Visitors must surely think that developers in Memphis never turn down even the craziest ideas. Years ago, somebody said, “What this town needs is a giant pyramid.” And yep, we built one — complete with observation deck, hotel, cypress swamp, and bowling alley — exactly like the pyramids of Egypt.
More recently, someone said (and I’m paraphrasing), “It’s great that cars and trains can cross the Mississippi, but life is not complete unless we can do that on an electric scooter.” And so the Big River Crossing allows anyone to walk, bike, and scoot across the river.
So, we wondered, have there ever been any projects that were considered too far-fetched? Well, here are a few that never left the drawing board.
The 1924 Riverfront Plan
In the 1920s, the City Planning Commission asked Harland Bartholomew and Associates of St. Louis, a nationally recognized urban planning firm, to redesign the whole city. It’s true. Everything was scrutinized and “improved,” from the height of buildings to the width of streets and the locations of schools and parks. Bartholomew focused special attention on the riverfront “from the standpoint of its disorder and general shabbiness.” The firm noted, “Today the riverfront is not merely unattractive, but represents a flagrantly unprofitable use of the property.”
The plan shown above was their solution: a series of graceful arches forming a promenade that would stretch for blocks along the river, acres of public parking along the riverside, and a handsome bridge linking Downtown to Mud Island. The island itself would be converted into a spacious public park, with a tree-lined wraparound pier, baseball diamond, tennis courts, and “a formal treatment at its southern extremity.”
Rather conspicuously missing from this bold scheme — especially since it’s at the heart of discussions today — is anything resembling Tom Lee Park.
Bartholomew & Associates admitted this was “a bold scheme” and noted, “As public funds become available, the various improvements can be accomplished.” That was wishful thinking. Memphis never built a single thing you see here.
The 1955 Riverfront Plan
So the St. Louis firm tried again in 1955. This time, they envisioned a complete reconstruction of Mud Island, which would include a north-south expressway with a pair of “cloverleaf” interchanges. This would be in addition to a boat harbor, a riverside sports stadium, parking for 5,000 cars, and even a “heliport landing field and terminal.” You know, for all those personal helicopters that Popular Science promised us in the 1950s.
If it’s hard to picture this concept, that’s because the project would have required considerable work. Bartholomew explained, “It is proposed to divert the river channel at a point near Poplar, and to fill the old channel, thus creating a very large area to be used for the purposes shown on this plan.”
Harland Bartholomew surely hated us. We just wouldn’t listen. Despite two major attempts, we ignored their best efforts to transform Downtown into a city that George Jetson would have loved.
The DeSoto Memorial Tower
In 1960, city planners — from Memphis this time — unveiled plans for a “new center for cultural life, as well as for government activities.” In addition to new civic buildings (among them, City Hall and headquarters for the fire and police departments), this scheme included a 300-foot-tall DeSoto Memorial Tower at Washington and Front. Even though the renderings showed a narrow shaft (left), this structure would somehow include a restaurant and a “display pavilion,” which would offer stunning views of the new “Riverside Expressway.” A January 3, 1960, newspaper article proclaimed that “building this center is one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken in Memphis” but cautioned “it will require years to complete.”
Longer than that, actually. We did build a brand-new City Hall, designed by noted architect A.L. Aydelott, but the soaring Memorial Tower never got past the planning stages.