Housing For The People
On the National Register of Historic Places, Lauderdale Courts (now Uptown Square) was built in 1938 under the auspices of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Works Progress Administration program. It was among the first housing projects built in Memphis and America. Leading Memphis architects of the day such as J. Frazer Smith, Walk C. Jones, Sr., George Awsumb, Edwin B. Phillips and others designed The Courts to promote a sense of community. The complex is a colonial revival design where today's award-winning architects have retained original historic features including the metal Art Moderne newel posts, brick exteriors, metal porch roofs and ornamental porch supports.
People from the Delta came to Memphis to make their way. Lauderdale Courts was that important step on the road to achieving The American Dream.
In the 1940s, there was no stigma for the grateful families who were accepted to live in the coveted apartments at Lauderdale Courts. Under the management of the Memphis Housing Authority, the apartments had parquet floors, indoor bathrooms, and modern kitchens. Residents had a special community to call their own. Many prominent Memphis citizens came from The Courts, but none more famous than Elvis Aaron Presley.
The Presleys Arrive at The Courts
In September of 1949, the Presleys moved into Lauderdale Courts at 185 Winchester #328. Since moving from Tupelo, Mississippi, they had lived in a series of rooming house apartment int he Uptown area prior to being accepted by the Memphis Housing Authority. To be eligible for public housing at the time, a family's combined income could not exceed $3,000 per year. The Presleys paid $35 a month rent.
At the time they moved in, there was no air-conditioning and only radiator heat. Among their belongings listed on their move-in report were two small table fans, a radio, a trunk and some paperwork. Elvis had the larger room with a view of Third Street; he would be seen many an afternoon sitting in the window playing his guitar. Gladys would indulge her only son by allowing him to maintain his own separate set of dishes and silverware.
A shy Elvis would also practice his guitar in the basement laundry room directly below their apartment. Elvis eventually made friends and worked up the courage to entertain the neighbors in the complex's communal courtyards and the grassy Market Mall. These were some of the first stages from which he would perform.
Elvis attended Humes High School (located in Uptown) during his time at Lauderdale Courts and would perform in the variety shows held there. Back then, Elvis had already begun to develop his own individual sense of style, sometimes wearing black satin pants with a pink stripe, popped up shirt collars and a greased DA with a curl in the front. Conversely, he also liked wearing his ROTC uniform even when not participating in ROTC activities.
According to inspection notes made by MHA staff, Gladys was an excellent housekeeper. However, because of an increase in income, the Presleys had to leave The Courts and moved to 698 Saffarans in the Uptown nieghborhood in January of 1953, one day before Elvis turned 18. They would later move to 462 Alabama Street across from Lauderdale Courts to be near friends.
Historical Significance of Lauderdale Courts
One of the few Roosevelt WPA Housing Developments Still Standing
A prime example of Depression era housing, Lauderdale Courts was one of the first Roosevelt WPA housing development in the country. It replaced a group of dilapidated shacks with no plumbing. A cadre of Memphis' top architects designed the developments with landscaped courtyards and malls to provide a sense of community. The Memphis Housing Authority's strict rules at the time kept the tenants on track to take advantage of the opportunity to use public housing as it was intended, as the first step on the ladder to success.
The Influence of Location and Environment
Peter Guralnick, author of the critically acclaimed Elvis Presley biography Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, believes that Elvis' time at Lauderdale Courts was a major influence on his music and his style. Located right in the heart of downtown Memphis, Lauderdale Courts is only a few blocks from Beale Street; Elvis could sneak out and listen to the blues artists of the day such as B.B. King, Ike Turner and Rufus Thomas. He was a block away from Pop Tunes records store and just a mile away from Sun Studio. He could walk across the street to go to the gospel concerts at the Ellis Auditorium.
Elvis Fans & Preservationists Stopped the Wrecking Ball
The conditions at Lauderdale Courts began to decline during the 1980s and by the mid-1990s the buildings were in desperate need of repair. Only 75 of the 499 apartments were occupied and the development was slated for demolition. Through an article published in The New York Times, Elvis fans were made aware of the city's plans to tear down Lauderdale Courts. Memphis Heritage preservationist group had already started an application to place the property on the National Register of Historic Places. These two unlikely partners joined to save this national treasure by all means available to them, from raising money to petitioning the Mayor and the U.S. Secretary of Housing.
Restored by New Urbanist Developers
Lauderdale Courts was closed in 2000. Taking on the challenge to bring a rundown public housing development into the 21st century was a new MHA Executive Director, Robert Lipscomb and new urbanist and downtown developers Henry Turley and Jack Belz. Over the past four years the development has undergone a comprehensive $36 million historic renovation. Renamed Uptown Square, it reopened in February 2004. Professionals, doctors, lawyers, working and public housing families call it home. Now Memphis' first wireless community, Uptown Square is a national model for mixed-income housing. Next door to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and downtown venues, it is downtown Memphis' only garden apartment community.
After rigorous research, the Presley apartment has undergone a unique renovation of its own to allow visitors and guests to step back in time to the days of a young teenage Elvis Presley.
Elvis & Elvis Presley are registered trademarks of Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc.