Overton Park Is Not One Single Thing (2023)


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Artwork frames the Overton Park Shell, at one time slated for demolition.

A blaze orange tag nailed to a tree clearly marks a seam between two worlds within Overton Park. The tag reads “Boundary [Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation]. All natural features protected.” Beyond the boundary, the Old Forest stands quiet, protected, and antique — even ancient. Indigenous people and early pioneers would recognize the trees, vines, and natural litter of wild bramble, leaves, and fallen limbs.

If they swiveled around, though, they would be perplexed by the painstakingly manicured grasses and undulating hills on the other side of that orange tag. The odd, open meadow there flows gently up and down, ending in a patch of shorter grass and a small hole staked with a little yellow flag. The newly renovated Overton Park 9 golf course stands in sharp contrast to the timeless woods flanking its fairways.

The park in the heart of Midtown Memphis is not one thing. But it is one place. It’s a blend of organizations with a blend of features. It is also a mix of values and expectations; the park means different things to different people.

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photograph by vance lauderdale

In 1901, city leaders purchased 342 acres to lay out the city’s first public park, and hired George Kessler, a noted city planner and nationally acclaimed landscape architect, to transform the property into a thing of beauty. The name honors former General John Overton, one of this city’s three founders, and over the years since the park officially opened in 1906, the green square in the heart of the city has been the scene of controversy that has had national impact. In the mid-1960s, when government officials announced plans to push the new Interstate 40 straight through the city, its route effectively bisecting Overton Park, protestors sprang to action. Though it seemed they had little chance against the federal government, a grassroots group called Citizens to Preserve Overton Park took their case all the way to the Supreme Court — and won. That was a dramatic example of how much Memphians loved their park — and intended to protect it.

Over the past few years, the park’s component parts have shifted in significant ways (see: Rust Hall, former home to Memphis College of Art), with more evolution expected over the decade to come (notably, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art’s planned move Downtown).

Inside the Old Forest, change is the antithesis of the plan. That’s both an expectation and a state law. Outside those woods, though, new thrills are expected, with changing exhibits at the Memphis Zoo and new performances at the Overton Park Shell, the historic venue that has seen such performances as the Memphis Open Air Theatre, the earliest concerts by Elvis Presley, and musicians from around the globe. Soon, new tenants are expected to arrive at some of the park’s key locations, and a new plan hopes to keep the park fresh for visitors over the next decade.

Overton Park is conservation and progress. It’s old and new. Overton Park is the past, present, and future.

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postcard courtesy vance lauderdale

A vintage postcard shows the old playground.

Making it all work comes down to communication, according to Tina Sullivan, executive director of the Overton Park Conservancy (OPC). The group was formed in December 2011 and still serves as the central mechanism through which most of the park works. The park has several key components and partners — the Shell, the Zoo, the Brooks Museum, and the old Memphis College of Art building that will soon be home to the Metal Museum, though they still plan to keep their original campus overlooking the river bluffs. Sullivan says contact with them all is essential.

“I hire people who are collaborative by nature, and we are fortunate that all of our partners are collaborative as well,” Sullivan says. “So, our teams have worked together very well.” Those partners have seats on the OPC board, which gathers quarterly to keep current on financials, issues, and plans. Those partner seats don’t get a vote on OPC matters, but Sullivan says their opinions will influence decisions regardless, “because we believe we’re all going to thrive together.”

“Our partners are all in; they believe the Conservancy is maintaining their front door,” Sullivan says. “The first impression that their visitors get is the Conservancy’s work, maintaining this park. So, they’re invested.”


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photograph by brian groppe

Spring, Summer, and Fall sculptures outside Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

A Decade Ago

But that front door wasn’t always so welcoming.

In 2012, the only restrooms in the park were Porta-Potties. The park did not connect to the Shelby Farms Greenline. There was no Bike Gate Plaza, not even a Hampline.

No signs pointed to park amenities. The Rainbow Lake Playground was cozy and familiar to locals, but likely looked worn and old, if not downright sketchy, to out-of-towners. Work had just begun on a dog park to be called Overton Bark.

No massive pieces of public art welcomed the public into the forest. And in the forest, privet choked native plants and just about everything else, to the dismay of countless volunteers who pulled it dutifully.

Casual forest hikers could easily find drug paraphernalia and signs of sexual activity along the trails. Locals eyed lone characters idling in parked cars at the Rainbow Lake parking lot and wondered if they could be responsible for the drugs, the sex, or both.

“A lot of people, in 10 years’ time, have forgotten what it was like before the Conservancy started managing the park,” says Sullivan. “The conditions were not great and that meant a lot of people didn’t desire to come here unless they were doing something they shouldn’t be doing and needed a nice, anonymous place to do it. We had some crime issues, and it was just kind of desolate.”

