5 Star Stories: Pink Palace Museum is a mansion full of memories

Updated: Oct. 6, 2020 at 10:36 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Memphis' premier science and history museum is the centerpiece of this 5 Star Story about the people and places that make us proud to call the Mid-South home.

The Pink Palace Museum is a place of nostalgia for so many. This 6,500 square-foot mansion along Memphis' Central Avenue, with that signature pink Georgia marble façade, is a sentimental sight for so many Mid-Southerners.

“I went to Snowden Elementary School, which is in the heart of Midtown and Evergreen Historic District, so I can’t remember a year that I attended that school where the Pink Palace wasn’t involved," said Carmen Coleman.

This Memphis mom is not alone. More than 240,000 people visit the museum annually, many on school field trips.

“There were many times where we would go on field trips there, particularly to the IMAX theater, and it was just so much fun. We always looked forward to it," said Coleman.

The mansion was supposed to be the dream home of wealthy entrepreneur Clarence Saunders.

“Just a real character in Memphis history,” said Kevin Thompson, Pike Palace Museum executive director. “He launched the Piggly Wiggly grocery store as well a football league prior to the NFL”

In 1922, Saunders named the mansion Cla-Le-Clare combining the names of his children, Clay, Lee and Clare.

Memphians had another idea.

They nicknamed it “The Pink Palace” as soon at the pink marble went up.

During construction, Saunders lost an epic legal battle with the New York Stock Exchange over control of his Piggly Wiggly stock. He declared bankruptcy, losing his fortune and the unfinished mansion.

“He gave the Pink Palace to the city to turn it into a history museum," said Thompson.

The mansion became a museum in 1930.

Where Saunders originally planned to build a lake, golf course, shooting range and bowling alley now holds exhibits on local history, science, nature and entertainment, both modern and ancient.

“Obviously, we’re in the dinosaur area, which is everybody’s favorite tucked back in the corner,” said Thompson.

The old underground 3D IMAX, now called The Giant Screen Theater, is still running during the pandemic. And you can still time travel on the 4,000-square-foot AutoZone Dome at the Sharpe Planetarium with daily shows on Memphis' largest projection screen.

“We have not brought back Fab Fridays yet we are looking at it, but we really want to bring back the laser light shows as soon as we can,” said Thompson.

What’s new? Temporary exhibits, like Tigers Hoops where locals donated T-shirts for the display.

“We had so many we cannot display them all,” said Thompson.

The other new temporary exhibit: “Race To The End of the Earth.” A journey to the South Pole.

“Which is an exhibit from the American Museum of Natural History it’ll be here through about mid to late October," said Thompson.

The new normal at the museum: A pop-up shop you can visit without buying a museum ticket.

These Memphis-themed crafts are here through Christmas to help local artists with no way to sell their creations in 2020.

“We haven’t had the craft fair," said Thompson. "We haven’t had Cooper Young River Arts. What we’re trying to do is bring a little bit of that into the museum and so, in partnership with Memphis Modern Market. We have brought a lot of our craft fair vendors in house, and you can come in and buy their wares from pictures jewelry candles we’ve got it all.”

The museum has also opened it’s campus to foot traffic.

“Not only are the gates open, but our pedestrian gates are now open. So we encourage the neighbors to just walk and take a nice stroll on the lawn," said Thompson.

And with more adult programming on the way, like arts and crafts workshops, all generations can enjoy this beloved Bluff City landmark.

“If you’re from Memphis, you’re native Memphian, you came through here as a kid. You’ve learned about science and culture and history, and it’s just endeared into your heart and you want to bring your kids and you want to bring your grandkids," said Thompson.

“Now that I’m older I get the chance to take my children there so I get to see their little faces light up when they see all of the cool things that the Pink Palace has to offer," said Coleman.

The Pink Palace is rebranding under a new umbrella: “The Memphis Museums of Science & History.” That includes The Pink Palace, two historic properties: The Mallory and McGevny Houses downtown, and the Lichterman Nature Center.

See a list of events at the Pink Palace Museum here.

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