Historic places to see the next time you’re in the city’s downtown area
A good mixture of attractions, festivals, pro and college sports, restaurants and entertainment options makes it easy to plan a trip to this city lovingly known as the Birthplace of the Blues and the Barbecue Capital of the World. You can visit the places where W.C. Handy made an indelible mark on American music, where Elvis recorded his first hit or where M.L. King Jr. spent his final days.
Memphis has some wonderful parks, a 320-ft. tall pyramid, a nice zoo and more than a fair share of museums, many of which are — of course — music related. Expansive, new museum exhibits opened at Graceland in 2017.
No matter the main reason for your visit, if you enjoy experiencing historic streetscapes, nostalgia or learning about a city’s heritage, you’ll want to hit the sidewalks to see as many of the historic sites in downtown Memphis as possible. A fascinating mixture is found in a relatively compact area. Main Street in Memphis has a trolley that can help you get around. They also have bike- and scooter-sharing options.
Along with several photos and some fun facts, here’s some information to help you plan your own historic streetscapes sidewalk tour.
See the old commercial heart of Memphis at Court Square and North Main Street
North Main Street is paved mostly with brick and has very limited auto traffic. The trolley stations and tracks help make the lovely area unique.
The three buildings shown below all face North Main and are part of the Court Square Historic District which was listed with the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
1). The c. 1882-83 B. Lowenstein & Bros. was home to Rhodes-Jenning Furniture from the 1920s to 1980. Vacant for over 25 years and threatened with demolition in the late 1990s, a $20 million, 21st-century renovation saved it. The 6-story structure is now part of the Court Square Center’s premium apartment inventory.
2). Next door, the c. 1924 Columbia Mutual Tower is also now home of Court Square Center apartments. The 20-story structure is considered to be a small version of the iconic Woolworth Building in Manhattan. It was individually listed with the National Register in 1978. Be sure to take a close look at the ornamentation and clock on the 3-story tall main entrance.
3). The four-story, c. 1927 Kress Building is currently part of the Springhill Suites by Marriott. If you book a room at the hotel, you can choose to stay in the historic building. From the sidewalk, be sure to check out the fancy portions of the 95-year-old terra cotta facade that have been painted blue and gold.
Court Square is home to several other visually-pleasing historic structures, both large and small. It’s also home to the great greenspace that bears its name and spans an entire city block. It, along with the riverside park now known as Fourth Bluff Park, is part of the original city design of 1819. That means the two greenspaces are the oldest surviving planned urban spaces in Memphis.
The bigger trees in the park are among those that were planted in 1907.
Let’s take a look at the Court Square park and some of the more interesting surrounding buildings of the historic district:
Above, from left:
1). The c. 1876 cast-iron fountain that sits in the center of the park is probably the oldest remaining feature.
2). At the corner of North Court Avenue and 2nd Street, you’ll see the c. 1888 Tennessee Club, which was previously known as the Overall Goodbar Building. The small building stands out due to its Eclectic Byzantine architectural style. When you stand in front of the building, look for the obvious mixture of Gothic, Moorish, Mission-style and Romanesque design elements. Individually listed with the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, the beautiful building has been owned by the Burch, Porter & Johnson law firm since 1971.
3). The 4-story Commercial Appeal (newspaper) building was built in 1906. It’s architectural style is considered to be Beaux Arts. The newspaper outgrew it in the 1930s and moved to Union Avenue. At the corner of 2nd Street and Court Avenue, the beautiful building has also been known as the Welcome Wagon Building but is currently the home of a Bank Tennessee branch, some law offices and the Memphis Bar Association.
4). The c. 1910 Exchange Building originally housed both the Memphis Merchants Exchange and the Memphis Cotton Exchange. Found at the corner of South Court Square and 2nd Street, the 19-story structure features a Second Empire architectural style, and was converted to an apartment building in 1995.
The Court Square Historic District includes over 30 other buildings, many of which were remodeled in the 20th century. There are also over 20 state historical markers within the district, a majority of which are in the parks. My favorite marker is the one located at the corner of Jefferson and Main that tells the story of the first Piggly Wiggly grocery store that was once located there.
Take your time at the Adams Avenue Historic District’s neoclassical government buildings and 170-year-old church
Found just north of the Court Square Historic District, this district — as listed with the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 — contains only six buildings. Four of them, along with an adjacent church, are pictured below:
Shown above, from top left:
1). Engine House Number One at 118 Adams Avenue was built in 1910. Also referred to as Fire Station #1, the building is currently part of the Fire Museum of Memphis.
Check out the museum’s Facebook page.
2). The Memphis Central Police Station at 128-130 Adams Avenue was completed in 1911. Vacant since 1982, the city sold the building for $2 million in 2016. According to this 2019 Commerial Appeal newspaper article, Loews Hotels plans to make the beautiful structure part of a planned 17-story hotel complex. Those plans may currently be on hold.
3). The c. 1909 Shelby County Courthouse is next door at 160 Adams Avenue. It’s still home to chancery and circuit court offices and courtrooms. If you go, be sure to check out the six statues at the south and east entrances.
4). The Gothic St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, 190 Adams, was built in 1852.
5). Another view of the Central Police Station from beside the Fire Museum sign.
6). Across the street from the courthouse, the c. 1843-44 Gothic Revival Calvary Episcopal Church is the city’s oldest remaining non-residential building. It’s not included in the Adams Avenue Historic District but was individually listed with the National Register in 1982.
