Mid-Century Modernism meets New Urbanism by Josh Whitehead

by - March 27, 2012

The title of this post uses two terms that have crept into the American lexicon fairly recently: “Mid-Century Modernism,” which is a generic term used to describe all sorts of design popular in the 1940s, 50s and 60s (furniture, architecture, cars, etc.), and “New Urbanism,” which describes the growing trend of city planners and urban developers to design cities on a pedestrian scale.  Very rarely are the two terms found together since the middle of the twentieth century is looked at with disdain by many proponents of urban design.  It was at this time that Americans were flocking to suburbia, with its large lawns, cul-de-sacs and strip centers that always seemed to be tucked behind rows and rows of parking.  It was not a historical high mark for walkability, the corner store or just about any site that did not position the automobile as its centerpiece.  However, thousands of Memphis travelers pass by a building every day that exemplifies both seemingly exclusive ideals: a commercial structure of high 1960s design that is actually built along the sidewalk.  I (re)introduce you to 5165 Poplar.

This one-story building built in 1963 is probably known more popularly around town as the Crum Building after its primary tenants and owners, Larry E. Crum Sr. and Larry E. Crum II.  It is a testament to good Mid-Century design.  Clean, horizontal lines.  Subtle uniform pattern that repeats itself.  A splash of an outdated shade of green.  

But in addition to these things that make people of my generation think back with fondness to their childhoods, the building is a model New Urbanistic structure.  The parking is tucked away from sight behind the building.  The structure itself is literally as close to the street as humanly possible.  And it encompasses almost the entire width of its lot, providing a good framing for the street and the public realm.  There are windows along the façade that make the building interesting for the passing pedestrian.  

Over the years, the Crums have been good stewards of the building.  The original parking lot entry and exit signs have been retained, the façade has been repainted a historically sensitive color and they have even shaped the holly trees in the front in a fitting geometric pattern.

Admittedly, the builder of 5165 Poplar did not necessarily do all of this for what we now call New Urbanistic principles.  He designed his building so, because his site was wedged between Poplar Avenue and the Southern Railway.  In fact, the railroad’s right-of-way encompasses the entire rear parking lot.  But regardless of the builder’s intent, he has provided Memphis with nearly 50 years of not only excellent design, but of urbanism in a section of town that is designed overwhelming to a suburban/automotive scale.

Josh Whitehead is Planning Director for the City of Memphis and Shelby County and author of the blog, Crème de Memph.  More photos and historical images of 5165 Poplar can be viewed on that blog.

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