The Streets of Memphis

...and some Vintage Neighborhood Photos

 

 

It's often said that every street in Memphis has one or more beautiful homes.  The city has always been noted for beautiful neighborhoods and particularly for elegant homes and spectacular gardens.  Many of these neighborhoods were developed along some of the city's best known tree-lined avenues.  Stately homes lined most of these avenues in the early 1900s.  But sadly many of these historic homes have been demolished and replaced with fast food drive- in restaurants, parking lots, and gas stations. 

       

 

This page will not attempt to include every street and avenue in Memphis - only a selection of some of the main roads into and out of some of the city's historic neighborhoods.  We are sorry if your street or avenue hasn't been included.

 


 

 

Chick on Small Photos for an enlargement


 
 

Beale Street is only 1.8 miles long and is the most famous street in Memphis.  It is significant in the city's history, noted for the downtown section of the street with all the bars and entertainment halls, because that's where the Blues were born.  

The street was created by developer Robertson Topp in 1841.  He named it for a military hero of the Mexican-American War.  The original name was BEAL AVENUE - the "Beal" without an "e".  It wasn't until the late 1950s with help from entertainer Danny Thomas that "Avenue" was officially changed to "Street".

 
 

 ... The downtown Beale Street neighborhood where the Blues were born ...

 

This small downtown area was one of the city's most famous "neighborhoods" because many people lived above their businesses.  But just a block from the unique downtown area was another Beale Street neighborhood with large, beautiful homes..

 

...... and the nearby Beale Street neighborhood with large, elegant homes...

The street became a significant location in the city's history after the Civil War.  Many traveling musicians has begun performing on Beale and the area became home to black-owned businesses, clubs, and restaurants.  When the First Baptist Church was built there by a congregation of freed slaves. Beale had become the area for Memphis black culture.  And that history was further enhanced with the arrival of W. C. Handy and the birth of blues music.  

 

 

 

 

In 1880, three quarters of the nation's cotton found its way to Memphis.  By the 20th century Memphis was the largest cotton market in the world.  All this cotton led to the development of Front Street and it became the heart of the cotton trade, as well as the center of the economy for more than a hundred years.  Front Street earned it's nickname "Cotton Row"

Many small cotton companies opened on Front Street, and the vast majority of the buildings on Cotton Row were built between 1848 and 1928.  The architecture of the street had a "sameness" to it.  They were all brick buildings with wide entrances on the ground floor, so large cotton bales could be moved in and out.  And they needed large windows and skylights on the top floors where the classing of cotton took place.  They were all sturdy buildings but generally unpretentious.

   

                        Front Street in 1900

Dunscomb Home

 

The wealthy cotton merchants of the city all wanted grand homes ... only they didn't want them on Front Street, and only a few merchants built unique homes on South Front.  The rest of the street was occupied by those large unpretentious, but sturdy brick warehouses, which ironically have now been converted into very expensive town houses with great river views.

 



When Front Street was originally developed, the city planners kept "open spaces" not only for views of the river, but for use in various community functions.  During most years of the Memphis Cotton Carnival, there was always a "Royal American Shows" carnival midway for the public and it was always set up along Front Street - with all the rides, games and slide shows.

 

Midway on Front Street

 

Sometime in the mid 50s, the "electronic age" started the decline of Cotton row.  Fewer and fewer people were needed to handle more cotton.  It eventually became possible for one person to literally run a cotton business from a small office with just a phone and a computer.  By the 80s, like the rest of downtown Memphis, Front Street became a boarded up ghost town.

 
 

 

 

 

Shortly after the city had a name, Main Street became its heart and soul.  It was synonymous with "downtown" to everyone.  Memphians thought of Main Street as the section from Court Square to the Orpheum Theatre or to Beale Street.   Any street east of this section of Main Street  (and also east of 3rd Street) was a choice location to build a family home. 

