Rebirth of Downtown Memphis
Credit for the development of anything involved in the rebirth of Downtown Memphis unquestionably goes to Charlie Vergos. It was Charlie who brought together the first handful of pioneers who would come to call Downtown Memphis ‘home.’ In 1975, he introduced Jack Tucker, one of the architects who worked on Mud Island, to Carol Coletta, then manager of the Main Street Mall office; then Charlie sold them the Timpani Building at 41-43 Union. It was the first structure in Downtown Memphis to be rehabbed for residential use, and Tucker was the architect supervising the design.
Jack & Carol were joined in the endeavor by co-owners, George Shook, Ellis Chappell and Connie Hendrix: all of whom lived in the building from 1976; except Ellis, whose ground floor space was developed as a commercial art studio.
It’s fair to say that the original residents of the Timpani Building formed the nucleus of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, but they soon welcomed other urban-pioneers as more buildings were rehabbed to create homes. There was River Row: home to another DNA founder, Jeanne Kennedy Marsh; followed by Cotton Row. Other buildings including The Cotton Grower’s Association and The Front Street Lofts soon followed; Leigh Davis took up residence in the Hotel Pontotoc off South Main, and Earl Beck rehabbed a building on Court Square; Suhair and Jimmy were living over the Little Tea Shop, and a true neighborhood was born.
The idea for the development of the Downtown Neighborhood Association – as all great and momentous thoughts at that time – probably grew out of a philosophical discussion during one of the residents’ regular Friday afternoon tea-parties, which took place amidst many pitchers of beer enjoyed on the sidewalk outside the Front Street Deli.
Jodie Vance recalls hearing, “that it started in 1978 and was officially incorporated in 1981:” a date borne out by a 10-year plaque Vance received from the Center for Neighborhoods in 1991, and corroborated by Madge and Ross Clark, who moved into a new apartment at the Shrine Building over 1981’s momentous Labor Day weekend that saw the reopening of both that building and the reborn Peabody Hotel.
The Clarks along with Jack Tucker and Jean Marsh, were the four downtown residents who were central to the DNA’s actual founding. Madge served as the DNA’s first president, and her husband Ross, an attorney, took on the job of filing the organization’s charter; both, however, acknowledge that Jack Tucker, who served as DNA’s second president, was the “true lynchpin who brought the DNA into existence.”
The organization’s original purpose was political activism; “In the early days, we were all about political action and pushing important improvements to the neighborhood,” said past president, Carol Coletta; adding, “The struggle within DNA has always been how much of it is a social group and how much is it a political action group.” At the time of the DNA’s birth, there was no question: the four founders pushed an ambitious and expansive agenda aimed at getting the attention and cooperation of city government. Under later leadership the group would sponsor the Christmas Parade and host social gatherings, but the initial focus of the DNA’s founders was promoting the neighborhood’s safety and security, as well as safeguarding the unique ambience that had initially prompted them to move downtown.
The DNA’s first official assembly took place at Jack Tucker’s condo, the second was at the home of Jean Marsh, but after that the group’s gatherings took on a more formal tone with monthly meetings alternating between auditoriums provided at the headquarters of First Tennessee and National Bank of Commerce. All dues paying residents living downtown voted annually on a Board of Directors; residents of neighborhood district also elected two representatives, who joined the board in voting on actions undertaken by the association.
Despite an auspicious start, Memphis’ newest neighborhood experienced some growing pains. Some who had moved downtown had second thoughts: residency fell; by 1985 the group could not find anyone who wanted to serve as president; membership had fallen from 110 to fewer than 50. There was only $56 remaining in the treasury by 1986 when Hank Cowles, a new downtown resident stepped forward. Hank, who had moved into The Chickasaw Bluff Condominiums in 1985, took on the challenge of resuscitating the DNA. Serving two terms as president (1986 & 1987), Cowles moved the monthly meetings to downtown restaurants; the first was at Ronnie Grisanti’s on Beale, and Cowles picked up the tab for the snacks served at that and several subsequent events. He also began inviting speakers to address the DNA, as well as searching for new funding sources; one of those was selling ads in a new bi-monthly newsletter: Jodie Vance who was later in charge of the newsletter, took the concept further, founding Memphis Downtowner Magazine.
Back on Track
By the end of 1987, membership in the DNA had grown to 220 and there was $1,000 in the bank. In 1988, the reins were passed back to one of the original ‘downtowners’ in 1988, when Connie Hendrix assumed the presidency; she was one of the pioneers who moved into downtown’s first condominium, the rehabbed warehouse that architect Jack Tucker christened the Timpani Building, because he was “beating the drum for downtown development.”
That development and the DNA have sustained healthy growth ever since.