LOCATED ON HISTORIC PROPERTY
The Metal Museum opened its doors to the public in 1979. The campus now includes galleries, a blacksmith shop, the Lawler Foundry, the repairs and restoration lab, a library, sculpture gardens and a gazebo all overlooking the Mississippi River.
THE METAL MUSEUM
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, was formerly part of a public health service hospital. The hospital closed in the mid-1960s and was later deeded to the City of Memphis. As a non-profit organization with an educational focus, the Metal Museum met the usage requirements of the Heritage and Conservation Act and a 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, the Museum has renovated three historic buildings that were part of the hospital, constructed the blacksmith shop, Lawler Foundry and repairs and restoration lab and installed a gazebo overlooking the river.
For nearly thirty years, the Metal Museum was led 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 for artists, a museum, and a library. The success of the Metal Museum is due in large part to his perseverance and to 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.
Photo: Memphis Downtown Commission
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 seamen, it was the precursor to the U.S. Public Health Service. The first Marine Hospital built to serve this region was located in Napoleon, AR, 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 veterans 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.
Across the street from the Museum is Chickasaw Heritage Park. Once the fortress of Chickasaw chief Chisca, it features two ceremonial mounds built in the 1500s. During the Civil War one of the mounds was 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 once located in this area. The United States’s 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 was susceptible to flood and malaria. In 1801 the fort was renamed and moved to a location just above the Native American 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 by 1806. When Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark passed through in 1809, the Fort was under the command of Zachary Taylor, who was to become the 12th President of the United States.
Fort Pickering is now known as the residential subdivision French Fort, which was developed in the 1960s.
Photo: Memphis Heritage