Plaza Gardens

Cultural Resources Survey of

Plaza Gardens

Census Tract 30
Memphis, Tennessee
September, 2001

I. Description of Survey Area

The Plaza Gardens survey district encompasses four major subdivisions in the Poplar Plaza area: Plaza Gardens, Poplar Boulevard Terrace, North Poplar Park, and Highland Park. Survey boundaries were determined by the boundaries of these subdivisions. For the purposes of this survey, the name “Plaza Gardens” will be used collectively to identify the area as a whole while “Plaza Gardens subdivision” will be used to identify that subdivision in particular. These four subdivisions are united both by their geographic proximity and by the similarity of their Minimal Traditional housing stock. Most of the area owes its origin to the same developer and builder making it historically similar as well. East High School stands at Poplar and Holmes, and the Poplar Plaza Shopping Center takes up an entire block at the corner of Poplar and Highland. Both of these structures were outside the scope of a housing survey. They are, however, important to any historical documentation of Plaza Gardens as landmarks anchoring the neighborhood at its south end. Their late 1940ís construction date makes them contemporaneous with the surrounding neighborhood and integral to the history and character of the neighborhood. Directly to the east is the High Point Terrace neighborhood, while to the south is the Joffre Area. Both of these neighborhoods, comparable in style to Plaza Gardens, were surveyed earlier in the year by Memphis Heritage and are currently being nominated for the National Register.

A total of 431 structures were surveyed in August-September 2001. The majority were single-family residences, though there is a large concentration of duplexes along the east side of Holmes, and a few more scattered through the interior of the neighborhood. A minimal amount of commercial structures were surveyed on Poplar and South Prescott. These were all deemed non-contributing aside from one apartment complex. A large stretch of duplexes along Eastview and the north side of Walnut Grove were not included in the survey; these structures are non-contributing due to neglect and will likely be either remodeled or demolished in the near future. Williamsburg Manor, a multifamily garden-style apartment complex, lines the west side of Prescott between Poplar and Walnut Grove. Memphis Heritage looked at Williamsburg Manor in a 2000 survey and found it to be eligible for the National Register. Of the housing surveyed, 373 homes (86%) were considered contributing structures, making the area a viable candidate for a National Register district. Potential district boundaries have been redrawn such that several homes were cut out of the boundaries, making this area 89% eligible.

Most of the Plaza Gardens area, as suggested by its name, is an area densely packed with a canopy of mature hardwood trees shading meticulously maintained lawns and a profusion of flower beds. The residents of Highland Cove have even planted pink crepe myrtles along its length. Houses are in good to excellent condition throughout, and many have been renovated. The only exceptions are the duplexes that line Holmes between Walnut Grove and Highland Park where absentee landlords have allowed houses to deteriorate through neglect. Still, this is a relatively small percentage of homes and not representative of the neighborhood as a whole.

Century and Reese Streets, both running north from Poplar, make up a piece of the neighborhood some longtime residents still call “The Boulevard”. This is the earliest section of what would become Plaza Gardens, a remnant from the development boom that hit this part of the county in the mid-1920ís. Despite the streetsí early construction date, large scale home building would not come to this area for another 20 years. Century and Reese are perfectly straight, and 95 feet in width with a tree-lined median down the center (hence the nickname The Boulevard). After World War Two, the Plaza Gardens subdivision broke out of the grid pattern. Northwood, Waynoka Circle, and the cul-de-sacs found in the northern half of the neighborhood were constructed in the meandering fashion that remains popular in late 20th century suburbs. These streets are roughly 65 feet in width.

Plaza Gardensí architecture typifies design in Memphis from 1948 to 1954. With the exceptions of a row of five bungalows along the southwest corner of Reese and a Craftsman farm house on Greer, the rest of Plaza Gardens is made up of the type of house that defined the architectural character of the postwar period: Minimal Traditional. Minimal Traditional is a catch-all stylistic category for the double-pile cottages of the postwar period, and it is a style that continues to influence home design today. The constantly evolving form absorbed influences from Neoclassical, Tudor Revival, Ranch, and other architectural trends, and reduced them to a more streamlined, essential form. In Memphis, Colonial Revival was the most popular and pervasive influence during this period, and thus dominates the landscape of Plaza Gardens. Many of Plaza Gardensí Colonial-influenced houses retain a few refreshing touches of neoclassical ornamentation such as door surrounds, pediments, fan lights, and fluted porch columns. Most are of brick construction with weatherboard gables.

