In my very first post in this blog, I noted that I had been to colleges that were open at the time and subsequently closed. In many cases, the buildings are still around - some repurposed and others simply abandoned. Today’s post is about one such institution, the Memphis College of Art. The college officially began its life on October 5, 1936 as the James Lee Memorial Academy of Art and was funded by the Memphis Art Association. When it opened it was housed in the James Lee House at 690 Adams Avenue in Memphis. The house is located in the Victorian Village neighborhood of Memphis and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Originally built by William Harsson in 1848, the home would later be purchased by James Lee, a Princeton University educated riverboat captain and ship owner. It is a building worthy of a post of its own, but I will leave that to someone with an architecture blog.
Although the official start date is 1936, classes began in the early- to mid-1920’s when instruction began to be offered by the Memphis Art Association. Indeed, the precursor to the college was settled in the James Lee house by 1929 seven years before the college's recorded opening. The director of the Brooks Memorial Art Gallery, Florence McIntyre, offered the classes free for many years. A disagreement over modern art in 1936 (McIntyre did not approve of modern art and wanted a traditional academic training regime) led to two prominent faculty, George and Henriette Oberteuffer, leaving. In the end, McIntyre stepped down and was followed by Robert McKnight. In 1948, Edwin C. “Ted” Rust came on as director. The college would remain in the Lee House until 1958 when it would relocate to a site in Overton Park. A striking mid-century building designed by William Mann and Roy Harrover was to become the final home to the college (the pair would also design the “new” terminal for Memphis International Airport in 1963). The building won an architecture competition judged by none other than Phillip Johnson and Paul Rudolph shortly thereafter. The college would remain in the building (principally at least, graduate programs were for a time offered at another site) until the institution closed in May 2020. Rust left the college in 1975 and sometime thereafter (I have been unable to find the exact date), the Overton Park building would be named Rust Hall in his honor.
At its height, the college enrolled over 300 students in 16 degree programs (11 undergraduate and 5 graduate). Under Rust, the college hit some significant milestones. In 1961, three years before the integration of nearby Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis), the college admitted its first African American student, Veda Reed. At about the same time, Rust hired eleven African American faculty members. The college would be accredited for the first time under Rust and was for a time the only private institution in the south to be accredited by both the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. Despite its storied history, the institution struggled for a long time with declining enrollment and significant debt. Although it had a small endowment, the college relied principally on tuition for its operational budget. On October 24, 2017, the institution announced it would close in 2020 following a “teach-out” of remaining students.
It was a wonderful spring day in May of this year when I visited. I was in the area to do a site visit for one my department’s clinical placements a few blocks away and being early decided to stop and take a look around. Below are four photos of the front of the building as seen from Veterans Plaza Drive looking southwesterly. The sculpture is a piece by Rust himself called “Ikon” which was installed in November 2001 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Overton Park. From the front, the building seems as if it is ready for students. I imagine the city’s parks department maintains the grounds as it sits in Overton Park.
The next six are of the rear of the building and a view of the interior as photographed through the rear doors. You cannot quite tell from the second and third photos, but the trees and shrubbery in the back are a bit overgrown. I didn’t photograph it, but there was also some graffiti on the area beneath the stairs. As can be seen in the fourth photo, some decay of the structure has begun with a plant growing on the roof. Just around the corner of the fifth photo I found an office with an open door and someone sitting at a desk working. Not sure what that was about, but they were reading something on their phone and I didn’t want to interrupt to find out.
As of now, no concrete plans have appeared as to the fate of the building. The Brooks Museum of Art, which sits next door, is also scheduled to close to be relocated and the future of both structures is undecided. Vacated buildings, particularly ones with substance like this one, are a sad sight to me. I am not a particular fan of the building’s style, but it is a classic and should be saved.
University Grounds is a blog about college and university campuses, their buildings and grounds, and the people who live and work on them.
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