 

Neighborhoods developed on every major avenue that ran into Main Street.  And Memphis continued to grow outward from all these streets, leading the way to "Suburban flight".  This took a major toll on downtown.  And then the Civil Rights acts and "White flight" created further decline.  Main Street fell on hard times and was a virtual "Ghost town".

 

 

Main - Gayoso 1895 Main 1888 Porter Bldg 1900 Main - Union
 



To lure shoppers back to downtown, Main Street was converted to a big pedestrian mall between Poplar and Peabody Place in 1976.  This "Mid-America Mall" opened with big fanfare - but it just didn't work.  So the name was changed to "Main Street Mall".  It still didn't work and major shops and stores closed and were boarded up.  Somewhere in time, Main was remodeled to the way it currently looks and streetcar tracks were re-installed.

 

Mid -America Mall

  

          

Main - Gayoso - 1902 Main - Peabody Hotel 1900 Main - Madison 1902
 

Today many of those large Main Street buildings that sat vacant during the 70s and 80s have been re-purposed into condominiums and downtown and Main Street are set for a "comeback".  Sadly, it did not happen sooner in order to save more of the classic downtown architecture.

  
 

 

 

 

Probably no street in Memphis had more elegant homes  lining the Boulevard than Union Avenue.  Today Union has become a maze of "fast food drive through" restaurants and gas stations.  It has evolved from a muddy country road in the early 1900s to the major COMMERCIAL thoroughfare of the city.  For many, this is the street to avoid at all costs.

 

Before the automobile became King, Union Avenue looked a lot like Peabody Avenue - a residential street with beautiful mansions.  In 1924 Union was widened ... Voila!  And Memphis began moving to the suburbs.  And Union property owners began the shift to commercial by adding their businesses to the front of their homes.  And the highly popular and successful Fortune's first drive-in opened its Union location.   Plus, there was no trolley line to get in the way.

 

Vintage Union Postcard Union 1906 19th C. Club 1909
 
 

Union 1900 Union 1910 Union 1900
 
 

Union 1895 Masonic Lodge 2021 Union 1900
 

Union, today is a nightmare for driver's, pedestrian's, and  the few homeowners who still live there.  It's a free-for-all speedway with six lanes, where rules, or courtesy don't seem to exist.  There's no street in the city that is more "bad-mouthed" than Union Avenue.

             

 

 

 

 

Adams was the historic street of choice for the wealthy merchants of Memphis.  It became home to numerous Gothic and Neo-Classical Revival mansions and was known as millionaire's row.  Some of the mansions are still standing and the area is now called "The Historic District"  Several of the surviving homes have become museums.  Others are still privately owned.

   

Toof House Lee House - Fontaine House Woodruff House
        

Adams was home to the wealthy families of Memphis.  They built their homes here in an area that was considered the "outskirts of town".   These families were the influential ones in the growth of the city.  Most of their wealth was made as cotton factors, riverboat and railroad tycoons, grocers, politicians, and bank presidents.  They all had many children and married into other families of wealth.

 

Law Offices Pillow-McIntyre House Historic District Mallory-Neely
 

Sadly, only a few of their grand homes have survived.   Fortunately we are able to visit a couple of them, which are open to the public. 

 
 

 

 

 

Poplar was one of 20 original streets laid out for the new town of Memphis.  It connected to an already existing road and continued for many miles into Shelby County.  Wagons filled with cotton traveled Poplar regularly and contributed to Memphis becoming a major cotton market.   Poplar was, and is, "The spine of the city".

 

The street was also a toll road at the beginning, and a trip down Poplar to Collierville was a two day journey.   Until the 1880s, it was a dirt road maintained by convicts from the Shelby County Jail.  In 1882, the city paved the street with cedar blocks, but these soon rotted and were replaced with gravel. 

 

Poplar 1900 The old Van Vleet  home
 
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the street was widened to 100 feet and was paved with asphalt.  Around the same time trolley tracks were laid, making the street more important.  Businesses as well as large homes developed on the Avenue.  It also was the gateway to Overton Park.
 

