Original Memphis: National Ornamental Metal Museum

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story by Jimmy Ogle, Shelby County historian | photos by Greg Campbell


It’s the hidden jewel of the Memphis riverfront. A place where art is not only displayed, but where art is made. The only institution in the United States devoted exclusively to the promotion and preservation of fine metalwork.

Lost in the history of Memphis and the Mississippi River, and hidden by the interstate system of modern times on the southernmost bluffs, the National Ornamental Metal Museum thrives with art and activity. Founded on historic hospital grounds from the 1880s, the Metal Museum has been a fixture on the south bluffs for almost 40 years. At the time of its founding in 1976 and opening by Jim Wallace in 1979 in Downtown Memphis, the Peabody Hotel was closed, Beale Street was fenced off by “urban renewal” and there were more people living in jail in Downtown Memphis than residentially! It was said that “if one was caught in Downtown Memphis at that time, they were either lost or looking for The Rendezvous Restaurant!”

The Wallace Vision was to convert an empty former public health service hospital complex into the only metal museum in America – in fact, the next closest metal museum is located in Japan! And to many Memphians, this precious museum with stately grounds might as well be across the Pacific Ocean, too.

The Site The southernmost area of the public Memphis riverfront encompasses about 45 acres, and currently includes E.H. Crump Park, Chickasaw Heritage Park, Super 8 Motel, an empty WW2 Marine Hospital complex and the French Fort neighborhood, built in the 1960s. The best access to the area is from Exit 12-C when westbound on Crump Boulevard or northbound of I-55.

The beauty of the grounds of the Metal Museum and its position on top of the river bluff make it an ideal site for
special events.

 

The History Centuries ago hunter-gatherer nomadic Native-American tribes settled on the bluff that was secure from the annual rise and floods of the Mississippi River. Two ceremonial mounds from these times remain in Chickasaw Heritage Park (formerly DeSoto Park). In 1739, the French opened an outpost named Ft. Assumption, but it lasted only one summer. In the 1860s, the westernmost ceremonial mound was used for gun placements by the Union during the Civil War occupation at Ft. Pickering.

The original Marine Hospital opened on the grounds in 1884, caring for “sick and disabled seaman” of the Mississippi River, and not fighting Marines. Due to the previous unpleasant circumstances Memphis encountered during the Yellow Fever epidemics in the 1870s; it was located south of the city limits to keep diseases from visitors away from the local population base. In 1887 Jackson Mounds Park opened with a dance pavilion located on the top of the westernmost mound, and the Memphis Street Railway operating a streetcar line to this popular public setting.

The Frisco Bridge, connecting Memphis to the West Coast, opened in 1892 bringing rail traffic to the area and industrial development. In the early 1900s, automobile ownership grew so rapidly in Memphis that a second bridge, the Harahan Bridge, opened in 1916-17 as a joint railroad and automobile bridge. In 1927, Highway 70, the “Broadway of America”, connected San Diego to New York City, right though Memphis! In the post-WW2 era, automobile traffic outgrew the antiquated Harahan Bridge, so in 1949 a more modern bridge, the Memphis & Arkansas Bridge opened. During the middle of the 20th century, many streets and homes were moved from the area or developed over to accommodate the new transportation routes.

In the 1960s, the French Fort subdivision opened for African-American ownership. With the Metal Museum now occupying some of the Marine Hospital buildings, the U.S. Army Reserve used other buildings until the 1990s. Delaware and California Avenues became Metal Museum Drive soon thereafter for better identification. The Legacies statue of sculptor Vinnie Bagwell dedicated in 2013 in Chickasaw Heritage Park represents the long and unique heritage of NativeAmericans, Spanish-Americans and African-Americans in the Memphis area.

Today The National Ornamental Metal Museum site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Over $2.5 million dollars have gone into developing the property since 1979, including construction of the blacksmith shop, the Lawler Foundry and the repairs and restoration lab, the renovation of the library and the installation of a gazebo. Upon entering the grounds, one passes through a magnificent set of gates adorned with representations contributed by metallurgists from all over the world. Features include:

Guided Tours Guided tours of current exhibitions, blacksmithing and foundry demonstrations and handson activities are available for groups of 10 or more. The Collections. The Metal Museum’s collection of over 3,000 objects represents a broad spectrum of metalwork, including contemporary hollowware, sculpture and studio jewelry created by artist metalsmiths, as well as historic objects dating back to the Renaissance. In addition to metal objects, the Collection includes drawings, photographs and slides that document the creative process and history of the field.

Exhibitions The changing exhibition schedule rotates regularly and features the most influential and internationally acclaimed metalsmiths metal artists of the day to Memphis for solo exhibitions.

Events A calendar of annual and semi-annual events provide fun and learning for all ages and of all kinds. From Forging On The River Dinner + Auction to Whet Thursdays, to F.I.R.E Family Fun Day, to Make Your Own Day, to Repair Days, to Blues On The Bluff concerts that feature the best of music and scenic views of the river. Weddings are very popular outdoors and in the Gazebo area.

Blacksmith Shop & Lawler Foundry The Blacksmith Shop offers visitors the opportunity to see blacksmiths at work. The Lawler Foundry houses melt furnaces, a kiln and molding equipment for green sand casting with demonstrations almost daily. Classes are available.

Museum Store The store offers many handmade items of local staff and proudly represents metalsmiths throughout the United States. Jewelry, One-Of-A-Kind, Home Décor and even Kitchen items are offered.

Ornamental Metal Museum
374 Metal Museum Drive
Memphis, TN 38106
metalmuseum.org