Later houses, undoubtedly influenced by the Ranch style that swept through Memphis in the early ë50ís, reduced these details or abandoned them altogether in favor of sleeker, more severe designs. The front porch, already reduced to a portico or entry hood in the 1940ís, became an incised entry in the 1950ís. The Plaza Gardens subdivision and Highland Park are the two latest additions (built roughly 1950-1954) and most accurately reflect this trend. Ranch homes, those hallmarks of 1950ís architecture, are also commonly interspersed in these sections of the neighborhood. These can be identified by their roof line, much lower-pitched than those of Colonial-influenced houses and often in the form of hipped gables, and by their wide, sprawling stance, lack of ornamentation, and the common presence of stationary picture windows.
II. Statement of Significance

A large part of the city of Memphis is characterized by quiet residential tracts reminiscent of country life. Nearby, residentsí retail needs are served by a large regional shopping plaza. Today this scheme is so commonplace as to be nearly the industry standard for suburban development, but in the late 1940ís, the idea was revolutionary. John B. Goodwin began this national trend with the construction of his Poplar-Highland Plaza Shopping Center and the adjacent Plaza Gardens subdivision in 1949. With the advent of the shopping plaza in Memphis, suburbanites were no longer tied to a central business district. Shopping from that point on would conveniently follow them.

Architecturally, the housing stock of Plaza Gardens is a tangible expression of the time period in which it was built, and the changing lifestyle of the middle-class social strata for whom it was built. Suddenly, there was a feeling that new homes needed to give owners a sense of space. The opening years of the 1950ís in Memphis were a time in which the ever-popular Cape Cod was enlarged outward, influenced by the “rambling Ranch” style that had suddenly become a part of the architectural scene. Almost as a response to the ubiquitous popularity of the American automobile, postwar developments began expanding beyond the symmetry of the urban grid pattern into irregular complexes of circles, drives, and cul-de-sacs. The new suburbia in a sense began to imitate the very rural landscape it subsumed as realtors advertised “country living” now greatly improved by “the conveniences of the city.” It was all part of a nationwide trend among developers to give the home buying public what it now wanted: safe, quiet streets, increased space, and convenient shopping. This new postwar development philosophy is embodied in the architecture and layout of Plaza Gardens, making it highly significant to the history and character of Memphis and a virtual blueprint for the rest of the nation. For these reasons it has been found eligible by Memphis Heritage for a National Register listing under Criterion C.

III. History

Any visitor to the Plaza Gardens area today would probably be directed to look for the Poplar Plaza Shopping Center as a landmark at the intersection of two of the most heavily traveled streets in Memphis, Poplar and Highland. In the late 19th or early 20th century, they would have been directed to look for a large walnut tree at the intersection of two dirt roads. The walnut tree, the only real landmark in the area for decades, stood as the boundary line of the Golightly farm from 1872 until 1945.

Wilma Golightly Person and Anna Golightly recalled the area at the turn of the 20th century as being fairly well-populated with estates, dairies, and truck farms. Children walked three miles east to school at Whiteís Station, exploring the rolling hills along the way for cartridges from Civil War skirmishes fought in the area. Visitors from the north arriving by steamboat traveled east on the Poplar Pike to see their first cotton. The small town of Buntyn, terminus of the Southern Railroad, stood about a half-mile southwest. Growth began to radiate out from this area in 1912, when the Southern Railroad was extended to the newly constructedWest Tennessee State Normal School and the small town of Normal Stationsprang up around the school. By 1925, rows of bungalows were going up in new automobile suburbs in East Buntyn, Normal Station, and Joffre, which were quickly expanding northward toward the Golightly farm. Major streets like Poplar, Walnut Grove, and Highland were paved with concrete. In an area that would later become part of Plaza Gardens and High Point Terrace, the Higbee family subdivided their land for estate lots between the new streets of Highland Park Place and Boyd (later changed to Leander, then changed again to Northwood). These large lots do not appear to have sold well, and the Higbees would divide the lots further in 1942 to increase sales.

Poplar Boulevard Terrace, just west of the Golightly tract, was platted by the Poplar Terrace Realty Company in 1925, beginning the era of suburban development in what would become Plaza Gardens. This early subdivision took in the west side of the existing Holmes Street, as well as building Century and Terrace (now Reese) Streets. These three streets extended north from Poplar through Walnut Grove, and connected with the Higbeeís Highland Park Place. Though Century and Reese now feature a tree-lined median, this does not appear to have been part of their original design. Like Higbeeís Highland Park, the Poplar Terrace Realty Company seems to have been equally unsuccessful in predicting the trend of development in the area. Five bungalows were built at the southwest corner of Reese in 1929-30, but the rest of the subdivision stood vacant. Aside from a trickle of homes built in the early 40ís, it would remain that way until after World War Two.