Poplar today Poplar today Poplar today
 

Now there is talk in the City Council about changing the name of Poplar.  WHY???

 

Poplar today Poplar today Poplar today
   
 

 

 

 

From the earliest days, Madison Avenue was known as "The Wall Street of Memphis".  The Avenue also had some impressive tenants as well as being witness to historic events. 

 

After the Civil War, Jefferson Davis made his career change from Confederate president to insurance salesman, at Second and Madison.  The city's first electric streetlight  appeared on Madison in 1881.  And the University of Memphis began as a two year teacher's college at Main and Madison in 1912.  Madison was also the location of the "Dummy Line" the main east-west streetcar line that went from downtown to the Fairgrounds. 

 

Madison 1875 Madison 1895 Madison 1907
        

Madison was originally named "Madison Street", but in 1910, Memphis reorganized the all East-West roads to "Avenue."  Madison begins at Front Street and runs east,  ending at East Parkway.     Many commercial and residential structures sprung up at the beginning of the 20th Century.  Most of this stretch of Madison contains its original granite curbs.

 

Madison 1905 Madison 1909 Madison 1900
  
   

Madison 1900 Napoleon Hill house 1900 Madison today
 
 

 

 

 

Vance was originally established in the 19th Century as a White, upper-class neighborhood.  It went through stages of "co-existence"  and ended up becoming the core of the Memphis African-American life in the 20th century.   

 

Most owners of black-owned businesses on Beale street lived in the Vance neighborhoods.  It was the center of black business, commerce, education,  ... essentially the black "Main Downtown".  The Vance neighborhood suffered through "urban renewal" programs and between 1935 and 1968, a steady demoliton campaign demolished more than half of the original structures.

 

Vance 1900 Vance 1900 Vance today

 

 

 

 

Peabody Avenue runs from west to east and continues as far a Cooper Street.  While there are some sections of the street  that have become commercial, the majority has continued as wealthy middle class neighborhoods with large, beautiful homes.   Few people know that Peabody was originally nick-named  "Appeal Avenue" due to land-owners who shared ownership of the old Appeal Newspaper.

 

Peabody today E. H. Crump House Peabody today
   

Peabody today Peabody today Peabody today
 
    

Beautiful Street Peabody today Peabody 1900
 
 

 

 

Developed in the 1850s, Central Avenue was home to the city's wealthy middle-class who had moved away from the downtown area.   The areas around Central Avenue are known as "Central Gardens" and from 1900 to 1929, they were called the most "Prestigious neighborhood in Memphis"

 

The varied architectural styles of the neighborhood worked very well as did the many types of building materials.  The workmanship was consistently the highest quality.  During "Suburban Flight" and "White Flight", many residents of Central Avenue and Central Gardens stayed in place and  maintained the value of their property.  At that time the area became known as "the best kept secret in Memphis".

 

Central today Ashlar Hall Central 1900
 

A project to repave and reduce the street to two lanes as well as add bike lanes has been delayed at least two more years.  Those plans have been put on hold amid major MLGW utility work on the street.

      

Central was, and is one of the most beautiful streets in Memphis.

     
 

 

 

 

Linden Avenue runs roughly, parallel with Peabody Ave - from mid-town to East Parkway.  It's  a family street of moderate homes, all showing great pride in the neighborhood.  Like all Memphis streets, several homes along the avenue will stand out from the others.

 

Linden 1900 Linden today Linden today
   
 
 

 

 

The Memphis Parkways:  This system of parkways forms the original outer beltway around the city.  They were designed by George Kessler in 1901 as part of his master plan to connect all the parks of the city. 

 
The parkways have grown into some of the most beautiful thoroughfares in the city ... and the homes and gardens along the parkways are some of the most impressive. 
 

