Memphis Overton Park


Historic Overton Park is a large, 342 acre public park in mid-town Memphis.  The park grounds contain the Memphis Zoo, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis College of Art, a 9-hole golf course, The Shell, Rainbow Lake, Veterans Plaza, hiking trails, and one of the few remaining old growth forests in Tennessee.  It is the main jewel in the crown of Memphis.  It is to this city, what Central Park is to NYC.  A visit to the Overton Park can provide you with a relaxing afternoon filled with whatever activities you desire. 


The Park was established in 1906 and was named for the co-founder of Memphis, John Overton.  From the beginning, it was clear that the Park was special to Memphians.  It's a connection that continues to this day.  The park property was known as Lea's Woods when it was purchased by Memphis in 1901 for $110,000.  At that time, it was located along the city's eastern boundary.  The city hired landscape architect George Kessler in 1901 to design a master plan which also included Riverside Park, Forrest, Confederate, and Gaston Parks, as well as the Memphis Parkway system to connect the parks.


Geo Kessler



In the 1960s and 1970s, Overton Park was the subject of controversy when 26 of its acres were slated by highway planners to be demolished to build Interstate 40 through the park to make it easier for commuters to get to downtown.  Memphians came together and formed a group known as Citizens to Preserve Overton Park and challenged the plan in court.  Ultimately the US Supreme Court ruled in their favor.  The Jewel in the crown has never been brighter.

Thanks  to the Memphis Public Library and the University of Memphis Library for many of the  photos on this page

-  Click on small photos to see enlargements -


  Overton Park in Vintage Photos and New Photos 


  Western Entrance 1914



Carriage ride 1908-13


Bridge Lick Creek 1908-13

Overton 1910

Christmas 1914  



Oldest Photo - 1903

Overton 1914-15








 Overton Park in Vintage Post Cards

Gravel Drive 1908

Drive Way

1907 Dogwood Drive

              Duck Pond Island 1911


Early Zoo Entrance Lily Pond Pavilion and Lake 1911 Overton Park

Garden and Pergola 1911

Pavilion and Pergola Drive Way 1910         Garden and Pergola 1911

Bridge 1909 Playground Formal Garden Formal Garden

The Island Duck Pond Island 1910 Bridge 1908 Lake 1937

Old Spring 1900       Pavilion 1909 Pavilion Pavilion

Field Day 1912 Garden 1908 Rose Garden Overton 1906

Lake 1908 Sunken Gardens Sunken Gardens

Galloway Springs 1911   


1915 Island Entrance Overton 1910s

Straight Drive






The Memphis Zoo

Overton Park Zoo was the original name and it began in 1906 because a Memphis resident couldn't keep "Natch", his pet black bear in his backyard.  He put in a pen in the park which attracted many people and inspired the idea to place more animals on display.  Today, The Memphis Zoo is one of the largest in the US, attracting 1 million visitors per year.  The zoo is home to more than 3,500 animals and represents over 500 different species.  It has been a major tenant of Overton Park for more than 100 years.

Natch, the bear


    Entrance - 2010


Interior Court

China Section

     Bear Pits 1910

Lion House c. 1909

Zoo 1914-1915

Elephant Rides 1920s


   Bear Cages 1914

1909 Bear Cage

Decorated Floats 1920s

        Monkey Island 1938


 MGM Volney-Leo 1930

MGM Volney becomes Leo

Family Tradition

              "No White People"


Detail:  Tech Lion

Original Entrance

The Tech Lions


Memphis Zoo in Vintage Post Cards


Bear Pits 1910

Entrance 1953

Entrance c. 1950s

Entrance c. 1960s


Bear Pits Carnivore Bldg Conservatory Elephant House

Hippo House - 1918         Monkey House Monkey Island Monkey Island

Bird House Interior Zoo Scene 1911 Bear Pits Animal Cages

Polar Bears Refreshment Pavilion Reptile House lion
Zoo Entrance 1909      Old Zoo Entrance Seals  Bears


 Memphis Brooks Museum of Art 

The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art was founded in 1916 and is the oldest art museum in Tennessee.  The original Beaux-Arts building was donated by Bessie Vance Brooks in memory of her husband, Samuel Hamilton Brooks.   In 1955, a new wing was added, and in 1989, the building was expanded to double the square footage.  There are 29 galleries, art classrooms, a research library, and a restaurant.  The permanent collection has over 7,000 works of art, including the Samuel H. Kress Collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings, the Hugo N. Dixon collection of Impressionist paintings, and a fine collection of English portraits.


