Rob McGowan, co-founder of the South Main Historic District, died last week after suffering from cancer. He was 65.
The following is courtesy of the South Main Association:
Rob McGowan’s involvement with Downtown began in 1981 with the purchase of 416-418 South Main, auctioned on the Shelby County Courthouse steps. It was the beginning of 10 years on South Main that were marked with challenge, frustration, triumph, and personal loss.
At the time, South Main had been abandoned by the city, by developers, and by local lending institutions. Rob’s first big challenge was to obtain a building permit to begin work on the unused and seriously deteriorated South Main structure he had purchased. Two hard-won years later, in 1983, he and his then-wife, Annie Mahaffey, moved into their studio/residence.
Together, they initiated the establishment of the South Main Historic District and founded the South Main Historic District Association, Memphis Center for Contemporary Art, Tennessee New Art Association, and the art publication NUMBER.
Rob was a true urban pioneer who paid a great personal price for his interest and belief in preserving and revitalizing an urban environment. The South Main District we see and enjoy today is the result of his vision and hard work.
Rob will be missed by many, but his art, writings, and the impact of his civic activism remain as his legacy.”
McGowan, along with his former wife Annie Mahaffey, were the recipients of the Downtown Memphis Commission’s Visionary Awards in September.
“Thanks to their stalwart persistence, this once abandoned and neglected area is now a showcase of historic gems that lure creative businesses and residents to Downtown,” said Paul Morris, DMC president, while presenting their Visionary Awards. “Frankly, their efforts weren’t supported as much as they should have been by the Center City Commission. It’s people like that who have real vision that’s something nobody else can see and they drive forward on their vision, they don’t give up just because other organizations are not supportive.”
McGowan, unable to attend the party due to radiation treatment, sent over some thoughts that Morris read to the crowd:
My former wife, Annie, and I bought our building on South Main in 1982 and soon after began a life-consuming, nearly 10-year struggle on many difficult fronts, aided later by others who ventured into the district to encourage revitalization. It was, to be quite honest, mostly no fun at all. But I’m proud to look back over my life and to know that Annie and I made a positive difference in helping to ensure the future of vitality for the South Main Street Historic District. I doubt that very many of you can fully appreciate how astonishing it is to me here in 2012 to see what a transformation has occurred in the district and surrounding areas. Some of you could not begin to imagine what South Main was like in the early 80s – the empty desolation, the crime, the imminent threat of widespread demolition, along with the official indifference of the city of Memphis and the old Center City Commission of that time, more than a quarter century ago. We have today a wholly different world in the South Main area. South Main has for several decades now lived in my heart and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. A careful respect for the district’s history and its historically significant built environment will always be a major key to its lively survive into the decades and into the centuries ahead.”
McGowan’s book, “South Main Stories,” derived from his experiences in South Main, has recently been released and is available here.