But a conservancy model was not a quick fix for Overton Park. Miles to the east, the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy was started in 2007. Some stakeholders worried that imposing the same model on certain major parks (like Overton) would leave other parks to languish.

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photograph by anna traverse fogle

Lily Bear Traverse outside the Brooks, after visiting the “Evanescent” exhibit by Atelier Sisu.

But in 2011, 68 percent of Memphians surveyed at the Memphis College of Art said they wanted to see a nonprofit run the park. Another 15 percent said “yes,” so long as the conservancy was “transparent, accountable, and works with the city and community.” At the time, current mayor Jim Strickland, then a Memphis City Council member, said he didn’t “see how anyone can be against” the conservancy model. In that model, a nonprofit group would be the primary stewards of the public park, and could raise funds from both public and private entities for maintenance and upgrades.

“I might be biased, but I think Overton Park is the best city park we have,” said Strickland at the time. “But with the financial condition the city is in, we’re not able to maintain it the way it needs to be maintained. Now, I think the citizens will get a much better park at a reduced cost.”

Since 2012, dramatic changes have taken place. Overton Bark has welcomed countless tail-wagging park friends, permanent restrooms have been added to the Rainbow Lake Pavilion and the East Parkway Pavilion, the limestone trail through the Old Forest has been renovated, Rainbow Lake Playground was completely re-imagined and renovated, public art and gates welcome visitors throughout the park, new signs easily guide park navigation, security cameras have been added, and more than 2,000 cubic feet of privet has been removed to improve forest health and trail visibility.

Raising the level of ongoing maintenance and care brought the people back, Sullivan says, and OPC has the data to prove it. Initial counts and extrapolation put the figure somewhere around 500,000 visitors per year when OPC took the reins just over a decade ago. Now, with visitor counters installed at park entrances, “we can say with conviction that we’re getting about 1.5 million visitors” each year.


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illustration courtesy overton park conservancy

The original plan for the Overton Park 9 golf course.

Overton Park 9

To those on the outside, the major renovations to the park’s golf course may have seemed surprising when the plan was announced in December 2020. But park leaders had their minds on the Overton Park golf course a decade ago.

Then, $500,000 was given to the project by AutoZone president Bill Rhodes and his wife, Amy. The gift led a $2.5 million effort funded by private donors, who also included former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning and his wife, Ashley, and Memphis booster Parks Dixon. In November 2022, Golf Business magazine said more than $4 million had been raised to renew the course.

The course was designed and built by King-Collins Golf Course Design. When selected for the job, the Chattanooga firm was hot off its much-lauded design of Sweetens Cove Golf Club, a darling of Tennessee golf insiders, including Manning.

Work began on the Memphis course in January 2021. Big machines pulled back the green grass, reducing the course to malleable dirt. Soon, new contours appeared, including towering bunker elements that had some park strollers scratching their heads. Grass was seeded in April and giving it time to grow pushed the grand re-opening of the course from that fall to the second quarter of 2022.

Since then, thousands have walked the newly minted Overton Park 9 (or OP9 for short), its logo a cute squirrel with a tail curled into a number nine. But golfers have not yet been able to access the Abe Goodman Golf House as renovations remain underway there. Golf carts have not been available at the new course, but a Twitter update says the new cart barn (a large, dark green structure visible from the parking area near the club house) is nearly complete and carts will be available again soon.


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photograph courtesy roy harrover collection, university of memphis libraries

Architect Roy Harrover's model for the Memphis College of Art, now called Rust Hall.

Rust Hall and the Brooks Museum

Tenants in Overton Park don’t come and go often. For plenty of Memphians, no significant changes have happened during their lifetimes. So, it was shocking to many when not one but two longtime tenants — Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and the Memphis College of Art (MCA) — announced they’d leave at roughly the same time, the Brooks to move Downtown in several years and MCA to close permanently. The vacancies presented new opportunities, but also increased anxiety to find new organizations to anchor these iconic park buildings.

Brooks Memorial Art Gallery opened in 1916, funded by a generous grant from Memphian Bessie Vance Brooks in honor of her late husband, a wealthy cotton trader. Originally dubbed “The Jewel Box in the Park” not only for the beauty of its classical design but for its tiny size (barely 90 feet square), the building saw major expansions in 1955, 1973, and 1989, along with the name change from gallery to museum.

Nearby, noted architect Roy Harrover — designer of such Memphis landmarks as Memphis International Airport, Commerce Square, and Mud Island — conceived an ultra-modern home for the Memphis Academy of Arts, which had occupied old buildings in Victorian Village for decades. The new complex opened in 1959, and added new office and gallery space over the years. Sculptor Ted Rust served as president for 26 years, oversaw the move of the school to Overton Park and the expansion of its faculty and course offerings; when he retired in 1971, the main building of what had evolved into the Memphis College of Art was named as a tribute to his endeavors.