Vintage Post Cards of the original Beaux Arts Brooks Memorial Art Gallery ... before two enlargements...

Brooks ... today

Brooks ... today

Brooks sign Interior Gallery


 The Levitt Shell Theatre  (previously M.O.A.T)

The Overton Park Shell was built in 1936 as part of "The New Deal".  Designed by architect Max Furbringer, it was modeled after similar shells in Chicago, New York, and St. Louis.  During the 1930s and 1940s, the Shell was home to Memphis Open Air Theater (MOAT), which presented various light opera, musicals, and symphony orchestras.  In 1954, Elvis Presley performed what music historians call the first ever rock and roll show.  It was also Elvis' first paid performance.  On the right is a rare poster for this event.  In the mid-1960s, the Shell was turned over to the Memphis Arts Center, who planned to raze it.  However a campaign gathered 6,000 signatures in order to prevent the destruction.  Once again in 1972, the Shell was nearly demolished to build a parking garage, but was again saved by the community.  Various plans came and went throughout the 80s and by 1985 the Shell lay dormant. 

Elvis 1954     


Original M.O.A.T

1949 MOAT performance


Shell ca. 1980s




In 2007, the Shell was renamed Levitt Shell and a large scale renovation funded by the Levitt Foundation began.   With the completion of the renovations in 2008, free concerts are now once again held in the Shell.  The Shell has been saved!


Leavitt Shell

Leavitt Shell

MOAT Programs 1941, 1946

1958 Poster

Elvis backstage 1954


MOAT Programs 1948. 1951

Ticket Stub 1948

1st Rock -Roll Show

Shell - Winter

Shell Marker





Leavitt Shell Marker


< .....1940 MOAT Complete Program....>

MOAT Season 1949



1951 Season on a blotter        1940 Program 1939 Program 1956 Beverly Sills Poster

 Memorials and Monuments in Overton Park

Overton Park has been prominently used for various memorials.  Some of them remain - others do not.   The Higbee Memorial honors Jenny Higbee as a distinguished Memphis educator.  Erected in 1908, it is the oldest memorial in the Park.  The Bell Tower was built in 1930 as a memorial to Judge L. B. McFarland, an original member of the Memphis Park Commission.  The Clara Conway Pergola, 1908, honors another distinguished Memphis Educator.(It was destroyed in a 1936 storm).  The Crump Memorial was erected in 1957 to honor long time Memphis Mayor and Boss, E. H. Crump.   The J. T. Willingham Fountain (6 columns in a hexagonal pattern, concrete benches, and a drinking fountain),honors a long-term Memphis Park Commission member.  There was also a glass enclosed pavilion housing the historic Crump Steam Fire engine (It has since been moved to the Fire Department Museum.  click for photo)


   Higbee Memorial

Higbee Memorial

    Higbee     The Lees

1911 Higbee Memorial


   Clara Conway Pergola

Clara Conway Pergola

Egyptian Temple 1917

            McFarland Memorial


<= =   The E. H. Crump Steamer Fire Engine Pavilion at Overton Park 1919-1962    = =>


<=    The E. H. Crump Steamer Fire Engine Pavilion at Overton Park 1919-1962    ... Collection Richard S. Brashier    =>


Monument to Lillian Byrd  

Statue Liberty Memorial

Monument to Sophie Friedman

            Memphis Belle


J. T. Willingham Fountain

J. T. Willingham Fountain

J. T. Willingham Fountain

Cast Iron Bandstand 1904


Ed Crump Memorial

Bowers Wading Pool

Wading Pool

Bowers Wading Pool-1914


 Veterans Plaza

Before there was a Veterans Plaza, there was "The Doughboy" statue - a memorial to World War I.  It was made in 1926 from copper pennies that were collected by local school children.  Today it is the hallmark of Veterans Plaza, which contains memorials to the veterans of Memphis and Shelby County who were killed defending the freedom of the United States.  There are a collection of memorials:  World War I (1926 and 1932), World War II (2001), Korean War (2003), Vietnam War (2003), Desert Storm (2003).  There is also a plaque commending Pete Dugan, a WWII veteran for "...his steadfast commitment to the cause of Veterans Plaza in Overton Park". 


