A Little Late, But Vital

by Charlie Lambert

The First Comprehensive Plan

The previous article on the history of Memphis from its founding in 1819 in our last issue set the stage for the need of a comprehensive city plan to assure that all possible and necessary elements for the orderly growth of the city were executed in an organized and informed manner as opposed to the rag-tag expansion over its first 100 years. During that period the absence of planning caused inefficiencies and disorders in controlling population growth, street development, and land expansion. By the time the automobile began to proliferate in the 1910’s, the situation was in urgent need of attention.

By 1919, many state legislatures, including Tennessee, recognized the vital need for city planning and enacted legislation to require a program to do so in its larger cities.

Memphis was, in 1920, a city with 124.10 square miles hosting a population of 162,352 citizens (per James Killpatrick, Editor of the COMMERCIAL APPEAL’s 1969 Supplement on the status of the, then, 150-year-old city).

Mayor Rowlett Paine and city attorney Russell Randolph responded to the legislature’s call for a city planning initiative by assigning architect Walk C. Jones to implement a City Planning Commission (CPC) for Memphis. It would consist of seven members answerable to the Mayor and City Council. The first duty of the CPC was to locate a suitable city planner.

Enter Harland Bartholomew, one of the most prominent city planning firms in the country. They were chosen for the project in 1920. That firm had begun its work when hired by the city of Newark, N.J. in the 1910’s to develop a city plan, and subsequently, did the same thing for St. Louis, MO. and numerous other cities across the country.

Harland Bartholomew. Courtesy of the Memphis Room of the Memphis Public Library & Information Center.

Harland Bartholomew was born in 1889 in Massachusetts and was trained as a civil engineer.

He became interested in city planning when he realized the burgeoning auto industry would change every city in the U.S. City planning was a new concept, brought on, primarily, by unexpected popularity of the automobile and its use of public streets. City Planning was not represented in colleges. Indeed, only four schools offered courses in City Planning by 1940. Bartholomew knew that he could not adequately bridge the planning needs for the whole nation so, early on, he incorporated a major training facility for budding city planners who could rotate through his firm and go on to work independently in other places.

Autos and Streets

Bartholomew always considered the street system as the paramount issue that had to be addressed when doing any sort of planning.

That was especially true in places like Memphis where unsupervised street plans were a hodge-podge of widths and directions.

A Look At The Chaos – Or Street Ballet – Of A Busy Intersection

Memphis, 1910s. Three looks at the intersection of S. Main St. & Madison Ave. with trolley cars & pedestrians — back of photo reads: The Avery Co. Memphis Tenn. All views are toward the southeast.
All photos courtesy of the Memphis Room of the Memphis Public Library & Information Center.

He also knew that any plan that was going to be successful had to have a local project manager, provided by the firm, to live in the city where the current plan was being developed for at least three years, sometimes longer.

That individual was to lead or at least work with the city planners to assure success. That concept was an inspiration that helped him achieve superior results over many decades and to become the preeminent city planner in the U.S.

In Memphis, the six areas of concern were, simply stated, streets, transit, transportation, public recreation, zoning, and public art. Of course, street planning was the paramount area where immediate attention needed to be focused. Dead-end streets, narrow-cross avenues, the chaotic variety of street widths, and new construction of a street system outside the city to enhance future growth (realizing that was easier than dealing solely with the complicated process of changing already established city street patterns with all sorts of barriers to change) were his priorities.

The 1924 plan inspired by Bartholomew’s guidance urged the reduction of the number of cross streets in urban neighborhoods to promote space for houses.

Inadvertently, this decision facilitated the demise of the Central Business District (CBD) downtown and the rise of suburban malls and shopping areas later in the 20th century.

(NOTE: Bartholomew eventually created three city plans for Memphis over the years: the original 1924 comprehensive plan, a 1938 plan that was never fully adopted, and a 1955 plan that had to deal with the Interstate Highway issues of that period).

The front foldout in Bartholomew’s 1924 City Plan.

Other concepts initiated by the first plan were height limits on buildings to promote aesthetic and functional benefits to the city. That action lowered the population density of the city. Again, this decision affected the demise of the CBD over time. Bartholomew’s plan to build an elaborate, public promenade on the river front was rejected when he presented his plan. Six years later, E.H. Crump, Mayor and mover and pusher in the city, proposed the same thing and what emerged was Riverside Drive.

Since the 1890’s, when streetcars were the main source of transit, the subdivisions of the city grew like spikes on a wheel from downtown east along those lines. When the automobile changed the transit patterns of the population, social classes and racial divides became more prominent. Affluent neighborhoods developed in midtown. Rich whites had Annesdale Park (1903) and the environs of Overton Park (1901), while minorities settled in Binghampton (1919) east of Overton Park and its sprawling mansions to its west, south, and north.

City planning, according to Bartholomew had nothing to do with politics or factional differences but the implementation of Bartholomew’s city plan for Memphis indicates that was not necessarily the case. Local influence and whims played some part in the process.

Next time, more on streets and some aspects of zoning.

I failed to acknowledge the major contribution of local historian John Dulaney in the first segment of this series. Thank you, John, for your guidance, encouragement, and generosity in sharing your skills and knowledge. I could not have made sense of this topic without your input.

I acknowledge the references to the 1924 Comprehensive City Plan of Harland Bartholomew and a post-graduate thesis by Justin Faircloth (University of Virginia, 2013) entitled: From Jim Crow to Gentrification – Urban Renewal, Architecture, and Tourism in the Urban South, Memphis, Tennessee in this series.

This issue of the Keystone can also be found in print + online via StoryBoard Memphis