Throwback Thursday: The Obelisk Flour Building
Ed. Note: I'm happy to share this guest post from writer Tamara Williamson about a slice of Memphis history, the Obelisk Flour building at 325 Wagner Street. She provided the photos as well.
The Pyramid may be the most recognizable example of Egypt-inspired architecture in Memphis, but it wasn't the first in town. The Ballard and Ballard Co. Obelisk Flour building, which is downtown at Vance and Wagner, was built 70 years before the pyramid, and it has Egypt written all over it.
The Ballard and Ballard Company owned and operated the building. In his book Fading Ads of Birmingham, Charles Buchanan describes the building:
“[The company] distributed ‘Always Reliable’ Obelisk Flour throughout several states, and its Egyptian-style logo, complete with camels, pyramids, and Sphinx, adorned barrels, sacks, and advertising from the beginning. Samuel Thruston Ballard, one of the two brothers who founded the company, had an affinity for ancient Egypt; in 1904 he purchased a 2,500-year-old mummy to display in Louisville’s public library.”*
Mr. Ballard would have probably loved the gigantic Ramesses statue that is now in front of The University of Memphis (it once stood outside the entrance of the Pyramid).
Because of the discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922 in Egypt, there was revival in Egyptian-style architecture in the early 1920s in the U.S.** Memphis, Tennessee, was the perfect spot for this “Egyptomania,” and the Ballard and Ballard building epitomizes the serendipitous combination of the newest fad in architecture and Mr. Ballard’s obsession with all things Egyptian.
Eugene Johnson also mentioned the building in Memphis: An Architectural Guide:
“On each obelisk, the same hieroglyphs are repeated. According to experts from the distinguished institute for Egyptian studies at Memphis State University, the message of these hieroglyphs is (sadly) nonsense.”***
What a shame!
There were also Ballard and Ballard buildings in Alabama and Georgia (though, of course, they weren’t as cool as the one in Memphis). The Pillsbury Company acquired the Ballard and Ballard Company in 1951, and 325 Wagner Place is now home to H & S Printing Co.
Another downtown building also has Egyptian revival architecture is the Universal Life Insurance building, located at the corner of Linden and Danny Thomas, which was built in 1949.
Ed. Note: The Universal Life Insurance Building just announced last week that the building will be renovated in 2015 for future use as an office building. Self Tucker Architects will use green building techniques (including solar power and a green roof) but respect the historical integrity of the building. Horray for one less empty building downtown!
*Buchanan, Charles. Fading Ads of Birmingham. The History Press, Charleston, 2012.
**Ickow, Sara. Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. www.metmuseum.org. “Egyptian Revival.” http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/erev/hd_erev.htm
***Johnson, Eugene. Memphis: An Architectural Guide. University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
About the Author
Tamara Williamson was born and raised in Memphis. She currently works at ArtsMemphis as Community Engagement Associate, where she works to increase access to the arts in communities whose residents have little or no exposure to them. She loves Memphis, old buildings, reading, and, of course, the Grizzlies.