The Joffre Area

Cultural Resources Survey of

The Joffre Area

Memphis, Tennessee
Census Tract 72
June, 2001

Description of Survey Area

Joffre encompasses roughly 0.5 square miles near the center of the city of Memphis, defined by major thoroughfares Poplar Avenue on the north and Central Avenue on the south, and residential streets Reese on the east and Lafayette on the west. Most streets run along a traditional urban grid pattern, indicative of their origins as a post-Civil War subdivision and later as a 1920ís automobile suburb. (Lafayette Circle is a mid-1940ís exceptions to this pattern.) The uniform layout of the neighborhood, both bisected by Joffre Avenue and surrounded by four major streets, makes it a cohesive and distinct district. The survey area boundaries follow those of the Joffre Area Neighborhood Association.

Directly to the west off Lafayette is the Pink Palace, Memphisís natural history museum. East High School is on the north side of Poplar. To the south are Memphis Country Club, the Goodwyn Avenue National Historic District, and the East Buntyn National Historic District. The University of Memphis is four blocks east. In the southwest corner of the neighborhood is the small St. Johnís Episcopal Cemetery, dating ca. 1870-1930.

A total of 529 structures were surveyed in May and June, 2001. Most were single family residences. Duplexes occurred rarely. Commercial facilities were relegated to the frontage on Poplar Avenue. While these were included in the survey, they have been left out of the potential district submitted for determination. Excluding the commercial property, 422 of the houses in the district (82%) retained architectural integrity, making them eligible for National Register listing.

Streets inside the neighborhood are 50 feet in width. Holmes, a slightly more heavily traveled artery, is 70 feet. Lots are 50 feet in width, making houses fairly close together by modern standards. All streets have a sidewalk and an outer neutral strip with the exception of Joffre Avenue and Lafayette. Joffre is an alley running between the north-south streets it bisects and has no curb or sidewalk, and only a handful of houses on its western end. Lafayette mainly faces the rear of houses inside the neighborhood, and contains a few houses on its east side. Mature hardwoods and ornamental trees shade open lawns and well-tended landscaping and flower beds. Overall, the area is very well maintained and most houses are in excellent condition. Some have been updated over the years, but modifications are generally minor and do not abusively alter the façade or the overall form of the house. Aluminum siding is the most common form of modification.

The layout and architecture of the Joffre Area shares a close connection with its contemporary to the south, the East Buntyn neighborhood. Development began at roughly the same time in both neighborhoods. Several streets, specifically Holmes, Greer, Reese, and Central run through both neighborhoods, tying them together. However, while East Buntyn was largely completed in the 1920ís, Joffre was slower to develop. Thus, the architecture in Joffre spans three decades of development from the 1920ís to the 1940ís, and each of the styles characterizing these decades are represented in a discernible progression of suburban home building styles. A fair number of early bungalows are scattered throughout, especially on Alexander, Palisade, Holmes, Greer, and Marne. These same streets also contain many Tudor Revival and Cape Cod cottages dating to the 1930ís, a few of which exhibit unique decorative details such as inlaid floral medallions or finials on entry hood brackets. However, the dominant style of the neighborhood is Minimal Traditional. These simple, practical double-pile cottages began filling in the neighborhood in the late 1930ís, and continued during and after World War Two until the neighborhoodís completion around 1950. Cowden and the eastern section of Central in particular were built in the 1940ís and are homogeneously Minimal Traditional without displaying the eclectic mix of styles seen on other streets. Lafayette Circle, built as military housing during the height of World War Two, is made up of modest but quaint Cape Cod-inspired cottages.

Three anomalous homes are of note for their early construction date: a 1912 Queen Anne and a 1917 pyramid-roofed farmhouse on Lafayette, and a 19th century farm house on Central. A large 1930ís Neo-Classical stands at the corner of Central and Alexander. Finally, the neighborhood is completed by a minimal amount of infill development ranging from a few 1950ís Ranch homes, to two 1970ís Shed-style houses on Marne.

