5 Star Stories: Memphis Heritage Inc. breathes new life to historic sites in the Bluff City

Published: Mar. 1, 2022 at 11:03 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Take a stroll through history, featuring one of the only nonprofit organizations in Shelby County that promotes historic preservation -- we’re talking about Memphis Heritage, Inc., which helps give our “past a future.”

MHI has been around since about 1975 when a small group of mostly volunteers met in an office over what was then Stewart Brothers Hardware on Madison Avenue in midtown Memphis.

According to the former longtime Memphis Heritage CEO, June West, who now serves as the organization’s director of Development, “One of the major properties was the Hill Mansion on Union Avenue, which sat across from the 19th Century Club. Union Avenue was covered with historic homes, all up and down Union before it was a commercial street.

And the Hill Mansion was kind of like the catalyst that broke the camel’s back in that time frame.”

The group ultimately failed to save Hill Mansion, but the grassroots movement was far from over and the members learned valuable lessons.

MHI also managed to, at least, save some artifacts from the mansion, which can now be found at the Memphis Museum of Art in Overton Park.

“The lions that are out front came from there and lots of Tiffany windows that they have in their collection,” West said.

There have been a number of big victories won for preservation. Take Overton Square -- in the heart of Memphis -- a revitalized neighborhood destination for food and fun dating back to the 1920s.

But in 2012, it was slated for demolition until the folks with Memphis Heritage heard about it.

“We had just lost the church on the corner of Cooper and Union, which was not necessary. There were so many options there,” recalled West.

The idea of another midtown historic property raised was unbearable to MHI members and the community.

As West recalled, “People came out of the woodwork!”

With community backing, Memphis Heritage connected the Overton Square property owner with a local developer who had a vision for the Square. The group pulled a few strings to stop the demolition -- and the rest, as they say, is history.

West says MHI can’t do the job alone.

“We’re here to be that starter. That little fire starter,” she explained.

Just like when Memphis Heritage lit a fire for the long vacant Tennessee Brewery on the South Bluff, which was also almost demolished. The 65,000 square foot building opened in 1877 and was once the “Pride of Memphis” -- producing 250,000 barrels of Goldcrest 51 beer.

“The brewery, the Tennessee Brewery, we worked on that for years and years. And we totally understood the owner’s need to say, ‘You know, we can’t put anymore money into it. We can’t find developers who know how to do it to make it right’.”

But MHI did not give up -- far from it. They alerted and invited their community of volunteers to their historic headquarters on Madison Avenue to try to figure out what could be done to save the brewery.

“We had the opportunity to call the forces in and say, ‘They’re ready to tear it down, guys. Anybody that wants to come, come have a meeting at Memphis Heritage’. And we facilitated it with an architect and had a bunch of people in that very room. And said, ‘We gotta come up with a solution.’ You know it’s not automatic but, it was in that meeting, that the whole concept of proving a building’s worth as it stands is something we’ve got to start teaching people. And that is where Untapped was born,” said West.

That is only two of Memphis Heritage Inc.’s many successes in a city with over 11,500 buildings on the national register. West says it’s not about stopping progress.

“Basically, it has to happen. There’s no way it can’t happen and the buildings that have married each other, so to speak. Look at Crosstown. Sure, it’s a historic building but its the most modern thing you can ever feel when you walk around it,” she exclaimed, adding, “The whole thing is understanding, don’t make a quick judgment. Don’t make a quick judgment. And that’s one of the things that we say to developers today is, before, don’t do anything, yet. Wait until we can try to work with you and the whole community can work with you to come up with a solution. If we can’t, then Godspeed.”

Now, among other projects, MHI has set its sights on the historic Orange Mound Community with help from the University of Memphis architecture program. West said the idea is to survey properties there and, “Make sure they are put on the National Register before it’s too late. And not that that automatically saves them, but it gives them clout.”

According to West, that’s what Memphis Heritage Inc is really all about.

“It is the people. It is the community. It is the historic neighborhoods and pulling them together and serving as a catalyst for them to know what their rights are. To understand how important this is and why we do what we do to help them and to educate the community. We aren’t brick huggers. We aren’t just here to say ‘don’t tear it down because it’s old.’ There’s a lot more to it,” said West.

And in a city like Memphis with so many historic buildings, saving them and repurposing them is a part of it’s charm and character.

“Authenticity is one of the things that tourists want to see in a city more than anything else, and the one thing that is truly authentic to Memphis is its structures, its architectural structures. So, I do think what we stand for is positive, and pride, and love and community,” said West.

Incidentally, Memphis Heritage Inc., has a new CEO, Leah Fox-Greenberg. As director of development, West is heading up the New Century fund with the goal of raising or exceeding $3 million, which she hopes will ensure MHI’s mission continues for generations to come.

West hopes to have the funds raised by the end of 2022 when she plans to retire.

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