In 1922, entrepreneur Clarence Saunders was riding high: His first Piggly Wiggly - and the nation's first self-service grocery store - had blossomed into a chain of 52 stores, and because of his endorsement of governor candidate Austin Peay, he was making his mark on Tennessee politics. He was also building a 36,500-square-foot mansion with eight bedrooms, an indoor swimming pool, bowling alley, shooting gallery, and movie theater on a 155-acre tract on Central Avenue, several miles east of the original Piggly Wiggly, which was located at 79 Jefferson Avenue downtown.
But Saunders never moved into the house he named Cla-Le-Clare - quickly dubbed the Pink Palace because of its rosy marble exterior. He lost everything he owned in a stock-market fiasco, and the unfinished estate was sold at auction to a subdivision builder out of Louisville, Kentucky. In 1926, its grounds were developed as Chickasaw Gardens, and the mansion was donated to the city of Memphis. Four years later, it opened as the Memphis Museum of Natural History and Industrial Arts. The east wing, built to accommodate the indoor pool, instead housed a 286-seat theater and a museum library, while the west wing became offices and the basement bowling alley was converted into a 250-seat classroom.
"[The city] already had a fine-arts museum, and so they decided to make a natural-history museum out of this place," explains Ron Brister, curator at the Pink Palace since 1972. "They spent $150,000 to finish the interior, put in a boiler, and hire some consultants, but after the great stock-market crash of 1929, they didn't have much money around. When the doors opened a year later, there were only three exhibits, including a collection of trophy animal heads and some stuffed fish.
"Memphians came to the rescue donating some wonderful historic treasures and," he says with a chuckle, "some absolute junk." With the addition of a mastodon jawbone, 500 stuffed birds, Civil War memorabilia, the shrunken head of an Ecuadoran Indian, hand-carved English furniture, local Indian artifacts, heirloom china, and antique dolls, the Pink Palace became known as the city's unofficial "Grandma's attic."
Throughout the 1930s and '40s, Saunders' folly became a meeting place for dozens of historical societies and stamp-collecting and gardening clubs. A decade later, these organizations yielded to more official educational programs, including lectures in its planetarium, opened in 1954. Twenty-three years later, an exhibit wing was built adjacent to the mansion. Now, the museum - officially renamed the Memphis Pink Palace Museum in 1967 - boasts an IMAX theater, science and history dioramas, nationally touring exhibits, and even a downscaled version of Saunders' first grocery store.
"Back in the '70s, we made a list of items that were not pertinent to the museum's mission. We then got a mandate from the city to sell the surplus items in our collection," Brister says, describing how the museum made the transition from regional dumping ground to organized facility. He estimates that the Pink Palace made several hundred thousand dollars via public auction, enough to pay for the museum's 1977 addition.
"Now, we only deaccession objects that have deteriorated or, if we acquire a better sample, that will upgrade the collection," he says, adding that in most cases, the museum no longer solicits exhibit donations.
"We don't have a lot of people on staff, so we can't take just anything," Brister says. He points out that he is looking for some modern-day items to display in the Pink Palace's African-American Initiative, which will profile 100 prominent black Memphians and cover more than a dozen historic events. He describes the project as a "very long-range program, with two or three exhibits a year, like our current display on the history of WDIA and an upcoming Ernest Withers photography exhibit." He notes that with mini-exhibits, he can make very specific donation requests.
"For instance, we're trying to find the LeMoyne-Owen students who protested segregation right here at the Pink Palace in the early '60s," Brister says, alluding to the era when African Americans were allowed to visit the museum just one day a week.
While the Pink Palace continues to celebrate and reexamine the city's history, this weekend it will give itself a pat on the back: On Sunday, admission to all exhibits, the Sharpe Planetarium, and the IMAX theater, will be free, while the newly renovated Mansion Theater will be christened with performances by puppeteer Jimmy Crosthwait and Robby Krampf's Electrifying Experience. Special behind-the-scenes tours will add to the fun, part of the Pink Palace's yearlong commemoration of its 75th anniversary.
"The Pink Palace has become a real treasure trove," Brister says. "The museum sparks what I call light-bulb learning. It can stimulate interest and foster knowledge in anyone on any number of subjects. The only difference between us and Disneyland is we have the real stuff here."
But can he predict what the Pink Palace will be like another 75 years down the line? "I hope it will be a historical museum, with the Lichterman Nature Center devoted to natural history," Brister says. "It would be a huge project [to relocate part of the collection], but we're already out of room here. Our Memphis history exhibits only go to 1960.
"I'm envisioning the Pink Palace as an interpretive center with complex working relationships with regional universities, the city school system, and the public library system," he says, firmly concluding, "Whatever happens, we'll always be here."
The 75th Anniversary Celebration is Sunday, August 21st, from noon to 5 p.m. at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum, 3050 Central Avenue. Free admission. For more information, go to MemphisMuseums.org or call 320-6320.