New Orleans, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C., Memphis
What does Memphis have in common with these five prominent U.S. cities? They are the highest in the nation in number of properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Memphis ranks higher than Chicago, Boston, and Atlanta in number of National Register buildings, and with its relatively small population, probably ranks higher in per capita historic listings than any other city in the country.
Memphis has the sixth highest number of historic properties, with about 11,500 buildings presently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Of this number, 106 are individual buildings and the numerous buildings in 38 historic districts comprise the remainder. Shelby County, outside of the Memphis city limits, contributes an additional 20 to 30 properties. Memphis’ historic districts range in size from only a few properties to more than 1,000, with the Central Gardens, Cooper-Young, Evergreen, and Vollintine-Evergreen districts each contributing more than 1,200 buildings.
As one might suspect, Midtown and Downtown have the most National Register historic properties, although there are a number of historic buildings in East Memphis, South Memphis, Germantown and Arlington, as well. The houses, duplexes and apartment buildings in historic Midtown neighborhoods contribute to the bulk of the property listings, but Downtown commercial buildings, schools, churches, the parkway system, Chucalissa, and the Rodriguez sculptures at Memorial Park Cemetery diversify the list while representing historically significant landscapes, archeological sites and objects.
Unfortunately, a number of Memphis properties listed on the National Register have seen better days or have been demolished. Three individually listed houses and the Vance-Pontotoc historic district have lost so much historic fabric that they have been removed from listing. The Gartley-Ramsey Hospital, LeMoyne Gardens, Maury Elementary, Bruce Elementary and the Bus Barns are some of the recent demolitions, which have depreciated Memphis’ historic value.
To be eligible for listing on the National Register, properties must be at least 50 years old, exhibit historic integrity (meaning they must be largely unaltered) and be associated with famous people or events, broad patterns of our nation’s history, the work of notable architects or craftsmen or characteristic of architectural styles, or be of archeological value. Historic buildings in Memphis represent themes as diverse as the Civil War and Civil Rights, and architectural styles from French Second Empire to Craftsman bungalow. Listing on the National Register is purely an honorary designation, but it does offer some protection from federally funded projects, which may harm historic buildings or districts.
Memphis properties listed on the National Register are there by no small accident. Properties must be nominated through a process that involves lengthy research and inventory. Nominations are reviewed by the Memphis Landmarks Commission, the Tennessee Historical Commission, and finally by the federal government, where they are formally listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Many nominations are prepared by individuals but often members of a community have banded together to research and tell the history of their neighborhoods.
Over the years, Memphis Heritage Inc., the city’s non-profit preservation organization, has prepared a number of National Register nominations, and has also conducted surveys to identify buildings and areas eligible for future National Register designation.
Memphis’ large number of historic buildings is an honor, and an opportunity. Federal tax credits are available to aid in the rehabilitation of income-producing properties listed on the National Register, including rental residential buildings. Rehabilitation work must be certified by the Tennessee Historical Commission and, especially when combined with other tax incentive programs, can vastly improve the feasibility of adaptive reuse of historic buildings.
For the past several years, legislation has been proposed in Congress, which would extend this same benefit to private homeowners who undertake rehabilitation of their primary residences. The bill has substantial support in both the Senate and House of Representatives (including Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who signed on as a co-sponsor in past years) and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has supported this legislation, is optimistic it will become law in an upcoming legislative session.
With the large number of historic properties in Memphis comes some risk, too, that Memphians may take this beauty and history for granted, becoming complacent when faced with the loss of another landmark. When we’re surrounded by such excellent examples of architecture and history, it’s easy to think that every city is like this. In fact, very few are, and perhaps only five other cities can make claim to what Memphis has in abundance – historic buildings.
It is important to remember that listing on the National Register of Historic Places is a big deal, the standards are rigorous and when buildings and districts are listed, they are truly significant and worthy of preservation. Eleven thousand-plus National Register properties means something, and that meaning is tangible and real and is there for each of us to experience every day. The historic fabric of this city is truly unique and we must all take responsibility for valuing, respecting and preserving that history.
Erin Hanafin Berg is an assistant historic preservation planner with the Memphis Landmarks Commission (901.576-7191).