Cultural Resources Survey of
Census Tract 53
I. Description of Survey Area
Situated next to a channel of the Mississippi River 2 miles south of downtown Memphis, Fordhurst is a working-class neighborhood in the historically industrial district of south Memphis. Its boundaries are South Parkway on the north, Fay Street on the south, Riverside Boulevard on the west, and Arkansas Street on the east. It encompasses about 0.25 square miles. Riverside Park, a public facility with a golf course and a stand of virgin forest along its river bluff, separates the neighborhood from McKellar Lake, Interstate 55, and the industrial area of Presidentís Island to the west. The former Ford assembly plant is across the street from Fordhurst, on the north side of South Parkway.
A total of 264 houses were surveyed in early Summer, 2001. 175 of these (66%) retained architectural integrity.
Streets in the neighborhood are the standard 40-50 feet in width, laid out on a cardinal direction grid pattern. Houses are situated closely together on 50 foot lots. A few mature trees stand in the neighborhood besides some small ornamentals, but most yards are open lawns with occasional landscaping. All virgin trees were removed during the original phase of development. Riverside Boulevard, the neighborhoodís west boundary line, has no development on its western side. This is today a heavily forested area that is an extension of Riverside Park.
A small number of bungalows and Depression-era Craftsmen dot the neighborhood, leftover from an early phase of development. At the northwest corner of the neighborhood is a now-vacant garden-style apartment complex. Its construction date is unknown, but its Craftsman style points to a date in the 1920ís. The majority of the structures, however, are built in the Minimal Traditional style that developed in the late 1930ís and reached its florescence in the 1940ís and ë50ís. These simple cottages follow a double-pile floorplan and are generally based on Colonial or Tudor models, but reduced in scale and detailing until they retain only the underlying geometric outlined of their architectural predecessors. Cape Cod is the most common house plan in the neighborhood. After the 1940ís came a period of infill that lasted until the 1960ís. Most often, the massed Ranch house was the house of choice to fill vacant lots during this period. Alterations to the homes are prevalent, the most common being the replacement of the weatherboard veneer that originally covered the majority of the homes with brick veneer. Residents on one street told the survey team that this was a collective effort among area homeowners in the early 1960ís. According to Interior Departmentís historical guidelines, many of these houses can still be considered historically contributing provided that no further alterations are made to the form of the house.
II. Statement of Significance
Fordhurst was not found eligible for the NRHP due to the high frequency of abusive alterations in the neighborhood.
In 1924, the Ford Motor Company moved their Memphis assembly plant to a new facility at the end of South Parkway just east of the Mississippi River. Ford had originally opened their Memphis assembly plant in Midtown in 1913. There, before Henry Fordís assembly line structure had even been perfected, workers made wooden wheels and the wooden body foundations which were fastened to the chassis of Model Tís. In 1924, operations were moved to the new facility on South Parkway, an important structure in its own right designed by noted Ford Co. architect Albert Kahn.
Faced with an instant need for housing, the Riverside Realty Corporation drew up plans for their Fordhurst subdivision that same year, a grid of seven east-west streets between the existing streets of Moore (now Riverside) and Cow Island Road (now Arkansas Street) with an electric streetcar line on Swift Street from the existing McGehee Avenue (now Person) on the south to South Parkway on the north. Unfortunately, despite the convenient location across the street from the plant and the streetcar line that ran straight to its front door, construction in the new subdivision was extremely sparse. Like many developments in Memphis during the real estate boom of the mid-1920ís, Fordhurst sold poorly and went bust after the construction of just a few scattered bungalows. Within Census Tract 53, including Fordhurst, only 320 homes were built in the 1920ís, 90 in the 1930ís. The first phase of construction in Fordhurst (1924-1938) appears to have been a financial failure. It lay mostly dormant for another 15 years, seeing only a trickle of building through most of the Depression until 1939, when the local FHA office headed by Mason Ezell devised a plan to stimulate construction in Memphis. Ezell and his office used Fordhurst as a testing ground for their plan, finally providing the impetus for the subdivisionís completion. By this time, the country had taken on a new tone economically, and the new houses reflected the trend. Fordhurstís second, more significant phase (1939-1940) was yet to come.
The Great Depression, for all the negative economic growth and frequent layoffs it produced in the industrial sector, also acted as a financial equalizer for those lucky enough to be employed. With the nationwide decline in income level across all sectors, architects and developers worked together to find new markets outside the upper and middle classes. Developments became more and more modest, hoping to attract a new sort of home buyer. Out of this, the new Minimal Traditional style developed, an amalgam of simple geometric forms and spare ornamentation, the basic “crackerbox” house that quickly became the symbol of the American Dream for its ability to provide everyone with a home of their own. President Herbert Hoover forecasted the home ownership trend in the 1923 Dept. of Commerce Pamphlet,How To Own Your Own Home, stating that “Maintaining a high percentage of individual home-owners is one of the searching tests that now challenge the people of the United States. The present large proportion of families that now own their own homes is both a foundation of a sound economic and social system and a guarantee that our society will continue to develop rationally as changing conditions demand.” More and more, this became the party line for American politicians of both parties until home ownership became ingrained as a symbol of the benefits of capitalism. Republicans now relied increasingly on support from a home-owning suburban middle class, while Democrats working to improve the lives of the working poor viewed home ownership as a cure for the ills of poverty.