Yet elsewhere, the Poplar-Highland area was exploding. The Joffre neighborhood to the south was nearly full by 1941, the same year that Chandler and Chandler and Company began work on the first phase of their High Point Terrace neighborhood to the east. The area had been annexed into the city in 1929, and Poplar was now the main thoroughfare to the eastern suburbs. In 1945, following four years of near-dormancy in construction, local development entrepreneurJohn B. Goodwin decided that the time was right for the construction of his Poplar-Highland Plaza Shopping Center and adjacent Plaza Gardens subdivision.

Goodwin was a self-made man, a ward of Juvenile Court at age 11 who had worked his way through school selling newspapers. At 15, he enlisted in the Navy, and gradually built up a small fortune doing bookkeeping, carpentry and contracting work, and buying restaurants. Left without a car during the Depression, he walked to work carrying his tools. In 1939, using his own funds, he began building houses and quickly became one of the major developers of east Memphis, as well as the first developer of Whitehaven. As Goodwin began work on Plaza Gardens, he worked simultaneously on several of his other developments: Edwin Circle, High Point Terrace, and Poplar Glen among others.

Goodwinís first move was to purchase the 60-acre Golightly farm in 1945 along with a few acres of the Higbee land (the old walnut tree was finally bulldozed the same year). His plans called for an upscale subdivision set in park-like surroundings, encircling a totally new type of shopping center. Poplar Plaza would feature one-stop shopping with nearly everything nearby residents could possibly need in one centralized location, including “the finest suburban theater south of Chicago”. Unlike most shopping areas of the time, parking for Poplar Plaza would be set back from the street, giving rise to the expansive parking lots that surround shopping centers today. 28 stores were originally planned and the estimate for construction of the “de luxe shopping center” in 1945 was $3,500,000.

“As a home builder, I saw the city of Memphis moving farther and farther east,” Goodwin recalled in a 1965 interview. “It seemed to me that these people, who were buying homes, were entitled to a convenient shopping area and it was with this in mind that the Poplar Plaza Shopping Center was developed.” For the adjacent Plaza Gardens subdivision just north of the shopping center, he stressed that the homes would be built so as to avoid duplication and that they would fall in the $6,000-and-up range (the median value after construction turned out to be $11,974). Goodwin stressed that in the residential section he wanted to “get away from the cityís gridiron system of streets and subsitute circular or winding avenues.” He added “the entire project will be expertly landscaped and beautified by trees and shrubbery.” Despite the planís approval by the City Council in 1945, actual construction on the project did not begin until commercial zoning for the shopping plaza was approved in 1948.

Meanwhile, he set to work on other area subdivisions. The first was North Poplar Park in 1946. This is the section of the survey area that lies west of Holmes, including Waynoka Circle, Greer Lane, parts of Highland Park and Northwood, and Marne (now Eastview). The first section was completed in 1948; the second, Waynoka Circle, in 1950. He began building in the old Highland Park subdivision, filling in much of the mostly empty street. Along the west side of Prescott, across from what would be Poplar Plaza, he built the low-rise Poplar Plaza Apartment complex, now called Williamsburg Manor. Neighboring homeowners at the time complained that architect West Livaudisí flat-roof design and concrete block construction was unsightly and that the presence of renters in the neighborhood would devalue their homes. Although halted by sabotage (apparently by union-affiliated workers angry at being cut out of the job), construction went ahead with approval from City Council, who were anxious to relieve a staggering postwar housing shortage.

Population pressure in the area increased 670% during the 1940ís, from a meager 506 residents in 1940 to 3,391 in 1950. 1950 census statistics show most of the residents working as managers or professionals, with a median income of $3,389, the high end of average at the time. Some of Memphisí “young turks” made their home in the neighborhood: Fred Goldsmith, an heir to Goldsmithís Department store built his home at 11 North Century, and Jacob Schorr, heir to the Tennessee Brewing Company, lived down the street at 44 South Century. Adult residents tended to be younger than in more established neighborhoods, mainly in the 25-35 range, with less established income bases. Hence, a large percentage of the neighborhood was populated by renters—576 homes were renter occupied compared to 399 owner occupied in 1950.

