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Now and Again

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Take your time. That's my advice for anyone who checks out Memphis Heritage's last show on South Main, "Then and Now: A Perspective on Memphis' Historic Architecture," before they move to their new home at Madison and Edgewood. The exhibit, a collection of Don Newman's Memphis photographs alongside images of those same places today, looks through the lens of history. Literally.

You shouldn't rush an exhibit more than 50 years in the making.

Some of the pictures look like identical twins, while other pairs may take more careful study to see just what has changed and what hasn't. But like before-and-after pictures of dieters, all of them are worth a double-take.

"[Photographer] Gary [Walpole] stood as close to where Don stood as he could," says June West, executive director of Memphis Heritage. "Sometimes it was hard, because it seems like Don was flying, but it's still very effective."

Newman's widow donated roughly 300 of his historic Memphis images to Memphis Heritage in 2003 and donated about 800 more recently. They show landmarks such as The Peabody, Main Street, the E.H. Crump building, and just about every other place in downtown Memphis.

"As soon as you see them, you can't help but think about what it looks like today," says West. "I immediately started thinking about doing a show called 'Then and Now.'"

West says she wanted the exhibit to show some of the architecture that has been saved, as well as some of it that has been lost. One set of images depicts the old Goldsmith's building on Main Street, with the sleek, modern facade it had in the '60s and what it looks like now, with its original exterior.

"When the Belzes began to redo the building, they took off the facade and the front was still there," says West, explaining the changes that took place during the old department store's conversion to Peabody Place. "In some cases, they would tear everything off and then put a new facade up. In others, they would put it up on top [above street level]. There are a number of buildings downtown with [original facades]. It might give the owners an incentive to take a peek underneath."

Other images in the exhibit include Central Station (looking much the same), Beale Street (with corresponding Coke and Pepsi ads), and Riverside Drive (appearing almost naked without Tom Lee Park).

"We picked images we felt would be accessible and have a sense of importance to Memphians," says West. "We've got a lot of older Memphians who come into [the gallery] and there's a lot of reminiscing that goes on."

Newman, a native Memphian, snapped images of the city during the '40s and '50s, sometimes for commercial purposes but mainly for himself. Because his negatives are 8 by 10 inches, the resulting photographs can be very large and very detailed.

West's hope is that the show helps people focus on the importance of preserving architecture.

"Historic preservation is not on everyone's mind. I hope 10 percent of the people are conscious of it," she says. "This show -- whether you're a preservationist, a developer, a politician, or a citizen -- will make you think about the changes we make to the architectural landscape.

"We're not condemning what we haven't done, but saying, 'Let's take it from here.' We need to be thinking about what we want to save."

For me, a city's personality often comes across in its architecture. People might be the heart of the city, but its structures give it a sense of place and an identity separate from other cities.

Just as importantly -- if not more so -- buildings form an urban landscape that people remember. Take a street corner, but change all the surrounding structures, and you've lost your frame of reference. Without any landmarks, it's simply a different place, even if the longitude and latitude are exactly the same.

I'm not trying to say we should save everything, but I think reusing historic buildings adds depth to the city. Instead of tearing everything down and rebuilding, reusing older buildings forms a connection between generations and keeps the area authentically "Memphis."

"Some developers never want to look at adaptive re-use. They don't see the benefit of it," says West. "All they see is the additional cost."

At the gallery, people spend time looking from the Don Newman black-and-white photographs to Gary Walpole's color doppelgangers and back again. But back on the street, we should also keep an eye on the future.

"Then and Now" runs through September 29th at the Memphis Heritage Gallery, 509 S. Main.

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