The Village

Cultural Resources Survey of

The Village
Memphis, Tennessee
Census Tract 85
June, 2001

I. Description of Survey Area

The Village is a small, relatively secluded neighborhood in the heart of Memphisís heavily trafficked Poplar Avenue corridor. Less than half a mile square, it lies in an affluent residential district situated between the commercial intersections of Highland and Perkins. The boundaries of the survey area extend from Poplar on the north to the Southern Railroad tracks on the south, and from Williamsburg on the west to Greenfield on the east. This boundary was determined by the 1938 plat maps for The Village subdivision, including its 1941 addition of Greenfield. Grandview west of Williamsburg was not an original part of The Village but is included as such by the local neighborhood association and so was included in the survey. Eastbourne Cove and Village from Goodlett to Williamsburg were also initially included in the survey area. However, subsequent to the survey, Eastbourne Cove was not submitted for determination as part of the district due to its historical and architectural dissimilarities to The Village. The University of Memphis lies one-half mile west of the survey area, with Audubon Park directly to the south.

A total of 145 structures were surveyed in early May, 2001. 118 (81%) of these retained architectural integrity. All homes in the survey were single-family, owner-occupied residences.

A series of low brick pillars marked with the name “The Village” line the unassuming entries to the subdivision off Poplar. Once inside, the neighborhood is characterized by its gently curving streets lined with a canopy of mature hardwood trees. As Grandview intersects with Williamsburg both streets grade into large S-curves, and Greenfield curves as it meets Grandview, giving the impression of a winding country lane. Landscaped traffic cutoffs have been installed in the center of both these intersections. Lots are generally around 100 feet in width, sometimes nearing 200 feet, with setbacks at a more or less standard 40 feet. The lot size, unusually wide for its urban setting, helps to create the impression of estate lots and is indicative of the areaís layout as a suburban haven for Memphisís upper-middle class. Village, which runs parallel to the Southern Railroad tracks at the south end of the subdivision, is very secluded thanks to the landscaped berm of the railroad tracks which both isolates the area from surrounding traffic and precludes development along the south side of the street.

Greenfield was a later, but architecturally similar, addition to the Village. The north section was laid out in 1941 but did not connect with Grandview until 1951. Hence, the few houses around the intersection of Greenfield and Grandview display more 1950ís Ranch influence than surrounding houses.

All of the homes in the area were categorized by the surveyors as Minimal Traditional, a style generally used as a catch-all for suburban homes of the 1940ís and ë50ís. This is not to say, however, that the houses lack stylistic definition. Most, following the Colonial theme of the Village, demonstrate strong Colonial Revival influence. Colonial Revival, especially immediately preceding and following World War Two, grades into Minimal Traditional, and is less apt to conform strictly with its Colonial antecedents. The architect presents only impressionistic interpretations of Georgian and Adam detail such as door surrounds and pediments or segmented fanlights, making it a perfect addition to the eclectic repertoire of Minimal Traditional architecture. J. Frazer Smith, the original architect in charge of designing the houses, adapted Colonial model side-gable plans like the Cape Cod and the Williamsburg for many of his homes in The Village. The houses themselves are large, usually 1,800-2,000 square feet, and recent additions sometimes push the square footage well above this. Upscale since their construction, the homes are kept thoroughly updated and now reveal a variety of stylistic interpretations ranging from massive Post-Classical vestibule entries to Mediterranean-style stucco cladding with arched window and door surrounds.

II. Statement of Significance

The Village is historically and culturally significant based on its collection of Colonial Revival-inspired architecture and its association with its architect, J. Frazer Smith. This would make the neighborhood potentially eligible under Criteria C as a representation of the work of a master. A representative from the Tennessee Historic Commission disagrees with this finding and has ruled the neighborhood not eligible for an NRHP listing.

A brief biography of J. Frazer Smith follows: Smith (1897-1957) was born in Canton, Mississippi and attended Mississippi A & M College and the Georgia Technical Institute. In 1917, on the eve of the first World War, he entered the Naval School of Architecture. Following a brief wartime pause in his academic career, he finished his architecture degree in 1919 and moved to Memphis where he worked for the firm Mann and Gatling, designing 35 buildings in his first year. He later practiced independently, designing homes in the High Point Terrace neighborhood and elsewhere in Memphis. Smith is recognized as one of the most forward thinking architects of his day, helping to move Memphis into the modernism of the postwar period. His architecture attempts to bridge the gap between traditional Classical forms and the more austere designs emerging from modernist schools.

During the Depression, Smith was named the regional chief of the Historic American Building Survey (HABS), a federal work relief program designed to give work to unemployed architects. In this capacity, he oversaw the first and only survey of Memphisís 19th century building stock. Some of these structures, like those in the area then known as the Market Square slums, dated back as far as the 1820ís, making them as old as the city itself. All of the structures included in the survey are now gone, lost to 1930ís urban renewal programs, and Smithís are the only records of their existence. Ironically, Smith himself would soon be partially responsible for the demolition of these structures to make way for two public housing projects of his design, Dixie Homes and Lauderdale Courts. As a student and great admirer of uniquely “Southern” architecture (the traditional Classical Revival architecture of the Plantation house), he designed Dixie Homes and Lauderdale Courts to reflect this tradition while remaining sensitive to the changing architectural ideals of his day. Originally segregated, Lauderdale Courts was for white families, while Dixie Homes was for black families. Both structures still stand and today Dixie Homes has been remodeled and converted into Section 8 Assisted Housing. The now-vacant Lauderdale Courts, former home of Elvis Presley and the first public housing project in Memphis to be integrated, was placed on the National Register by Memphis Heritage in 1996.

