The Metal Museum
In 1975, at the National Ornamental and Miscellaneous Metals Association (NOMMA) conference in Atlanta, GA, members of the Memphis Chapter proposed an industry museum. A year later, a charter and bylaws were filed in the State of Tennessee and the dream that was to become the Metal Museum took life. The Metal Museum is located on a 3.2 acre site overlooking the Mississippi River just south of downtown Memphis. The property, which includes three historic buildings, had been part of a public health service hospital. When the hospital closed in the mid-1960s, it was deeded to the City of Memphis through the Heritage and Conservation Act. As a non-profit organization with an educational focus, the Metal Museum met the usage requirements and a five-year lease was obtained in July 1976. Two years later, renovation of two buildings began and the Metal Museum opened to the public on February 5, 1979. Since that time, over $2.5 million dollars have gone into developing the property, construction of the Schering-Plough Smithy, the Lawler Foundry, the conservation lab and the newly completed Library and the installation of a gazebo. This figure does not include countless hours of volunteer labor and contributed goods and services. In 1992, the City awarded the Metal Museum a twenty-five year renewable lease. For nearly thirty years, the Metal Museum was lead by a blacksmith and artist, who by default was also an administrator, curator, mechanic, plumber and reluctant fund-raiser. Under James Wallace’s leadership, the three ramshackle buildings on the site have become a residence, housing visiting artists, a museum and a library. The success of the Metal Museum is due in large part to his perseverance and the community of artists and patrons he gathered around him. At the end of 2007, after completing the renovation of the third and final building, he retired to focus on his own work.
The Site: A Former United States Marine Hospital
The Metal Museum is located on the western half of a former United States Marine Hospital. The history of the hospital dates back to July 16, 1798, when President John Adams established the Marine Hospital Service. Designed to care for sick and disabled seaman, it was the precursor to the U.S. Public Health Service. The first Marine Hospital built to serve this region was located in Napolean, AK, but washed away in the 1870s when the Mississippi River changed course. The current site was selected in 1881. At that time this area, known as Fort Pickering, was a separate town, eighteen years older and, at that time larger, than Memphis.
The hospital opened in 1884 and consisted of six buildings – the surgeon’s house, a stable, the executive building, two wards and the nurses’ building. The facility was originally used to treat Civil War soldiers and to conduct scientific research in hopes of finding a cure for yellow fever. Only two of the original buildings survive today, the nurses’ building (located on the east side of the 1930s hospital building) and the executive building (the white building that houses the Museum’s library and permanent collection). Both are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. During the 1930s, several new Works Progress Administration buildings were added to the site. To make room for the new buildings, the wards and stables were demolished and the executive and the nurses’ buildings, both of which faced the street, were moved three hundred feet to their current locations on wagons pulled by mules.
The largest of the WPA era buildings is the three-story, neo-classical brick hospital building that dominates the site. The Georgian-style building has slate roofing, a copper cupola on pedestals, and large limestone columns, capitals, and gutters. It cost $1 million. Although built to serve the needs of ailing seamen, the building has been used by the Coast Guard, cadets of the state maritime academies, members of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, Public Health fieldmen, the Army Corps of Engineers and employees and federal workers injured on duty. Most recently it was used to house soldiers during Desert Storm. The other buildings built during the 1930s include a nurses’ dormitory, which now houses the museum galleries and gift store, the juniors officers’ quarters, used by artists in residence and other guests of the Museum, and a two-story maintenance building, featuring a tall smoke stack and cypress windows. Along the bluff, where a large concrete pad is located, was a tennis court.
After the hospital closed in 1965, the property was divided in two. In 1976 the western half was leased to a group of businessmen whose dream it was to develop a museum dedicated to the collection, exhibition and preservation of ornamental metalwork. The price was right – a dollar a year to the City of Memphis in exchange for a 3.2 acre site, three buildings and a spectacular view of the Mississippi River. Renovation of two of the three buildings began in the fall of 1978 and the Metal Museum opened to the public in February 1979. The Federal government retained the eastern portion of the property until 2004 when it was sold to a private buyer. At that time, the western half was deeded to the City of Memphis through the Heritage and Conservation Act.
Chickasaw Heritage Park and Fort Pickering
Across the street from the Museum is Chickasaw Heritage Park. Once the fortress of Chickasaw chief Chisca, it features two ceremonial mounds built by Paleo-Indians in the 1500s. During the Civil War, the mounds were hollowed out and used for gun emplacements and munitions storage. This site, previously known as DeSoto Park, is believed to be where Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto first viewed the Mississippi River in 1541.
Several forts, built by the French, Spanish and Americans were located in this area. The United States’ first was Fort Adams, believed to be located where the Exxon plant now stands. It was, however, too close to the river and as such as susceptible to flood and malaria. In 1801, the fort was renamed and moved to just above the Indian mounds. Known as Fort Pickering, it was named after George Washington’s Secretary of War, Thomas Pickering. It quickly lost its importance after the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory and was mostly abandoned in 1806. In 1809 when Meriweather Lewis of Lewis and Clark passed through, the Fort was under the command of Zachary Taylor, who was to become the 12th President of the Unites States.
Fort Pickering is now known as the residential subdivision French Fort, which has been here since the 1960s.