Parkway 1900 East Parkway today Parkway 1900
 

North Parkway was also known as Speedway.  George Kessler originally designed parts of the Parkway system to be straight portions of tree-lines avenues where car and carriage owners could race against each other.  Memphis ended this practice in 1910 and imposed a speed limit.

   

South Parkway today Parkway 1914 North Parkway today.
 

The Memphis Parkway System is about 12 miles long and varies from 100 to 250 feet wide.  It extends to the east from Riverside Park south of downtown to a point several blocks south of Overton Park where it turns north as far as the northeast corner of the park , then runs west all the way back to downtown.  Much of the parkway contains a grassy or landscaped median.

 

 

 

 

Jefferson Avenue was once lined with grand Victorian homes.  Today it's commercial all the way and quite frankly BORING.  It ends at Parkway and the last block begins to show " the street that was".

 

Jefferson Avenue 1900 Jefferson today Lowenstein house
 

Jefferson Avenue was one of the original streets laid out by Memphis founders, Jackson, Overton, and Westchester.  Apparently no Memphis street was in more of a rush to accommodate the automobile than it was.  In the mid 1960s, Jefferson not only was widened but realigned with the construction of Danny Thomas Blvd. 

          

Jefferson near McLean Jefferson near Bellevue Jefferson near Parkway
         
 

 

 

 

Harbert Avenue runs parallel with Central Avenue as far as East Parkway.  Perhaps no street in the city shows more variety of homes than Harbert -  from huge mansions to small 1 bedroom ... often side by side.  You will not find a "cookie-cutter" neighborhood along Harbert.

 
     

Large Mansions Large Mansions
     

Large Homes Large Homes Large Homes
 

There are many "hidden gems" along Harbert Avenue.

   

Moderate Homes Moderate Homes Small Homes.
   
 
 
  
There are separate pages elsewhere on the website dedicated to BEALE STREET... MAIN STREET ... FRONT STREET... MADISON AVENUE ... UNION AVENUE
  
 
 
 
 
 
 


 
 

Credits

 

The Historic-Memphis website does not intentionally post copyrighted photos and material without permission or credit.  On occasion a "non-credited" photo might possibly be posted because we were unable to find a name to give credit.  Because of the nature of our non-commercial, non-profit, educational website, we strongly believe that these photos would be considered "Fair Use.  We have certainly made no monetary gain, although those using this website for historic or Genealogy research have certainly profited.  If by chance, we have posted your copyrighted photo, please contact us, and we'll remove it immediately, or we'll add your credit if that's your choice.  In the past, we have found that many photographers volunteer to have their works included on these pages and we'll  also do that if you contact us with a photo that fits a particular page. 

 

The "Historic-Memphis" website would like to acknowledge and thank the following for their contributions which helped make this website possible:  Memphis Public Library, Memphis University Library, Memphis Law Library, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Memphis Press Scimitar, Shelby County Register of Deeds, Memphis City Schools, Memphis Business Men's Club, Memphis Chamber of Commerce, Memphis City Park Commission, Memphis Film Commision, Carnival Memphis, Memphis Historical Railroad Page, Memphis Heritage Inc, Beale Street Historic District, Cobblestone Historic District, Memphis Historic Districts, Vance Lauderdale Family Archives, Tennessee State Archives, Library of Congress, Kemmons Wilson Family, Richard S. Brashier, Lee Askew, George Whitworth, Woody Savage, Dr. Wynn Earle, Jr.,  and many individuals whose assistance is acknowledged on the pages of their contributions.  Special thanks to Memphis Realtor, Joe Spake, for giving us carte blanche access to his outstanding collection of contemporary Memphis photos.

We do not have high definition  copies of the photos on these pages.  If anyone wishes to secure high definition photos,  you'll have to contact the photographer  or the collector.  (To avoid any possibility of contributing to SPAM, we do not maintain a file of email addresses for anyone who contacts us).

 

 
 

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