The future of MCA’s Rust Hall is now clear. The Brooks … not so much. Concepts for both, however, were vetted in a series of public meetings called “Project Overton Park” by city leaders, set to hear from the public on what they wanted to see in these buildings.

MCA announced in 2017 that it would close for good in 2020 after more than 80 years in operation, the last 60 of those in the park. In October 2018, the Metal Museum laid claim to Rust Hall for a move projected to cost $45 million. Leaders have been raising that money ever since, and the museum’s website promises the project “will transform Rust Hall from a private educational facility into a public, state-of-the-art museum facility, metals studio, and education center. The Metal Museum is on the cusp of a dramatic transformation — one that addresses its physical needs while simultaneously elevating programmatic opportunities for the Memphis community and beyond.”

The Metal Museum plans to keep its original location, on the blufftop grounds of the old Marine Hospital overlooking the Mississippi River. Rust Hall will be home to the museum’s offices and gallery spaces, and the former location will house artist spaces and residencies and serve as an events venue.

However, behind Rust Hall and towering over OP9’s hole eight looms a white marble question mark. While construction crews have been working in recent months, demolishing the Front Street fire station and the adjacent parking garage to make way for the new home of the Brooks, not much is known about the future of the museum’s current location in Overton Park. City leaders refused an interview for this story but issued this statement instead:

“Given the city’s desire to find the highest and best use for all city facilities, once the Brooks Museum declares an official move-out date, we will issue a request for proposal for future opportunities and potential uses of the building,” said Memphis Parks Director Nick Walker.

Project Overton Park concluded in late 2018 with a final public hearing at the Lester Community Center. While Rust Hall moved ahead, the future of the current Brooks facility remains cloudy. “We certainly have a sense of urgency to make sure that there is another steward of that building lined up,” says OPC executive director Sullivan, “and that all the details have been nailed down before the Brooks Museum move. There needs to be a seamless transition. We need to go right from move-out, into renovation, then into occupancy.”

The Memphis Zoo

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booklet courtesy vance lauderdale

A pocket-sized guidebook for the Memphis Zoo, back when it only has about two dozen animals.

Through all the seasons of change at Overton Park over the last few years, a near-constant headwind blew. A simmering-but-decades-long disagreement over the Zoo’s use of the open grassy park space known as the Greensward for overflow parking began to boil around 2014.

Park advocates launched a campaign called “Get Off Our Lawn.” Signs were made. Rallies were held. Metal stanchions were erected on the Greensward to keep protesters away from zoo visitors parking on the grass. Hours of tense meetings at City Hall negotiated every detail of a possible solution.

Mayor Strickland then got the groups to a mediation table, in 2016, and a compromise was struck. In the deal, some of the Greensward would be taken, to the dismay of hard-core park defenders. Later, though, the zoo proposed building a parking garage on Prentiss Place, leaving the Greensward intact. The planned was scuttled on cost concerns and the original plan was back in place.

Then, in March 2022, seemingly from out of nowhere, a new agreement surfaced. It would not only keep the Greensward whole, but the zoo would yield 17 acres of the Old Forest back to the park.

“That was a long and painful slog,” Sullivan recalls. “Through all of it, our teams were still working together as usual. That never wavered. But that one issue was a downdraft on our work and our ability to grow and operate. So, now that that’s behind us, I feel the wind at my back.”

Overton Park Is Not One Single Thing (9)

photograph by anna traverse fogle

A tree forms a graceful arch in the Old Forest.

A Comprehensive Plan

That wind will push the park into its next phase. Sullivan and the OPC have been hard at work on a comprehensive plan for the park, which has not yet been released to the public, pushed back by new opportunities in the Zoo parking agreement. But the public’s fingerprints are on the process nevertheless, their desires and dislikes recorded by the OPC over the years.

The future could see more programming to connect people to nature, to help them understand how nature improves mental and physical health. An after-school program may teach kids about ecology and how to use nature for mindfulness.

Visitors can also expect additional physical changes, especially at the southeast corner of the park, now home to the city’s General Service facility. Plans to remove that complex of buildings present an opportunity for something new that can help OPC achieve further financial sustainability.

“We need to generate revenue,” Sullivan says. “We need to put some commercial activity in here and the southeast corner gives us an opportunity to put in some infrastructure or some programming that we may charge a fee for, without taking away from the free areas of the park that people already like.”

“One Park”

Overton Park is not one thing. That makes it a singular place.

Visitors move seamlessly among hiking and biking, play, sports, contemplation, exhilaration, art, education, concerts, seclusion, unity, and a world-class tourist destination without leaving the park. It stands on a long history, has climbed through tough times, been protected by citizens who love it dearly, and is poised for a future that promises both lots of change and no change at all.

As Sullivan puts it, “We now have our sights set on what it looks like for the Conservancy and all of our partners within the park to be moving forward cohesively and collaboratively for this vision of one park.”

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