Parkway Woods

Cultural Resources Survey of

Parkway Woods

Census Tract 65
Memphis, Tennessee
March, 2002

I. Description of Survey Area

Parkway Woods is a small enclave of postwar homes sandwiched in the junction of Lamar Avenue and East Parkway South. The neighborhood, only about 1/4 of a square mile in area, follows the property lines along two streets, Meda and Longstreet, whose curvilinear paths break the grid pattern of the streets that surround them. An access alley separates the neighborhood from the commercial and industrial activity on Lamar. The modest homes of the historically African-American Orange Mound neighborhood stand directly east, while the older and larger homes of the Heiskell Farms Historic District line East Parkway South.

Meda and Longstreet are quiet lanes shaded by mature hardwood trees. The terrain is flat, lawns are generally well-kept, and landscaping is minimal. Lots are irregularly shaped due to the curvature of the streets they face, but roughly maintain a 75′ width. Sidewalks with a beauty strip line the streets.

Architecturally, the neighborhood is homogeneous in style, having been built by a single developer in a short span of time. All houses in Parkway Woods fall into the Minimal Traditional category, the catch-all term used to describe the small double-pile cottages built across America around World War II. Most might be described as a simplified Cape Cod side-gable design, with brick exteriors and six- or eight-pane windows. Often a front-facing gable is found either in the form of a central portico, or as an extension of the living space on the side of the façade. Some are double gables, a holdover from Tudor Revival houses. Porticoes are common features and may be either gabled or shed-roofed, and are most often supported by cast iron posts in a floral motif. Save for an occasional door surround or keystone, decoration is spare—these houses were built for efficiency, but were solidly built nonetheless. All but two were built just after the war, between 1946-49.

Parkway Woods is a mixture of single family residences and duplexes. Many duplex owners live in one side of the house while renting the other. This owner occupancy may have prevented the sharp downward slide in property values that other area neighborhoods have experienced. There are, however, two abandoned dwellings near the dead-end of Longstreet.

II. Statement of Significance

Memphis Heritage surveyed 86 houses in Parkway Woods in January 2002 and found it to be potentially eligible for the National Register under Criterion A. Only 3 houses were classified as non-contributing structures. Parkway Woodís builder, Wallace Johnson, was considered the “Henry Ford of homebuilding” for his companyís ability to complete a new home every 2 1/2 hours. His assembly-line building process and radical supply chain idea (he vertically integrated the industry by simultaneously running a chain of building products suppliers) helped to alleviate the staggering housing shortage Memphis experienced with the rest of America following the end of World War II. Johnson, founder and first president of the Home Builderís Association in Memphis, established a national model for low-overhead building methods when he teamed with the Federal Housing Authority in the late 1930ís to build the Fordhurst development in southwest Memphis. They were at the time the least expensive new homes on the American market and allowed a new class of workers to gain their share of the “American Dream” by owning their own home. Parkway Woods was slightly more upscale, but still appealed to this same economic class of workers, black and white alike. It is remarkably similar both in style and historic significance to the duplexes of the Jackson Terrace neighborhood that was placed on the NRHP in 2001.

III. History

Parkway Woods is a product of the explosion in home building that followed World War II. The area was incorporated into the city as far back as 1909, but held out as vacant land for years as the city expanded around it. Thus, its housing stock is younger than most of the surrounding neighborhoods.

As the war came to a close in 1945, Memphis was faced with a severe housing crunch. The lingering economic effects of the Great Depression nearly killed the home building industry in the ë30ís, while the War Production Board had slowed building to a crawl in the ë40ís in order to conserve building materials for the war effort. Meanwhile, an estimated 40,000 new residents flooded into Memphis from 1941-43, and between 1945-50, Shelby Countyís population grew a staggering 85%. Homeowners commonly rented rooms to new residents who couldnít find lodging anywhere in the area.

A group of entrepreneuring developers quickly stepped in to alleviate this shortage. Foremost among these was Memphisí own Wallace E. Johnson. Johnson had built close to 2,000 units before the war, and was nationally known for his application of mass-production techniques to an industry previously dominated by craftsmen. The Saturday Evening Post once called him “the Henry Ford of homebuilding”, noting his crewsí ability to finish a new house every 2 1/2 hours (though New Yorkís Levitt Brothers would later achieve a record of one new house every 16 minutes). He lowered the economic bar for home ownership in developments like Fordhurst by lowering overhead costs enough that he could sell houses more cheaply than any other builder in the nation, and even built and financed neighborhoods specifically for African American homeowners at a time when few builders would touch that market. His practices became a national model. The federal government, after learning of his reputation, contracted Johnson to build an entire town during the war– Oak Ridge, Tennessee– though Johnson later backed out of the project. He went on to found Holiday Inns, Americaís first national motel chain, with Kemmons Wilson in 1953.

In the waning days of World War II, Johnson was ready for the unrivaled building boom America was about to experience. He went public in 1945 with a plan to build a new neighborhood within 10 days of Germanyís defeat. Due to the pressures of the housing shortage, 1,400 people signed up on the waiting list for just 50 houses. But thousands more homes were soon to follow. Across the city, 21,000 units were built between 1940-47. Thanks to low-interest loans with no down payment offered to veterans, this group comprised about 20% of the total number of homeowners in the city by 1947.

In 1946, Johnson platted a new subdivision on a small plot of vacant land at the corner of Lamar and East Parkway South. He named it Parkway Woods. The land was located on a prime corner served by two streetcar lines, one down Lamar and the other on East Parkway, though these lines were removed in 1949. Unlike some of the shoddily built homes put up by builders (including Johnson himself in some other neighborhoods) around the same time, the new homes in Parkway Woods were large, around 1,300 square feet, and well built. By Johnsonís standards, they were built slowly, over a period of about 4 years, with 1949 being the peak year for development in the neighborhood. The houses were a mixture of single family homes and duplexes built for the burgeoning postwar middle class.

Residents of Parkway Woods represented a relatively wide range of economic strata, as indicated by their professions—physicians, pastors, maintenance men, newspaper reporters, even an economist for the Federal Reserve Bank. An unusually high number of single women also lived in the duplexes on Meda. Though it is unclear how many residents were veterans, it is known that by 1947, 20% of Memphis homes were owned by veterans. Breaking with standard practices of the time, Johnson placedno restrictive covenants on his development to exclude blacks from ownership. The census tract in which it was built shows a nearly equal percentage of blacks and whites in 1950, unusual in the era of racial “redlining”.

Following the trend of much of Memphisí inner city, demographics changed rapidly in the late 1960ís due to the familiar urban trend of “white flight”. By 1970, census tract 65 was 93.7% black, a ratio which remains today. With age has come some degradation and neglect in the neighborhood, yet home values remain comparatively high, around $50,000-60,000.

DON NEWMAN