II. Statement of Significance

With architecture that spans thirty years of development, Joffreís slow but steady growth pattern made it a microcosm of middle-class suburban expansion. Each decade from the 1920ís automobile suburb, to the modest FHA-funded cottages of the 1930ís, to the suburban explosion of the 1940ís is reflected stylistically in the architecture of the neighborhood: bungalows, Cape Cods and Tudor Revivals, and finally Minimal Traditionals. Its geographic boundaries are discrete and easily delineated from surrounding neighborhoods and the entire area shares a common historic background and overall character. Lastly, the houses contained in the district are intact largely as original and are well-maintained. Most residents who spoke with the survey team were enthusiastic about the prospect of a National Register listing and were eager to find ways to preserve the character and charm of their neighborhood. These attributes make the Joffre area a strong candidate for a listing on the National Register listing under Criterion C. However, the State Historic Preservation Officer disagrees with this finding, and ruled the neighborhood ineligible for an NRHP listing.

III. History

Joffre is an arbitrarily named neighborhood, dubbed by its neighborhood association in 1998 for the street which connects it. It has always been somewhat of a crossroads, and its melting-pot character reflects its standing as an area of runoff from the development that has surrounded it. This is not to say that it does not have a history of its own. Joffreís history begins in the 1870ís, when the collection of small farmers around the area of Central Avenue and Buntyn Avenue began calling itself “Ridgehigh”. Todayís Joffre is the easternmost section of what was Ridgehigh. Supposedly the name reflects the areaís social status. They werenít millionaires, but they werenít poor either—they were just “ridge high”. Ridgehigh was never really a town, but just some of the more far-flung residents of the burgeoning new town of Buntynís Station, a few blocks south of what is now Joffre. Buntynís Station had its genesis after the Illinois Central Railroad added its terminal stop at the Geraldus Buntyn homestead in 1850, and it remained the main settlement in the area until another railroad stop was added further east at the Tennessee Normal School (now the University of Memphis) in the 1920ís.

The Ridgehigh section of Buntynís Station centered around the Ridgehigh Baptist Church at the corner of Central (then Royster Avenue) and Buntyn, with its cemetery at the corner of Central and Lafayette. James Prescott, a Confederate war veteran who came to Shelby County after his release from a Union prison in 1865, was one of the major landowners in the early days of the area. It was he who donated the land belonging to Ridgehigh Baptist Church and its cemetery, having bought the lot in the post-Civil War Trezevant subdivision for one dollar from the Trezevant family in 1876. (Prescott later lent his name to nearby Prescott Street, and the Ridgehigh congregation became Central Avenue Baptist. The original church burned in 1926 and after a series of moves, it again changed its name to Ridgeway Baptist and moved to the east suburbs in the 1940ís.) The tiny St. Johnís Episcopal cemetery, formerly the Ridgehigh Baptist Church Cemetery, now anchors the southwest corner of Joffre at the corner of Central and Lafayette. The cemeteryís earliest headstone was laid in 1873; the last, in the 1930ís. It was then deactivated and fell into disrepair until 1980, when it was bought, restored, and reactivated by St. Johnís Episcopal. St. Johnís Cemetery remains in use today.

In 1922, Clarence Saunders, the local entrepreneur who invented the modern self-serve supermarket when he opened his first Piggly-Wiggly in 1916, began construction on his palatial new residence at the corner of Central and Lafayette. Previously, the land had been a dairy farm, and in 1922 was still considered fairly rural. Saunders purchased the 164-acre farm and had all structures on it burned to construct his mansion, which he named Cla-Le-Clare after his three children. Locals, who drove out to the construction site just to gape at the monumental edifice, preferred to call it “The Pink Palace” for its interior made of pink marble. The name stuck. In 1922, Wall Street turned against Saunders, and his fortune crumbled overnight. The still-unfinished Pink Palace was bought on auction by the City of Memphis in 1922, and construction was finally completed in 1930. It was converted by the city from a residence into a museum, featuring exhibits donated by local Memphis collectors. The Pink Palace today is still Memphisís only museum dedicated to natural history. Despite extensive expansions in the ë70ís and ë90ís, the original mansion remains essentially in pristine condition. Its entrance is on the west side of Lafayette, across the street from the Joffre neighborhood boundaries.