So when Guaranty Mortgage Corporation, an umbrella agency of the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), announced in mid-1939 that no home in their new Fordhurst subdivision would be sold for over $3,000, Memphis builders shook their heads and said it couldnít be done. This is according to a Memphis Press-Scimitar article published in early 1940– after all of the first 19 homes in the development had been sold before construction was even complete.
Fordhurst was not a company town in the traditional sense. Despite its proximity to the Ford assembly plant, the company had nothing to do, at least directly, with the neighborhoodís construction. However, its location amid the industrial district of south Memphis did provide a convenient supply of would-be homeowners, a fact that did not escape its developers.
The houses were simple and cheap, like those in the hastily constructed suburbs that would follow the war in a few years. Through careful planning and a comprehensive study of similar projects going on at the time, the local FHA agency headed by Mason Ezell devised a system of buying materials in bulk to keep construction costs low. The system was so successful that, according to Ezell, the houses in Fordhurst were the least expensive new homes anywhere in the nation in 1939. Prices started at $2,750 and went up to $3,000. Payments were $21.18 a month. They had all the basic amenities—gas heat, large closets, hardwood floors, and kitchen cabinets. Following the Cape Cod design, the houses were typically clapboard-covered boxes with a door in the middle and a window on either side. (Ezell even toyed with the idea of building brick homes for under $3,000, but without success. Some brick veneer houses were built, but brick pushed the sale price up to $3,500.) The architecture may not have been revolutionary, but its social impact was.
Fordhurst was a pioneering development in Memphis. It is unique for being completely planned and financed by a federal agency, the FHA, which not only provided the funds for its construction and mortgaged the houses once sold, but devised building and materials distribution techniques that could keep prices staggeringly low. Fordhurst was not the typical public housing project consisting of apartment complexes for widows, single mothers, and other “worthy poor”. It was detached family housing, owned and maintained by low to moderate income laborers who worked steady jobs but for whom home ownership was just out of reach. With its mission to build homes cheaply enough to be sold for under $3,000, it is noted as the first subdivision in Memphis geared toward the lower middle class income level. Previously, factory workers and those in other blue-collar professions had lived in company towns built and maintained by the factory, in tenements, or in older housing in declining areas abandoned by more gentile classes. One statistic holds that between one quarter and one half of all working class households in cities and company towns included boarders or lodgers, men and women who had no home at all. In any case, the working class in the early years of the 20th century were generally excluded from home ownership by their income level until. Fordhurst was an attempt to change that.
By April of 1940, seven of the first 38 houses had sold before construction was finished. C.F. Hawkins, James Fields, J.L. Poston, William P. Mogridge, W.G. Crockett, A.E. Sears, and B.G. Anderson were the first seven buyers. Not surprisingly, four were employees of the Ford plant. Others were railroad employees. All were blue-collar. In 1950, 58% of residents in Census Tract 53 were classified by the Census Bureau as operatives and laborers. Craftsmen and service workers made up another 27%. The majority of residents in the area dropped out of school by the eighth grade. Though home ownership in the area was high at the time, most of the area houses surrounding Fordhurst in 1950 were at least 30 years old. Fordhurst allowed these people a chance at a new home.
The impact of the construction was felt not only by its buyers but by the crews who built the houses. Roughly one-third of all unemployed persons during the Depression worked in the building trades. The Federally funded and guided Fordhurst project was a godsend to a profession on the brink of collapse.
Fordhurstís success quickly spawned a half dozen other under $3,000 developments in Memphis, and many more across Tennessee, in less than a year. Journalists from Memphis to New York kept up with its progress almost from month to month in 1939 and 1940. This second phase of development led by Guaranty Mortgage and the FHA came to an end in the summer of 1940, having revolutionized suburban construction and seeded a statewide pre-war building boom in an untapped economic sector. Fordhurst now encompassed a four block area from South Parkway on the north to Burdock on the south. Quickly, other similar developments filled out the rest of the neighborhood resulting in a third phase of development from 1940 to the mid-1960ís.
Beginning in the mid-1950ís, the racial dynamics of Fordhurst changed considerably. Longtime residents note that blacks began moving into Fordhurst first around the early 1950ís, building houses on the numerous vacant lots in the area. This instigated the familiar urban phenomenon of “white flight”. The closing of the Ford plant in 1958 was the final catalyst for the shift. All of south Memphis changed from a mix of black and white residents to almost solidly black in the 1950ís, and Fordhurst, one of the last enclaves of white residents, was no exception. 1950 Census data shows whites making up 20% of Census Tract 53, and most of these lived in the Fordhurst subdivision. By 1960, the number of whites dropped to 334, only .03% of the population. After the plantís closing , original residents appear to have quickly pulled up stakes and moved on, turning the neighborhoodís racial makeup completely around in a matter of a few years. Many of these second-generation residents still reside in the same houses they bought in the late ë50ís or early ë60ís.