In May 1922, grocery store magnate Clarence Saunders announced to the press with his typical flair and fanfare, that he would build a palatial estate on the eastern fringe of Memphis, Tennessee. The forty-one-year-old Saunders, founder of the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain and at the summit of his fortune, began building what would become one of Memphis’ most enduring landmarks, the Pink Palace Museum.
How that dream home became the Memphis Pink Palace Museum, headquarters for the Pink Palace Family of Museums, is one of Memphis’ more interesting stories. Memphians were fascinated by the estate under construction, taking Sunday drives on Central Avenue just to get a glimpse. Saunders named his 36,500 square-foot house, faced with pink Georgia marble “Cla-Le-Clare” after his three children, but Memphians nicknamed it the “Pink Palace.” The home was to feature a massive entry lobby with a pipe organ, a ballroom, indoor swimming pool, a shooting gallery, a bowling alley and eight bedrooms, each with its own private bathroom. Sadly, the Saunders family never lived in the Mansion. In 1923, Saunders lost his fortune in an epic battle with the New York Stock Exchange, and the unfinished house fell into the hands of his creditors.
The company that acquired the property donated the Mansion to the City of Memphis for use as a museum. The city spent $150,000 to complete the building and landscape the grounds. The impressive lobby was finished with marble floors, walls and stairs, and a marble fireplace bearing the city’s seal was installed in an adjacent room, which would have been Saunders’ living room.
The Mansion opened as the Memphis Museum of Natural History and Industrial Arts in March 1930. The Museum’s focus was regional and natural history, education and industrial arts. Many artifacts from the Cossitt Library collection were moved to the Museum, including the Rainey collection of trophy animal heads. Although the Museum had a regional focus, decorative objects and artifacts from around the world were occasionally acquired, such as the Boshart collection of over 500 birds in 1931, a mastodon jawbone in 1936 and the unforgettable shrunken head of an Ecuadorian Indian in 1939. Burton Callicott was commissioned by the WPA in 1934 to paint three murals depicting Hernando Desoto discovering the Mississippi River. The murals were hung on the north wall of the lobby. The Museum added a planetarium, Berry B. Brooks African Hall and elaborate mineral exhibits in the 1950s. The Clyde Parke Miniature Circus was added in later years.
After years of resisting its nickname, the facility formally became the Memphis Pink Palace Museum in 1967. An expansion project, completed in 1977, saw the Museum’s exhibits moved to a new and larger building adjacent to the Mansion. Memphis history exhibits are in ten restored rooms on the Mansion ground floor focusing on Memphis history from 1900–1960.
Clarence Saunders never slept in his “pink palace.” When he began its construction, he said he would build a landmark that “will stand a thousand years.” Saunders’ loss is the world’s gain. The Pink Palace Mansion feels the footsteps, hears the excited voices and senses the curious stares of visitors within its pink marble walls. The Pink Palace Museum has become an awe-inspiring world of discovery, attracting visitors from around the globe. The Pink Palace Museum celebrated its 75th Anniversary in 2005. Clarence Saunders would be proud.
For more about the Mansion Exhibits, and to see photo galleries of exhibits in the Mansion, click here.
For Facility Rentals in the Mansion click here.