When Memphis Tourism lures conventions to the city, it rightfully brags about more than 20,000 hotel rooms here, an easy-to-reach location in the heart of America, and unique attractions like Graceland, Beale Street, the National Civil Rights Museum, and so much more.
A century ago, the Convention Bureau division of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce faced more of a challenge. They mentioned lovely parks and grand office buildings, noted that Memphis had almost 2,000 hotel rooms “with more available in an emergency,” and tried to entice visitors here by mentioning that “nine railroads, and the Mississippi River, with its favorable water rates, provide exceptional transportation facilities.”
All of this comes from a booklet, published in 1925, simply titled For Conventions — Memphis. Even though some of their claims raise eyebrows (“The impression that Memphis summers are severely hot is erroneous”), there is one obvious exception — an architectural wonder that would indeed rival the meeting facilities of any city in America.
I’m talking about the Memphis and Shelby County Auditorium at Poplar and Main, dedicated in October 1924 with a grand-opening performance featuring John Phillip Sousa. Constructed at a cost of $3 million — a lot of cash in those days — the building was hailed as “a monument to the desire of citizens of this community to entertain progressive associations and societies.” The massive structure, taking up an entire city block, actually contained two separate convention/conference halls. The North Hall could hold 6,500 people, with a “removable hardwood floor, unexcelled for dancing” and the smaller South Hall could hold another 2,500. Each offered “unobstructed views and perfect acoustics.”
What was most remarkable about the interior design, however, was that both halls shared a central stage, which could be lowered, and a dividing wall that could be raised into the ceiling. The result: a massive arena with a seating capacity for 12,000.
The result offered “splendid facilities for exhibitions and conventions. The arena has 17,000 square feet of space, with another 10,000 square feet available in surrounding corridors (perfect for exhibitors), and another 12,000 square feet in the ground-floor esplanade.” And this doesn’t even include such amenities as “two moving picture booths, each seating 350, three large chorus rooms, dressing rooms, along with retiring, rest, smoking, and toilet rooms.”
From start to finish, the whole project had been championed by Robert Ellis, president of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce. When he died in 1930, the building was given the name most readers know it by: Ellis Auditorium.
The exterior was just as fancy as the interior, which stands to reason since the chief architect was George Awsumb, who also designed Idlewild Presbyterian Church. Constructed of buff-colored brick and stone in the Italian Renaissance style, the building featured decorative stone work, medallions, and other ornaments. Inside, among many noteworthy features was a 100-foot mural, painted in 1937 by Memphian Maysie Dimond, which traced the entire history of this city, from the days of Hernando de Soto.
Ellis Auditorium stood as a Memphis landmark, its tile roof visible for miles, hosting everything from square dance conventions to rock concerts, for more than 75 years. The last musical performance took place there in November 1996, with a show by Bruce Springsteen.
Like so many old buildings, however, it eventually grew old and outdated. In 1974, the new Memphis Cook Convention Center was attached to the old auditorium, but that was just a temporary solution. In 2003, demolition crews pulled down Ellis Auditorium to make way for the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. The entire center is seeing new life, presently undergoing a $200 million renovation that will include a new entrance and upgrades throughout the complex. During the demolition and construction over the years, Dimond’s historic mural couldn’t be saved, but original wooden chairs and architectural ornaments from Ellis Auditorium’s heyday are on display throughout the new complex.
Vance Lauderdale is the award-winning history columnist for Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business. He has authored several books and is sometimes moved to research historical questions that interest him. He can be reached, occasionally, at [email protected]