Despite its early beginnings, it was the automobile-centered suburb of the 1920ís that created most of what is now known as Joffre. The beginning of Joffreís era of modern development dates to 1925, when three development companies led the way to a radical resubdivision of the area, transforming it from multi-acre rural estates and small farms to suburban lots in only a yearís time. Foremost among these was Ben P. Dlugach, a prolific local developer who began the land rush by opening the Central Park subdivision along Greer, Holmes, and Palisade south of Joffre (then Pershing). In the same year, he opened the larger Central-Poplar subdivision along Palisade, Alexander, and Reese (then White) from Poplar to Central. Poplar Heights, developed by an associate of Dlugach, also appeared in 1925 along Greer, Holmes, and Palisade north of Joffre. Finally, the Smith-Bond Company opened the Palmetto Subdivision along the west end of Joffre, the south end of Marne (then Speed), and Wilcox. The north ends of Marne and Greer had been already been developed by J.L. and H.L. Nessly in 1922.

As was the case with many subdivisions during the real estate boom of the 1920ís, sales of the lots were sparse at best. A few bungalows went up haphazardly, but a 1928 map shows Greer and Reese virtually vacant, with only a thin scattering of new houses on other streets. Dlugach himself eventually went bankrupt in the 1940ís. (One of his creditors was listed as L. Weiss, the developer of the Poplar Heights subdivision in Joffre, while another was his father, real estate developer Ben J. Dlugach.) Building in the area kept up at the same sluggish pace through the 1920ís and early 1930ís, as bungalows slowly filled in the many vacant lots. In contrast, the East Buntyn neighborhood on the south side of Central was nearly filled to capacity by the end of the 1920ís. This was probably due to the fact that Buntyn had been an established town and a stop along the nearby Southern Railroad since long before the 1920ís. Joffre, just a few blocks north, must have seemed more remote.

But in the mid-1930ís, thanks in part to loans provided by the Federal Housing Authority, building increased slightly. This decade produced some of the more charming architecture in the neighborhood, specifically the numerous examples of Tudor Revival and Cape Cod cottages. The modernist Minimal Traditional style that would later dominate the neighborhood was still in its transitional phase from earlier stylistic periods; thus these houses did not suffer the brutal reductivism of the later Minimal Traditional style and retained some of the ornamentation and integrity of their Tudor and Colonial predecessors.

As the effects of the Depression wore off in the late 1930ís, Memphians, like the rest of America, again began buying new homes in larger numbers. Starting from a low of 502 building permits issued in the 4 years 1931-34, FHA loans had stimulated building to over 800 new houses in 1939 alone. In Joffre, construction was finally on the rise, reaching its first peak in 1940 and í41 at the dawn of the war. To keep up with demand, builders further simplified the Tudor and Colonial Revival forms to suit modern tastes, resulting in the familiar Minimal Traditional style. Minimal Traditionals soon filled in the older sections of the neighborhood, and a new development, Joffreís first since 1925, was created to meet this rising consumer demand. The Trezevant Companyís Central Gardens subdivision was laid out along Cowden and Central in 1940 on land the Trezevant family had owned off and on since the late 1800ís. Following FHA recommendations and standard development practice of the time, plat maps contained covenants restricting sales of the new houses “to white persons only”, ensuring Joffre against economic degradation and “Negro invasion” the FHA warned would reduce property values. Unlike earlier 1920ís developments, Central Gardens was planned and built within a year or two rather than over decades, and its brisk sales seem to indicate that the slump of the Depression was about to snap.