What remains as perhaps Smithís most enduring achievement was his 1941 book White Pillars, a detailed survey of southern plantation architecture in which he paid homage to the grand architectural tastes of the southern planters of previous generations. Despite its overtly racist overtones which seem dated today, it remains an important achievement in art history.White Pillars, like the HABS survey of early building stock in Memphis, offers the only record of many of the structures contained in it.

The Village seems to represent the fruition of Smithís philosophies regarding traditional forms merging with efficient, modern design. The houses exhibit the minimal, simplified form of Colonial Revival that characterized suburban homes from the late ë20ís through the ë40ís. American Colonial architecture had been immensely popular since its introduction around the American Centennial of 1876, and continued until the 1950ís. It was a vernacular American form, which must have been what attracted Smith to its design. To the architects of the post-Depression era, the simple form of the Cape Cod cottage, a one story side-gable plan with a steeply pitched roof, six or eight pane windows, and a stoop porch often contained in a front-facing entry gable, provided an ample palette for design as well as simple, inexpensive construction. Rockefellerís rehabilitation of the colonial village of Williamsburg, Virginia breathed new life into Colonial Revival as a new model, “the Williamsburg”, quickly gained popularity across the United States in the 1930ís and ë40ís. This model followed the Cape Cod in design, but featured second story gable dormers. Variations on the Williamsburg and the Cape Cod models quickly sprang up across the country, mainly in the form of Minimal Traditional homes. This trend certainly provided Smith with the inspiration for The Village, and the neighborhood stands as a representation of a clearly definable stylistic period.

III. History

The beginnings of the subdivision date to 1938 during the slight economic upturn that preceded World War II in the late ’30s. Its date of inception may indicate that its developers were using loans from the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) to fund its construction, although it is unclear whether buyers themselves were mortgaging through FHA. 146 acres of the Hunter Estate along with 132 acres of the Dillon and Rhodes tract were subdivided by the C.W. Hunter Company. Then, as today, the area was extremely prime real estate. Goodlett formed the eastern edge of the city limits until 1950, and the Hunter Estate lay just a few feet outside that boundary. This meant that residents of The Village could enjoy city amenities nearby while avoiding city taxes. Poplar Avenue was growing in importance as east Memphisís main thoroughfare and its proximity to the neighborhood facilitated easy commuting to jobs and shopping in town. By the early 1960s, shopping moved eastward on Poplar to meet The Village and other surrounding subdivisions as nearby locations were opened by Sears and local department store chains Goldsmithís and Gerberís.

Grandview, already an existing residential street to the west containing some of the largest homes in the city, was extended east across Goodlett. It intersected with the newly-constructed Williamsburg, the main north-south route in the neighborhood, and then continued east to connect with Woodmere and later with Greenfield, though World War II halted further development on these two streets until 1946. Central Lane, connecting Woodmere and Greenfield, had some prewar development and was completed after the war. So, until 1946, The Village was mainly relegated to the northern stretch of Williamsburg above Grandview, a few homes on Central Lane, and a few homes facing Poplar.

Facing Southern Avenue a few yards from the south end of The Village stood the Wallace Sanitarium. This private outpatient hospital was dedicated to the treatment of alcoholism, drug addiction, and “nervous diseases and exhaustion from overwork”, as quoted from a 1940 advertisement. Drs. Walter Wallace and George Pettey, originally in practice as the De Narcotina Sanitarium downtown, moved their facility to a 116-acre campus just off Southern Avenue and opened their doors on July 14, 1924. At the time, it was a small railroad stop miles outside the city known as Cherry Station. Cherry Road is all that remains as evidence of this period. Wallace Sanitarium continued operation while The Village and other subdivisions slowly expanded around it. By the 1950ís, the renamed Wallace Hospital was a teaching facility for Methodist Hospital medical students.

A longtime area resident states that Dr. Wallace later owned property at the end of nearby Eastbourne Cove on which he planned to build a house. Unfortunately his wife died before the house was built and the land was subdivided into five lots in the early 1960ís. Wallace Hospital was then demolished, probably also in the early 1960ís, and infill development quickly took its place.

The Village catered to a specific class of home buyer, the upper middle class. Indeed, the original plats for The Village stipulate that homes contained therein will not be sold to “negroes”. According to 1950 census records, the typical resident was a white professional age 30-50. Most had white-collar jobs as salesmen, car dealers, cotton buyers, and the like. Over one-third had completed college, remarkable for the time, and the average resident had at least had some college background, the highest education level anywhere in the city. Average yearly income was $4,179, also the highest in the city, and the average home value is listed as $20,000+, well above any other area in Memphis. (The ceiling for FHA mortgages at the time was $20,000, which could offer an explanation as to why census records do not offer a more detailed figure for home prices. This seems to indicate that this was one of the few areas not heavily dependent on FHA loans.)

DON NEWMAN