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Henry Turley: Developer, Philanthropist and Memphis Storyteller

As evidenced by Wednesday’s story, there are very few people in Memphis today who’ve had as much impact on the way that the city looks and the way that the city is than Henry Turley.

Here are some more tidbits about the real estate developer and philanthropist that didn’t make it into print:

- The Turley family’s Memphis roots stem back to the Civil War. They came from the Carolinas and Virginia. His great grandfather, Thomas Battle Turley, was a senator in the late 1800s during the Cleveland administration.

He was born here, left here when he was 16 to fight in the war and got to about the Tennessee River when he was captured and wrote a little prison diary which (Rhodes College) published many years ago,” Turley said.

- Turley attributes the fact that he knew “a little more than the average white boy” during the early 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike to his friend and lessee T. O. Jones, a garbage-collector-turned-union-organizer. Turley joked that Jones couldn’t pay his rent, which was $75 a month, and that he rarely paid the utility bill. But Jones’ passion intrigued Turley, who had been in real estate for just five years at the time.

Here’s my T.O. Jones story – I’m kind of intrigued by the strike, so I started kind of curiously hanging around. I went to that first meeting where all the garbage workers went to raise hell with the council and disparage the council and tell them what a sorry bunch of characters they were and why they even allowed them alone to exist, so on and so forth. I enjoyed that, there was just a barrel of hell raised in a couple of hours there in the North hall of the auditorium. At the end of the meeting, we ….and I’m just a bystander, I’m not a striker, I promise I’m just there out of curiosity. But it was decided that there should be the first march. People filed out of the auditorium and went out onto Main Street and lined up maybe eight to 10 abreast and made quite a parade headed south. As the garbage workers lined up to march, the police came out of the old police station, which was right across the street, in a very orderly and military way sort of assigned one policeman to each row. We set out walking down Main Street, it was pretty exciting for awhile to be sort of a part of a demonstration and something we hadn’t seen before. Hell, we walked to Jefferson, we walked to Court Square, about Madison, the Union had gotten kind of anti-climactic – I mean what in the hell are we doing walking down the middle of the street in the middle of the day? I’m about (six feet) from T.O. and we get down to Goldsmith’s. There are not only police walking beside us, there are prowl cars driving. Well, T.O. goes over and grabs the fender of the prowl car and starts to rock the damn car. I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s going to rock the squad car and he’s black, too. This ain’t going to work out.’ Sure enough, it didn’t. People just …kind of hurdled through the glass in Goldsmith’s – I’ll never forget it, the cosmetic department right up front. And all of a sudden there was this wild man not through the door, crashed through the window in the cosmetics. It turned out a fun time, a few people got beat up and a little mace floated around in the air, wasn’t so terrible. But I always credit T.O. with knowing that it was getting kind of boring, and if he was going to get any momentum that day, he had to get some hell raised and have a little violence.”

- Turley was for a brief moment the landlord to James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I rented a place down on South Main to a guy named Loyd Jowers. Remember, I was just what they used to call in the old days the rent man – I didn’t own the property, I just collected the rent and fixed the plumbing when it broke. But we rented to a guy named Loyd Jowers, he sold cheap dishes to cheap restaurants. He was down at the train station, and most of the buildings there were developed in sympathy with the train station or in response to the train station. So you’d come to Memphis to get on the train, you’d take a room overnight and wait for your train to come. Well, Ray took a room overnight and stood in the fateful bathtub and shot King. That’s all I know about that.”

- Turley’s interest in reinvesting in Downtown peaked during an evening stroll with a friend.

He and I about 6 o’clock one evening walked from City Hall to the Rendezvous and we didn’t see anybody until we got to the Rendezvous. 6 o’clock – it was pretty damn pitiful. So the reason I got engaged in it is I thought it was so desperately needed. That’s kind of the way we started our deals was what do we need?”

- In the late 1970s, Turley bought the then-vacant Shine Building at 66 Monroe Ave. for $175,000. The 14-story office tower was built in 1923 as the Al Chymia Shrine headquarters. At about 100,000 square feet, his purchase equated to $1.75 per square foot. But Turley said it was worth no more.

It really wasn’t worth anything but you had to have a transaction so there would be some consideration. Fixing it cost several million bucks. Anything you saw was vacant, the only reason we got the good buildings was we were in line first.”

Turley opened the Shrine Building as apartments in 1981, and converted it again in 2005 into 74 condominiums.

- As referenced in my article, Turley knows a thing or two about talking his way through money to make deals happen. Even if that means pulling the “religion card.”

I used to pull it on bankers, most of whom were Christians. I’d try anything to talk them into making these loans and they would say, ‘Nobody wants to live Downtown.’ I would say, ‘Well, that’s just not right.’ I couldn’t say historical anomaly, they’d think there was something wrong with me. I would say, ‘Y’all remember Palm Sunday? Where do you think all of those palm branches stay? They live Downtown.’”

- One of Turley’s more proud moments related to Harbor Town involves Harold Ford Sr.

Harold Ford Sr. called me up one day and said, ‘Henry, I think I want a house Downtown.’ I sold him a house and saw him awhile later and I said, ‘How do you like it?’ He said, ‘There’s only one thing wrong with it – you didn’t call me 10 years earlier. I’ve had more fun here in a month than I had out on Poplar in 10 years.’”

Turley added that he and Ford and were the first visitors to Uptown.

The utterly impoverished, all black neighborhood where nobody’s put a quarter in 50 years – that’s now called Uptown, we called it North Memphis. I saw Harold one day, picked him up and drove him through there – he knew every church, he knew every important thing. He really kind of (showed) me the lay out, said it could be done.”

- When asked what intersection, building or stretch of road that is the epitome of Memphis, Turley thought long and hard before responding with two of the city’s poplar breakfast joints – Café Eclectic and Brother Juniper’s.

A place where the academia would intersect with the town itself – I always thought that was a nice idea and I like that way it’s happening. I kind of like being around colleges, I feel pretty comfortable in the neighborhood.”

- When asked how he would sell Memphis to 25 to 34 year olds, Turley responded he’d “sell it as the opportunities to do stuff are so clear.”

You can be somebody in Memphis if you set about.”

Comments

  1. Wintermute says:

    Henry was/is the best we had/have at the “public-private partnership” euphemism others call “crony capitalism” or socialism. I like Henry, even though he can be a bit conceited at times, for a descendant of a family that was a late-comer to Shelby County. https://sphotos-a.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-prn1/27806_387210396291_4982549_n.jpg

Dansette

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