“Realtors don’t show people this neighborhood—you have to find it,” says Barbara Viser. She’s is talking about the 83-block section of midtown Memphis called Central Gardens. Originally part of the estate of Solomon Rozelle, who settled in Shelby County in 1815 on 1600 acres of then-wilderness, Central Gardens is one of the country’s best old-house neighborhoods. It’s truly a showcase of varied, late-19th- and early-20th-century domestic architecture.
The area was developed between 1850 and 1930, and by 1900 it was called “the newest, most prestigious neighborhood” in Memphis. Central Gardens is made up of several subdivisions, which include Merriman Park, Harbert Place, and Bonnie Crest, as well as several large estates that were subdivided.
“The boom years were between 1900 and 1929,” Viser says. “That’s when most of the area was built up with homes, from elegant mansions to Queen Anne cottages and cozy bungalows. A great many are American Foursquares.”
With a few exceptions, the architecture is more mid-American than Southern; according to architectural historian Vincent Scully, Central Gardens houses bear a closer resemblance to those in Oak Park, Illinois, than to those in Natchez, Mississippi. In 2008, the neighborhood was designated a “level 3 arboretum” by the state of Tennessee, which means it has well over 90 different species of trees. The designation notes that “many of the trees are well over 80 years old.”
Leafy and quiet, Central Gardens is close to the center of the city, much of it within walking distance. Residents are especially fond of the preponderance of front porches, which act as places to see and be seen. The annual house tour, which takes place in September, has been a popular event for 42 years.
In the middle of the 20th century, however, threats had come from several directions. “On Central Avenue, several beautiful old houses were torn down in the 1960s and replaced with apartment buildings,” Viser explains. “The area was rezoned from residential to commercial, and a city councilman even wanted to remove the green median from Belvedere Boulevard in order to increase traffic flow.”
Central Gardens homeowners mobilized and fought city hall. They got the zoning reversed to residential, thwarted the plan to turn Belvedere Boulevard into a thoroughfare, and, in the 1970s, got the whole neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Ever since, the Central Gardens Association has been a vigilant guardian of the houses and trees, as well as sponsor of the house tour.
“We have managed to hold on to an urban neighborhood with an extraordinary sense of place,” Barbara Viser says. “You can easily imagine yourself in an earlier time here, with people sitting on their front porches, watching their children play in the street and greeting neighbors as they walk by.”
More in Memphis
Many of the attractions that bring visitors to Memphis are close to Central Gardens. The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, is 3.4 miles away—a nice long walk or a 10-minute bicycle ride. Beale Street, closed to traffic in the evenings so that revelers can spill out of the music clubs and dance in the street, is 2 miles down Peabody Avenue. Sun Studio, where Elvis Presley made his first record, is two miles from Central Gardens, as is the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
One charming event takes place daily at the Peabody Hotel, where a flock of ducks descends from a rooftop duck condo to swim in the lobby fountain every morning. At five p.m., guided by a “duckmaster” sporting a uniform with duck-shaped epaulettes, the birds walk the red carpet, ride up in the elevator, and rest up from their daily exertion of looking cute to entertain hotel guests.