By: Sara Hoover
Jutting out from behind a brick wall, in a storage area of the basement at 1 North
Front Street, sits a 3-foot high piece of limestone footing. Pink in hue, it is the
original exterior foundation of the U.S. Postal Service Customs House that is the
new home to the University of Memphis’ Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. As it was
the base for the building all those years ago, the limestone now represents a new
foothold the University has in its riverfront location, downtown neighborhood and
Erected in 1878 and opened in 1885, the facility served as the federal courthouse
and was the site of every major federal case in Memphis until 1963.
The new facility is near the riverfront in downtown. (photo by Lindsey Lissau)
Those historic courtrooms will now be used by the Moot Court team and for Mock Trial.
The Federal Tennessee Court of Appeals sits at the current law school and it’s hoped
that tradition will continue with the grand opening on Saturday, Jan. 16.
The land on which the Customs House sits was given to the city by the Overtons with
the stipulation attached that it was only to be used for public purpose. The property
housed the Customs House, a library and parking garages, until construction began.
The Riverfront Development Corporation believes moving the law school to the Customs
House is entirely within the public purpose requirements in addition to stimulating
more development downtown.
“It’s great for downtown,” said Cecil C. Humphreys Jr. (JD ‘81), attorney with Glankler
Brown. “Students have a better chance to interact with law firms and law clerking
experiences are easier. Faculty will have more interaction with the legal community.
Firms will have the law library and access to law clerks and faculty. Having all those
people downtown will just be great.”
The stately 130-year-old building was placed on the National Register of Historic
Places in 1980.
The building was actually built in four sections: the first in 1878, the second portion
in 1903 and two wings in the 1930s. The 1903 building was actually demolished during
renovations and houses the only new construction.
While the additional sections covered three sides of the original exterior of the
1878 structure, parts of it have been re-exposed and can now be seen throughout on
all the floors. Several of the original mahogany doors and hinges remain, including
one at the entrance of the Rare Books Room on the first floor.
“We worked a lot with the historic preservation in Memphis,” said Veronica Tansey,
Fleming/Associates/ Architects’ director of interiors, of the design approach. “Their
general rule of thumb was if it’s historic, it’s going to stay and it needs to stay
as it originally was. Everything that’s new needs to be new and you can tell that’s
something we’ve added to the building.”
The last resident of the building was the U.S. Post Office until the University
took over. The historic lobby remains untouched and surrounding areas harken to the
days when postal inspectors treaded along the catwalk looking in peepholes. Other
nods to the former resident include the original Pony Express emblems on the entrance
doors, glass etchings where P.O. boxes once were and walk-up teller windows.
Former Teller Cage
The old postal bank vaults will be put back into use. One will serve as a satellite
office for visiting lawyers and the other as part of the law library’s circulation
desk. The combination locks were recently deactivated so there’s no longer any danger
of someone being locked in the vaults.
Situated along the Mississippi River, the law school is nestled between Confederate
Park and the Cossitt Public Library.
View from the building.
“I admire so much the ‘can do’ attitude of President Raines,” said Allie Prescott
III (BA ’69, JD ’72), president of Allie Prescott & Partners and senior adviser at
Waddell & Associates. “Some people said, ‘You don’t want to do it downtown. There’s
no parking. It’s not safe.’We faced the same objections when we decided to build AutoZone
Park downtown. I was one of the early advocates because I had seen how successful
it could be downtown if done right, and this one is surely going to be done right.”