Associated with the Progressive era and City Beautiful Movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the development of the Memphis Park and Parkway System laid the foundation for municipal park systems across Tennessee. The Memphis system also represented one of the earliest efforts in the South to introduce basic concepts of modern comprehensive urban planning and design by George E. Kessler (1862-1923), widely regarded as one of the fathers of urban planning in America.
The Memphis Park and Parkway System resulted from the vision of the new civic capitalists who emerged in the wake of the yellow fever epidemics of the 1870s. In 1895 these well-educated, well-traveled, and prosperous capitalists established the Greater Memphis Movement (GMM), a loose organization devoted to the promotion of a progressive civic agenda that included annexation of suburban areas to the east, establishment of a public water and gas utility, extension of George Waring’s revolutionary sewer system, and construction of a system of parks and connecting boulevards to unite the new city with the old.
Work began in 1897, following the election of Mayor John J. Williams and supportive aldermen. Initially the GMM program faced frustrating legal and legislative battles to establish the city’s right to form an independent park commission, issue bonds, and exercise eminent domain in the condemnation of property for the park. While the Williams administration awaited resolution of these delays, the GMM entered into a three-year relationship with John C. Olmstead, son of Frederick Law Olmstead Sr., the famous landscape architect. Olmstead provided advice on the drafting of legislation and designed an alignment for a proposed parkway to connect two park sites, one on Riverside (Cow Island) Road and the other on an old farm tract known as Lea’s Woods.
In 1899 the city annexed seven square miles, quadrupling its size, and in 1900 the Tennessee Supreme Court resolved the legal issues surrounding the establishment of the Memphis Park Commission, which met for the first time on November 6, 1900, and elected Judge J. B. McFarland as chairman. In less than three weeks, the mayor and city aldermen authorized the acquisition of property for the establishment of the parks. The speed with which the city and its staff moved suggests that the preliminary work had been completed and only awaited the court’s decision. The purchase of Lea’s Woods and the Wilderberger Farm on Cow Island Road were finalized on October 26, 1901.
In November 1901 the city accepted the bid of George E. Kessler of Kansas City to design the parks and parkway systems. Over the next thirteen years, Kessler and his protégé and partner, Henry C. Wright Sr., executed an impressive program of park development, largely based on the model presented by Kessler in Kansas City in 1891. Their designs for the site plans and structures of Lea’s Woods (renamed Overton Park) and the Wilderberger Farm site (named Riverside Park) progressed with impressive speed despite the firm’s simultaneous commission to design the Louisiana Purchase World’s Fair grounds in St. Louis in 1903-4.
The complex and ambitious Memphis project included the redesign and development of three of the city’s four original 1819 squares; the design of three new small urban parks, including Forrest, Confederate, and Gaston Parks; the design and development of Overton and Riverside Parks; and the design for a new system of parkways to connect these parks and spur development in the newly annexed areas. By the end of 1906 more than 1,750 acres of parkland had been purchased, designed, developed, and opened.
Political pressure forced Kessler to address Overton Park first with a picturesque landscape design, largely derived from the design traditions of New York City’s Central Park. The design was completed in early 1902, and initial development of the drives, open areas, lakes, and pavilions was completed by August. The work on Riverside Park progressed at a slower pace during 1902 and 1903, due in part to its location away from the city’s residential development. At its opening in 1903, for instance, access was limited by a four-mile carriage ride from the city, or a twenty-minute trip by river steamer. Greater public access by streetcar connections was not completed until 1913.
The key to the vision of Kessler and the commissioners lay in the creation of parkways to connect the major parks. Kessler eventually abandoned the idea of a meandering parkway in the English Romantic landscape tradition in favor of a rectilinear alignment that ran over a series of existing roads. Kessler envisioned a portion of the parkway to resemble New York’s Riverside Drive, a pleasure drive designed to allow city dwellers the opportunity to race their horses and carriages. Called the Speedway, this colorful feature of the parkway survived only until 1910, when the commission responded to public pressure and voted to enforce a speed limit along the parkways.
Development of the parkways encountered another obstacle when a lawsuit challenged the commission’s authority to use eminent domain to build what many saw as merely roadways. After two years, the Tennessee Supreme Court resolved the issue in favor of the commission in Memphis v. Hastings. The commission broke ground for the parkways in November 1904 and officially completed the routes in April 1906.
The park and parkway system also stimulated residential development. In 1906 the Park Commission received the power to review and comment on all development plans submitted for approval by the mayor and board in order to ensure that future development would enhance the appearance of the city’s parks and parkways. In practice, the review process provided the commission with ad hoc powers to act as a city planning commission. The relationship between the Memphis Park Commission and George Kessler ended in 1914.
The Memphis Park Commission has continued to grow over the years and currently acts as steward for six thousand acres of parkland, the city’s museum system, seven golf courses, twenty-five community centers, eight senior citizen centers, thirteen “After School” programs, and the Mid-South Fairgrounds, among other facilities. It stands as an object of pride to Memphians and a tribute to the vision of its founders and designers.