Nearly 40% of the areaís new residents were children under the age of 18, and the need for a new school was urgent. In 1947, the city responded with plans for the largest and finest public school in Memphis history, East High School. Architect Everett Woods designed a baroque masterpiece of a building suitable for the well-to-do East Memphis students. Lauded as “ultra-modern” by the local press, the school was built on the former grounds of the Acorn Hill riding academy at the northwest corner of Poplar and Holmes. East is notable not only for its architecture, but it is distinguished as the first Memphis public school to hold integrated classes, though only temporarily, in the summer of 1962. Plaza Gardens itself may have been majority white, but an industrial/residential area to the west held a substantial black population, making Census Tract 30 fairly racially mixed.

89% of the neighborhood in 1950 had been built just in the previous decade—955 homes out of a total of 1,075. Having increased his customer base with extensive area development, Goodwin then set to work building his crown jewel retail center, Poplar Plaza. Everett Woods again was contracted for the design, composing a minimal, modernist statement in contrast to the classicism of his East High design two blocks west. In 1949, Lowensteinsí East, the first solitary building of the shopping plaza to come, opened to great public fanfare at the corner of Poplar and Highland. Mayor Watkins Overton cut the ribbon at the new location, and numerous newspaper articles implored the public to come see the new store, if for no other reason than to ride the escalators. Subsequent additions enlarged the center to line the entire north face of Poplar from Prescott to Highland, and additions to the north and east doubled the size of the Plaza. Its location set a trend for shopping centers, no longer directly integrated with residential areas but still close enough to make for a short drive. Surrounded by an oceanic expanse of parking for 1,760 cars, Poplar Plaza signaled a new direction in suburban development. This was essentially the genesis of the suburban strip mall in Memphis, and a number of notable architectural historians (see Kenneth Jackson) make the case that it was the first of its kind not only in Memphis, but possibly in the nation. Lowensteinís, like every major store in Memphis until that point, had been located exclusively in the downtown business district. But Lowensteinís East and Poplar Plaza signaled the death knell for downtown Memphis, a fatal blow from which it has never recovered. With a Kroger, aWoolworthís, a movie theater, a bank, a salon, a dry cleaners, a bowling alley, and close to 40 other retail stores, there was no longer any reason for suburban residents to make the trek into the central city to supply their material and entertainment needs. In 1950, only 1 in 7 Americans lived in the suburbs, but that statistic was shifting at an exponential rate. As of 1990, a majority of Americans live in the suburbs, making John B. Goodwin a pioneer in a national trend.

As Poplar Plaza expanded, the Plaza Gardens subdivision expanded with it. Northwood eventually curved south to form a circle meeting Walnut Grove on its east end, with Prescott extended north to meet it at its west end. As one of the last pieces of the Plaza Gardens complex of subdivisions to fall into place, homes along Northwood, Walnut Grove, and surrounding streets and coves tend to exhibit slightly more influence from the Ranch home, both in size and decor. Many of the windows are stationary or 2/2 double-hung, rather than the standard 6/6 or 8/12 found in more traditional homes. Hip roofs and front-facing attached garages also become more commonplace. While most of the homes were still classified by surveyors as essentially Minimal Traditional, there are several examples of the pure Ranch form on Walnut Grove, Northwood, and Highland Park.

In North Poplar Park, duplexes went up on Walnut Grove, Holmes, and Eastview much to the dismay of homeowners who petitioned against them. The Macintosh family, now surrounded by development on all sides, finally sold their land for the construction of Macintosh Cove. Their 1920 Craftsman farmhouse still stands at the corner of Greer Lane and their namesake cove. North Poplar Park and Holmes Street are now the most racially mixed segments of the neighborhood.

Today Plaza Gardens displays remarkable stability in ownership and a loyalty to the neighborhood. For the most part, the neighborhood still attracts the same type of buyer it attracted when it was new, despite the fact that it now lies not on the suburban fringe, but on the edge of Midtown–the inner city. One resident the survey team spoke with had moved back into the house she grew up in when she found it was on the market. Several bought their homes new in the late 1940ís and never found reason to leave. North Poplar Park is one of the most remarkable areas. Though there is some detriment to the neighborhood due to the unseemly rental housing on its outskirts, older residents proudly express that they have managed to keep up the interior of the subdivision through perseverance; and homes there are now commanding premium prices from upscale buyers. Plaza Gardensí significance lies in its contribution to the American cultural landscape. In its layout lies the genesis of the quintessential American suburb.

DON NEWMAN