Doughboy Post Card Doughboy Doughboy Doughboy

Doughboy Post Card


Doubhboy Memorial

Veteran's Plaza


Memphis Belle Memorial

M. Belle - M. Polk

Veteran's Plaza

Veteran's Plaza


Veteran's Plaza

Veteran's Plaza

Veteran's Plaza

Pete Dugan 2009


Memphis College of Art

Memphis College of Art, known before 1985 as the Memphis Academy of Arts, is a small, private college of art and design.  Small by choice and purpose, the school averages around 450 students each year.  The school was founded in 1936 and moved into the new facilities in Overton Park in 1959.




 Japanese Gardens

The Japanese Gardens were built in 1914 around an existing pond were the Memphis College of Art is currently located.  It was a gift from former Memphis Park Commissioner Robert Galloway.  George Kessler, who designed Overton Park, also designed the Japanese Garden.  His design included pagodas, an arched bridge to a central island, and many decorative sculptures.   The area was very popular and perhaps the most photographed feature of Overton Park.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the gardens were severely damaged by vandalism.  Park officials decided that rather than making repairs, the structures would be removed.  A fountain was installed in the redesigned pond. 


Tea House          

Vintage Post Cards of the Japanese Gardens


Post Card 1929        


Photo  c. 1916

Photo c. 1910





Japanese Garden Japanese Garden - Winter

1942 Press Scimitar Article

Japanese Garden



The Formal Gardens

The Walkways, benches, and garden beds of the Formal Gardens extend from Morrie Moss Lane on the western boundary of Overton Park to Veterans Plaza.  They were established in 1904-05 and continue to present a colorful array of seasonal flowers against a background of evergreen and deciduous trees.  The layout of the flower beds has remained basically the same since its inception.  The Clara Conway Memorial Pergola was originally built in conjunction with the Formal Gardens.  The Memorial was destroyed in a 1936 storm, but many residents still associate the Conway name with the Formal Gardens.

     Formal Gardens

Formal Gardens

Formal Gardens


       Clara Conway Pergola


The Greensward

The Greensward is one of the largest open areas in Memphis with no designated purpose other than outdoor recreation.  It provides a safe place to play Frisbee, soccer, to jog, picnic, make music, ride bikes, romp with dogs, fly kites, and just hang out.  There are no predetermined locations for activities - just stake a claim to an unoccupied area and have fun.  For several years the Memphis Zoo has been encroaching on the area.  They want 2 1/2 acres along the north edge for expanded Zoo parking.  The Overton Park Conservancy group is naturally, opposed.





Greensward -zoo parking



 Rainbow Lake

Rainbow Lake is a concrete-lined lake forming the eastern boundary of the Greensward.  This 2 acre lake has a curvilinear shape and has a water cascade on the east side.  A sidewalk completely goes around the lake.  Its name comes from the rainbow colors created when a water fountain (no longer present) was installed in the lake in 1929.  It was the only remaining water feature from George Kessler's original plan.






    Rainbow Lake

Rainbow Lake

Ice Skating 1941

Pageants 1940s



1916 1908





Overton Park Golf Course

The 9-hole Overton Park Golf Course is located in the southwestern part of the park.  It's a 2,222-yard, par 34 course with 3 sets of tee-boxes for different levels of golfing experience.  The course was built in 1926.  The Abe Goodman Golf Clubhouse is a Tudor-styled, brick building.


Golf Course         

Golf Course

Golf Course

Abe Goodman Clubhouse



 Old Growth Forest 

The Old Forest Arboretum (172 acres) is a forest tract and natural arboretum located on the east side of Overton Park.  It is open to the public without charge.  The Old Forest is on the National Register of Historic Places and includes over 300 plant varieties.  Walking trails are maintained within the area and markers identify 32 tree species.


Entrance Gate

Old Forest

Old Forest

Old Forest                




Old Forest            

Old Forest Old Forest

Old Forest




Riverside . Confederate . Jefferson Davis . Forrest . Gaston . Handy . Church . Fairgrounds . Audubon .  East End, etc.




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