Park History

Crowd gathered by the Duke C. Bowers Wading Pool.

On November 14, 1901, the City of Memphis purchased a 342-acre tract of land from Nashville residents Ella and Overton Lea (for $110,000) and “Lea’s Woods” became Overton Park. The park was designed by landscape architect George Kessler as part of a comprehensive plan that also included Martin Luther King-Riverside Park and the Memphis Parkway System. The park was officially named after John Overton, a co-founder of Memphis, on July 25, 1902.

In the late 1950s Overton Park became the subject of controversy when 26 of its 342 acres were condemned by the State of Tennessee for a planned right-of-way for Interstate 40. Residents of Midtown Memphis formed an advocacy group called Citizens to Preserve Overton Park and challenged the plan in court. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in CPOP’s favor in the landmark case Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe. The 26 acres were finally deeded back to the City of Memphis in 1987.

Overton Park Timeline

1889
Judge L.B. McFarland begins crusade for public park system in Memphis.

1899
Tennessee state legislature authorizes establishment of Memphis Park Commission.

1900
City establishes Memphis Park Commission; Judge L.B. McFarland, chairman; Robert Galloway and John Godwin, commissioners.

1901
City acquires Lea’s Woods from Overton Lea; area renamed Overton Park.  Memphis Park Commission requests proposals for system of “parks, drives, and boulevards.”  Olmsted Brothers and George Kessler respond; Kessler selected.

1902-1904
Main pavilion at west end, picnic pavilion at east end and Rainbow Lake constructed in Overton Park.

1904
Clara Conway Memorial Arbor constructed in formal garden, Overton Park.  Demolished by storm, 1936.

1906
Overton Park golf course established, first public golf course in region.  Memphis Zoo established.

1908
Jenny M. Higbee Memorial built near later site of Brooks Museum.  Moved near formal garden ca. 1959.

1911
Overton Park playground developed, first of its kind in Memphis.

1914
Japanese Garden, gift of Robert Galloway, located around lake at present site of Memphis College of Art (destroyed in 1941).  Duke Bowers wading pool at Overton Park playground opens (closed ca. 1979).

1916
Brooks Art Gallery constructed, James Gamble Rogers, architect.

1917
Pavilion dedicated to park commissioner Willingham built near Brooks, adjacent to golf course.

1926
Overton golf clubhouse constructed, gift of Abe Goodman, park commissioner; E.L. Harrison, architect.  Doughboy memorial statue unveiled in Overton Park. Nancy Coonsman Hahn, sculptor.

1930
Bell Tower to honor park commissioner McFarland built near present site of Memphis College of Art. Hanker & Cairns, architects.

1936
Overton Park Shell built by WPA.  Max Furbinger and Merrill Ehrman, architects.

1955
Overton Park entrance “gates” erected at Tucker Street and Poplar Avenue.

1957
Memorial to Mayor E.H. Crump dedicated. Donald Harcourt Delue, sculptor.

1959
Memphis Academy of Arts (renamed Memphis College of Art in 1985) moves to Overton Park from Victorian Village.  William Mann and Roy Harrover, architects.

1960s
African-American citizens afforded unrestricted access to Overton and other Memphis parks.

1960s-1970s
Principal years of dispute over I-40 route.

1971
U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park halts construction of interstate through Overton Park.

1979
Overton Park Historic District entered in National Register of Historic Places.

1988
Overton Park Master Plan approved by Memphis Park Commission.  Ritchie Smith Associates, landscape architects.

2005
Friends of the Levitt Pavilion Memphis, Inc. forms, assuming responsibility for the planning and management of the Levitt Shell renovation, and the funding, administration, and programming of the Levitt Shell.

2011
Old Forest is designated a State Natural Area by the state of Tennessee.  Overton Park Conservancy established by management agreement with City of Memphis.  OPC assumes responsibility for 184 acres of the park including the Greensward, Rainbow Lake, the formal gardens, Veteran’s Plaza, the East Parkway picnic area, and the Old Forest State Natural Area.