in the late 1990ís. Normal in the 1920ís had its own hardware store, cleaners, and a service station, Stockís Garage, which opened on Highland in the building that now houses AAA Lock and Key. From the 1920ís on, Highland replaced Southern and Echles as the dominant commercial venue in the area.

Memphis annexed the neighborhood in 1929, making Goodlett the eastern boundary of the city and ensuring Normalís continued growth. Construction slowed during the Depression, but picked up again during World War Two, thanks to the construction of the nearby Kennedy Veteranís Hospital in 1943. Shotwell Street, on which it was built, was not a fitting name for the address of a veteranís hospital, so the name of the southern segment of Shotwell was changed to Getwell. During the War, Normalís train depot became a solemn place where wounded soldiers were unloaded and transported for treatment at the hospital. German and Italian prisoners of war were also housed inside. The Veteranís Hospital has relocated, but the buildings, now incorporated into the Universityís South Campus, still stand just outside the neighborhood.

One of the Naval engineers involved in the construction of the Kennedy Hospital was a Memphis developer named John B. Goodwin. Goodwin was a self-made entrepreneur largely responsible for charting the direction of the postwar development in Memphis. His vision of suburbia is most notable in the nearby Poplar Plaza Shopping Center (the regionís first shopping plaza outside the central business district) and he is credited with establishing the first large-scale developments in Whitehaven. While overseeing construction on the hospital, he foresaw the housing need that would be generated by the hospitalís staff and immediately set to work building rows of low-cost housing in the eastern blocks of the neighborhood. Soon, other developers like Wallace Johnson, Kennedy Modern Homes, and Culbreath and Ozanne jumped in. In most neighborhoods, construction came to a virtual standstill during the war. By comparison, much of the eastern half of Normal was completed during the 1941-45 period.

The new building boom of the 1940ís heralded a change in architectural styles in Normal, a change that was reflected in most Memphis neighborhoods of the period. Until the Depression, the house of choice in middle-class suburbs was most often the Craftsman bungalow. This venerable and practical style, which arrived from California a little before 1920, typifies the architecture of the new automobile-based suburbs, and can be found in great numbers along Spottswood, Carnes, and Douglass especially. In the 1940ís, however, builders like Goodwin, Wallace Johnson, and Charles Chandler helped to popularize the Minimal Traditional cottage, a style based on Tudor and Colonial Revival antecedents in which both size and ornamentation was greatly reduced for more efficient, cost-effective building methods. Tens of thousands of these homes covered hundreds of acres across east Memphis between 1940 and 1950.

This mass-production of houses allowed Normal to expand rapidly in the 1940ís. In fact, the neighborhood saw its population more than double between 1940 and 1950, from 2,313 residents to 4,983. Fifty-seven percent of its homes were built in the same decade. The average Normal resident in 1950 was a high school, or perhaps college, graduate working in a professional or semi-professional field. Clerks, mechanics, and military employees were common professions. At least two residents were engineers at WREC Radio. Predictably, many were also students and teachers. The average income was about $3,800, respectably middle-class for the time. This social and economic makeup remains similar today.

Unfortunately, despite the rapid increase in local population, business at the Normal train depot slowed considerably after the war. Automobiles and buses replaced trains as the dominant form of transportation, and the streetcar line, which by this time made a loop down Watson Street to connect with Park Avenue, was on its last legs financially. The tracks were removed in 1949, the same year as the Southern Railroad decommissioned the station at Normal. The old station was demolished in 1950. All that remains today is its brick foundation, still visible next to the railroad tracks. Thousands of students each day walk over the worn pile of bricks without realizing what once stood there.

The neighborhood, however, was no longer dependent on the railroad for commerce and continued to be a vital part of Memphis culture. In the mid-1950ís, a small bar at the corner of Park and Shotwell played host to a number of legendary Memphis musicians until the late 1980ís, most notably Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. The building unfortunately no longer stands.

In 1957, State Teacherís College in Memphis received University status, changing its name to Memphis State University. In the years following, the school underwent a period of expansion in geographical size and enrollment. Suddenly there was a greater need for student housing and ample parking for an ever-increasing number of commuter students, and the University began reclaiming parts of the surrounding residential areas under imminent domain rights. By 1969, Hughes Street was demolished and replaced with a parking lot. Much of Normal and Houston streets became part of the Athletic complex, and high-rise and low-rise multifamily apartment complexes began replacing neighborhoods in the area. Homes were divided into apartments or, more often, demolished. The expansion continues today, and parts of Normal are still in jeopardy of being seized and demolished to meet the needs of the University.
But not all changes have been adverse. In 1947 the City of Memphis purchased the Heard and Snowden estates just across the street from the Normal area on Goodlett. This land would become Audubon Park, receiving its name in honor of former mayor E.H. Crumpís love of bird watching. (Crump really wanted to name it Bluebird Park, but City Council deemed this name unacceptable. Since an Audubon Park already existed near the fairgrounds, this park was renamed after another former mayor, Frank Tobey.) Today Audubon Park contains a golf course, several lakes, a tennis center, and the Memphis Botanic Gardens among its wooded acreage. Though technically outside the neighborhood boundaries, it is certainly part of the immediate environment of the area.

Normal Station is the product of 160 years of Shelby County history from its earliest home, a former carriage house on Southern Place built in 1846, to its latest, built in 1999. As for its oldest residents, some of them still remain in the neighborhood– their graves lie in a small family cemetery on Carnes. According to the dates on their headstones, George and Martha Eckles died in 1896 and 1887 respectively, Frances and Susan Bibert in 1910 and 1917, and Harry Madison in 1926

DON NEWMAN