Written by Ethan Williford
Photographed by Dillon Stewart
Memphis attracts royalty like a gravitational pull. It has been called home by the King of rock ‘n’ roll, Jerry “The King” Lawler, B.B. King, King Willie and Prince Mongo. And then there was Clarence Saunders, an overnight millionaire and mastermind behind the most luxurious mansion in the city limits—the Pink Palace.
Austin Peay, former Tennessee governor and perhaps the most infamous science denier in United States history, once said of his good friend Saunders: “He seemed the mythical king from whose hand everything he touched turned to gold.”
Though Saunders’ Midas touch would one day evaporate along with his mythic fortune, the loss of his Pink Palace has ultimately blessed the city with a sanctuary for science, natural history and evolution. Austin Peay must be rolling in his grave.
Clarence Saunders was born in Virginia only sixteen years after the end of the Civil War. The son of a sharecropping widower, Saunders migrated with his father to Tennessee at the age of ten. Predominantly self-educated, he only attended two years of formal schooling. However, he possessed a natural talent for innovation.
By 1917, Saunders attained a patent for the world’s first self-serving grocery, birthing Piggly Wiggly. Between 1916 and 1922, the retail grocery grew from one location to a chain of nearly 1,300 stores and sold over $100 million in merchandise. Saunders accomplished all of this by the time he turned 42.
Saunders’ ambition was not confined to the business world. In 1927, following the sudden death of his good friend Austin Peay, Saunders endorsed Henry Horton for the Tennessee Governorship against Hill McAlister. Political boss E. H. Crump threw his support to McAlister, catalyzing a clash of two Memphis titans.
The candidates’ policies were completely eclipsed by the advertising war waged between Saunders and Crump in newspapers across the state. Their feud grew quickly and became intense, personal and particularly jarring. Few in Memphis ever dared to openly challenge Crump. However, Saunders proved up to the task. Horton secured victory.
Saunders’ astonishing ambition was reflected in his conception of the Pink Palace. In his own words, Saunders wanted a home “Memphis would be proud of, a real southern showplace.” All materials, contractors and even architects were sourced from the South. Construction on the 36,500-square-foot residence, originally dubbed “Cla-Le-Clare” by Saunders, began in 1922.
Saunders chose legendary Memphis architect Hubert T. McGee to supervise the project. A member of the American Institute of Architects, McGee and his works have subsequently been featured on the National Register of Historic Places. However, even the seasoned architect struggled to contain Clarence Saunders’ unbridled aspirations. McGee described the house as “Romanesque American Rambling Design,” a reflection of the mansion’s inconsistent styling.
The Pink Palace was erected across from the Memphis Country Club on Central Avenue. And, in a defiant gesture against the old money of Memphis, Saunders intended to construct his own private greens. In addition to the typical dwelling rooms, the mansion contained a pipe organ, ballroom, swimming pool, bowling alley and shooting gallery. A large two-story entryway featuring a variety of Italian Renaissance details dominates the center of the home. The exterior is wrapped in a beautiful pink and gray marble harvested from a distant Georgia quarry. Despite a heavy investment of mental sweat equity, Saunders never enjoyed the fruits of his imaginative planning.
In 1923, after receiving over $10 million in loans from multiple Southern bankers, Saunders lost a devastating battle on the New York Stock Exchange. As the dust settled, not only did he relinquish his position and stock in Piggly Wiggly, but also his unfinished mansion. The house and 160-acre grounds were sold off to local developers. Saunders’ prized golf greens became Chickasaw Gardens, a pricey new subdivision.
Without any prospective buyers wealthy enough to afford the mansion, the developers donated it and about ten acres to the city. After a $150,000 expenditure to complete the interior and landscape the grounds, the Pink Palace opened as Memphis’ first official museum in 1930. The city finished the grand entryway with marble floors, walls, stairs and a fireplace bearing the Memphis seal. Burton Callicot murals hang in the space, the only remaining pieces of Works Progress Administration art in the area.
As it was, the Pink Palace Museum serviced Memphis for forty-seven years, but in 1977 it expanded into a new building. The city commissioned local architecture firm Thorn, Howe, Stratton and Strong for the project. Pointed, windowless and sheathed in beige masonry, the east wing demonstrates stylistic facets of both international and brutalist design. It bears little resemblance to the adjacent palace. Local architectural expert Eugene J. Johnson likened the building to I.M. Pei’s National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.—“at least in its angularity.”
The wing was originally constructed to house museum facilities and main exhibitions. The space includes a gift shop, café, administrative offices and collection storage. A state-of-the-art 130-seat planetarium crowned the east building. A new era for the museum peeked over the horizon.
The Pink Palace again saw a period of expansion during the ‘90s. In 1992, a two-story addition provided greater access between the mansion and the east wing. The 1992 project added the museum’s lobby, workshops and administrative areas. In 1996, an underground facility opened beneath the mansion’s south lawn. This subterranean station contains a massive IMAX® theater and other educational spaces.
The mansion closed to the public in 2016. For two years, the museum kept a massive renovation behind closed doors. On December 8, 2018, the highly anticipated reopening of the Pink Palace mansion arrived.
Refurbished exhibits include original Piggly Wiggly and Country Store replicas, homages to the mansion’s original owner. The Cossitt Gallery, a recreation of the original 1930 museum, now resides in the mansion. Over six hundred locally-significant items are displayed in the gallery. Not seen by the public since 1978, the mansion’s second story now contains the newly restored Clyde Parke Miniature Circus.
The planetarium also received a much-needed facelift. The museum installed not only the latest digital stargazing equipment, but also an additional fifteen seats. The newly christened AutoZone Dome now reaches fifty feet in diameter and just over thirty-two feet in elevation at its pinnacle. The screen itself is an impressive 3,925 square feet, the largest projection screen in the city. During the planetarium’s renovation work, a small fire broke out. Thankfully, the Memphis Fire Department easily contained the blaze and no one was injured. All flammable materials have since been removed from the viewing room.
Once a symbol of decadence, luxury and unrestrained ambition, the Pink Palace now exhibits the richness of knowledge. Memphis’ first museum continues to grow with the support of a thankful community. After four expansions, the museum now constitutes over 170,000 square feet. Even still, the Pink Palace bursts at its seams, filled to the brim with historical, cultural and scientific artifacts significant to Memphis.