The Joffre area as a whole was then experiencing a boom in home building. Annexed into the city in 1929, the neighborhood was no longer a remote bedroom community. It was a conveniently located suburb situated directly in the center of the largest growth region in the city. “Only 10 minutes from town,” claimed a 1940 advertisement for Dlugachís Central Park subdivision, “Embodying the demands of privacy and comfort with the convenience of city dwelling removed from the annoyances of the urban dweller.” Census Tract 72, containing both the Buntyn and Joffre neighborhoods, rose in population by 58% in the 1940ís. Since Buntynís population was more or less stable by this time, it can be safely assumed that most of this growth occurred in Joffre. During the 1940ís, the rate of area construction rose nearly 250% over the previous ten years, and doubled that of the 1920ís. Of the houses that make up the current neighborhood, nearly half were built between 1940 and 1950. Construction didnít even stop for World War Two, continuing slowly through 1942, í43, and í44. Two new developments were added during the war as the 1941 Lafayette Circle and 1943 Dille Place subdivisions filled in the northwest corner of the neighborhood with military housing for employees of the Naval Air Station at Millington. These were built with typical government efficiency in mind. A handful of floorplans, gables, porches, and trim moldings were mixed and matched from house to house. More modest than most of the rest of Joffre, these quaint “crackerboxes” are exemplary models of Minimal Traditional architecture. In the later Dille Place addition, construction was contracted to Marx and Bensdorf who added more detailing and floor space to their homes. After the war, construction resumed at a slightly slower pace than at its prewar peak.

By the end of the 1940ís, Poplar Avenue had evolved from a two-lane state highway into the burgeoning main drag of east Memphis. Frontage on the street was zoned commercial, and office buildings, retail outlets, and service stations sprang up immediately following the war. A late 1940ís service station stands at the corner of Poplar and Lafayette, though now housing a bedding plant nursery. Bell Telephones still operates from their 1946 switching station at Poplar and Holmes, and Poplar Avenue Baptist has resided at Poplar and Alexander since 1949.

Just across Poplar, East High School, at that time the largest and most expensive school in Memphis, was constructed in 1947 to serve the rapidly growing student population of Joffre and surrounding neighborhoods. Designed by architect Everett Woods, the high school and adjoining elementary school (today a high school and vocational technical school) was lauded as “ultra modern” by the local press. Most famous perhaps for one of its alumnae, actress Cybill Shepherd, it also lays claim to a more important event. In the summer of 1962, three black students who had attended private schools outside Memphis signed up for summer school classes. Teachers and administrators were tense about their entrance, for these were the first black students ever to attend a desegregated high school class in Memphis. Mandatory desegregation, however, was still another six years away. The construction of East also had the added benefit of modernizing the neighborhood, which seems to have grown so quickly in the ë40ís that city amenities could not keep up. New residents concerned for the safety of their children walking to the new school demanded widened streets, sidewalks, and new bridges to replace the dilapidated one-lane wooden bridges that then separated the neighborhood from Poplar.

Joffre had filled out into a complete neighborhood by about 1950, and census data from this year reveals its socioeconomic makeup to have been much the same as it is today. Residents in 1950 were overwhelmingly white (99%) fairly well-educated (12.5 years of school on average versus 9.7 years for the average Memphis resident) white collar professionals (51% of males employed in the sales and managerial fields). Jack Goldsmith, then Vice-President of Goldsmithís Department Store, chose Joffre as his new address in 1945, when he built his quaint Cape Cod at 115 Palisade. Statistics from subsequent decades remain remarkably similar to 1950, illustrating the stability of the area. 1949ís median yearly income in the neighborhood was $4,534—not exceptionally high, but still about $1,500 more per year than the average Memphis resident made in the same year. Also, a significant number (12%) made more than $10,000 a year, a figure which would approach $100,000 by modern standards. Not surprisingly, most residents were married couples in the 30 to 50-year-old age bracket, along with their baby-boom children.

A few lots remained vacant until the 1990ís. Today these have been filled with 1990ís zero lot line developments like those on Cloar Cove, or the three duplexes that stand on Almond. Most infill, however, surrounds the neighborhood while remaining safely out of the survey area and would not be considered as part of any potential historic district. The neighborhood continues to go through a gentrification phase which began ten to twenty years ago. While many original residents remain, most houses are now starter homes occupied by upscale professionals and recent college graduates. The once-isolated suburb that stood a half-mile east of the city limits during the 1925 development boom now lies 10 miles inside the city in the densely populated urban district known as Midtown.

DON NEWMAN