A fraternal headquarters changed the look of the Memphis skyline
by Vance Lauderdale
In 1926, the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks constructed one of the most impressive structures ever erected in our city — the 12-story tower at Jefferson and Main (shown here) they would call, quite simply and logically, the Elks Club Building.
Crafted by the Memphis firm of Mahan and Broadwell, this was a combination lodge and hotel that was, according to a promotional brochure, “attractive in design, mammoth in size, and furnished luxuriously and in excellent taste — simple dignity without in any way losing the informal, homelike air of a true club.” Erected at a cost of some $1.3 million (an enormous sum in the 1920s), the new Elks Club featured “150 delightful rooms with bath and outside exposure, circulating ice water, free electrical fan service, and a new and sanitary coffee shop.” That was just the hotel portion of the building, which was open to the public.
The Elks themselves enjoyed considerably fancier amenities. The building included a complete gymnasium that would allow members to “enter the day’s work with new zest, boyish vim, and vigor”; a billiards room with “first-quality tables, balls, cues, and scoring equipment”; a huge indoor swimming pool with “crystal clear waters”; a “spacious, airy, and inviting” six-lane bowling alley; a handball court “pulsing with life and action”; and “one of the most attractive ballrooms in the city.” All that was in addition to the Club Grille, the coffee shop, the library, the lounge, and the Turkish baths, where Elks members “may receive the expert attention of trained masseurs, and sally forth thence refreshed and invigorated.”
Unfortunately for half of this city’s population, all these wonders were reserved for the men. But the new Elks Club did have a Ladies Writing Room, with fancy desks and comfy chairs, “an ideal retreat, where feminine correspondence may receive its proper attention.”
This stunning structure — all brightly colored terra-cotta and spires, with four stone griffins perched at the top corners — was called the Elks Club Building for only a few years. When Clarence DeVoy, the Elk’s Exalted Ruler, died in 1931, the name of the building was changed to the Hotel DeVoy — a classy name indeed. In 1945, however, the name was changed again, to the one most Memphians remember today — the Hotel King Cotton.
That’s right. One of downtown’s most memorable hotels actually began life as an Elks Club.
But the grand building turned out to be a burden. Over the years, the tremendous cost of construction and upkeep became too much for the members to handle. In 1937, Memphis Elks Lodge #27, one of the oldest and largest in the country, surrendered its charter and moved out of its fancy headquarters, holding their meetings in rented space in various locations over the years. The million-dollar-plus building was sold at a foreclosure auction for just $200,000.
The King Cotton joined the other grand hotels downtown: the Peabody, Gayoso, Claridge, Wm. Len, and Chisca. Times were good for a while. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the others, it struggled to survive as businesses — and hotel visitors — joined the move eastward. In the mid-1970s, the Elks actually returned to their former home, this time renting out meeting space in the old hotel. It must have been a bittersweet experience, looking around and thinking, “At one time, all this was ours.”
They didn’t have to feel sad for very long. On the morning of April 29, 1984, the King Cotton came tumbling down with a blast of dynamite to make way for the Morgan Keegan Tower, the most impressive addition to the Memphis skyline since Commerce Square opened in 1970. The magnificent stone griffins that once guarded the top four corners of the old hotel grace the lobby of the new tower, now called the Raymond James Tower.
When the Elks Club Building first opened, a promotional booklet gushed, “The new building will be a monument to the finest American ideals of physical expression and the fullest expression of true Elk fellowship.” The Elks are still quite active in this area, but they probably never realized the impact their headquarters would have on the Memphis skyline.
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