While in the district, you’ll also see the c. 1901 North Memphis Savings Bank (110 Adams) which was later referred to as the Crump Insurance Company building, and the c. 1925 Criminal Courts building which is found on Washington Avenue behind the courthouse.
There’s a lot to see at the Peabody and the surrounding streets and alleys
As it’s 100th birthday draws near, the c. 1924 Peabody Hotel still deserves the nickname: “The South’s Grand Hotel.” According to its 1977 National Register application, the overall building style of the 12-story structure “may be best described as Italian Renaissance Revival.”
The hotel replaced a much smaller, older one that was built in 1869.
Shown above, a crowd starts to gather at the Peabody fountain prior to the daily duck march event.
Adjacent to the Peabody Hotel, the small historic commercial buildings on South 2nd Street and Union Avenue provide some of downtown’s best streetscapes:
Pictured above, from top left:
1). Looking south on 2nd Street at the Union Avenue intersection, on the left you can see the Peabody’s 2-story base with its decorative urns.
2). A view on Union Avenue just west of the Peabody, this picture shows, from left, a c. 1950 3-story building, the 3-story c. 1886 R. G. Craig Building (painted red) and the 4-story c. 1900 Hill-Standish Building.
3). Gazing south on 2nd Avenue from underneath one of the Peabody’s awnings, the c. 1891 4-story building known as the Cast-Iron Twins stands out. Next door, at what is currently home to Margarita’s Mexican Restaurant, the false front is painted bright orange and is believed to conceal the unaltered original facade of the c. 1873 Chickasaw Guards Armory.
4). The c. 1900 A. S. Barboro Building, (99 S. 2nd) was mostly restored to its original appearance around 2005-2007.
5). The c. 1917 Van Vleet-Mansfield Drug Co. building (left; 109-115 S. 2nd St.) is a 7-story structure that is now home to offices, apartments and Tamp and Tap, a nifty cafe serving sandwiches, craft beer, tea and coffee.
Most of the buildings shown are part of the large Gayoso-Peabody Historic District.
Walk where cotton was king on Front Street
Over on the bluff’s edge, Front Street was at one time the nerve center for perhaps the largest cotton trading hub in the world. A large number of the buildings have been vacant for a long period of time. But today, most of them have been, or are currently being, restored. Some are, or will be, shops and office space once again. Many are being repurposed as apartments or condominiums.
Here’s a gallery of some of the places you may see on Front Street and down at the riverfront:
Pictured above, from left:
1). Looking south on Front Street from just below the Union Avenue intersection.
2). The U.S. Customs House, Court House and Post Office building at 1 North Front Street is now home to the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphries School of Law. It was individually listed as Post Office-Front Street Station with the National Register in 1980. The oldest part of the building was completed in 1885. It was expanded in 1903, and completely remodeled in 1929.
3). Riverboats as seen from the rear of the building described above.
4). The 11-story c. 1909-12 Falls Building which is part of the Court Square Historic District.
Many of buildings in this gallery are within the Cotton Row Historic District, which was listed with the National Register in 1979. The Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange is located in the c. 1925 building at the corner of Union and Front.
Other places to see in downtown Memphis
You’ll see many more sights if you wonder around the sidewalks of any city long enough.
Shown, from top left:
1). The pedestrian bridge that connects the UM School of Law to the Fourth Bluff Park.
2). A new mural by artist Caratoes found in Charlie Vergos’ Rendezveous Alley on the new Canopy by Hilton hotel, across from the Peabody’s Union Avenue entrance. There are hundreds of murals in Memphis, with many of them being found in the area covered in this article.
3). The sign at the Charlie Vergos’ Rendezveous restaurant. They’ve been serving some great barbecue in the basement of the building that faces 2nd Street since 1948. Enter the joint from the alley.
4). The 5-story c. 1902 Scimitar Building is also known as Memphis Light, Gas and Water Building (5 N. 3rd St.) and the 29-story c. 1929 Sterick Building (8 N. 3rd St.). Each is listed individually with the National Register. The Scimitar is currently home of Hotel Napoleon, Ascend Hotel Collection. The Sterick was the city’s tallest building from 1929 to 1962.
5). Since 2014, The Memphis Pyramid has contained the Bass Pro Shops megastore and Big Cypress Lodge. Located just west of the St. Jude Children’s Hospital, it was originally a 20,000-seat arena. America’s tallest free-standing elevator is found inside.
Multitudes of visitors descend on Memphis each week to enjoy the amazing dining and entertainment scene, to learn more about the city’s music or civil rights heritage, for ball games and much more.
Whether you’re in the city to see Graceland, to experience an evening on Beale Street, or for some of the many other attractions or events, seeing the historic places and streetscapes in the downtown area can help you have a deeper appreciation for the city.
The historic places covered in this article are within a span small enough to allow you to see them all while walking less than 2 miles. It’s only 0.4 miles from Adams Avenue to the Peadody Hotel on Union Avenue. While many of the most-interesting buildings are shown, the photos represent less than a third of the ones that are listed with the National Register of Historic Places.
For those who would like to see more, and are able, it would be easy to include the entire Madison-Monroe Historic District, the South Bluffs Warehouse Historic District, the South Main Street Historic District or the Beale Street Historic District during the same walking, bike-sharing or scooter-sharing tour.