Ask Vance: Midtown Mystery Church

Dear Vance: While walking through the Cooper-Young neighborhood, I came across this little church on Tanglewood. The property appears to be abandoned, with no visible name. What’s the story behind this? – LBT, Memphis.

Dear LBT: As soon as you shared the photos of the old church, I was immediately drawn to the unusual brickwork. It’s a tiny house of worship, that’s for sure, and even though it lacks an impressive steeple or steeple, the builders put love and care into its construction. Note, in particular, how they placed red bricks in the gray stones to form the cross above the entrance.

What appear to be large letters carved into the granite blocks are also visible – barely – but age has made everything they once spelled out too difficult to read. More on that later, however.

I have to tell you that as soon as I figured out the building’s exact address – 775 Tanglewood, just south of York – my research showed it certainly had a tangled history. Built almost exactly a century ago, this tiny church has housed nearly a dozen congregations and more pastors than I could name (although I will mention a few).

Cedar Grove Baptist Church opened on Tanglewood in 1920. The early years are a bit confusing. The city directories do not list a minister. Sometimes they spell the name in two words and other times in “Cedargrove”. And they can’t even agree on the precise location of the property, with many years indicating the street address as 783 Tanglewood, which would have placed it in the middle of the old Beltway railway, which ran along the south wall of the church at one point.

Even more confusing? These same directories sometimes claim that the church was located on the north side of this railway line, and at other times they say it was on the South side. I seriously doubt the church or the railroad has been going back and forth over the years, but I can’t understand the inconsistencies with the address.

Although the tracks were ripped off decades ago, that same railroad runs through South Cooper, one block east. In fact, he carried trains along the well-known trestle decorated with silhouettes of Cooper-Young monuments.

In 1932, records show that the Reverend William Carothers was pastor of Cedar Grove. Others surely preceded it, but it is the first that I could find on the list. City directories from that time say his occupation was a postal carrier, not a minister. This is probably correct. The tiny church, barely 25 feet wide and 50 feet long inside, couldn’t have more than two dozen members. Serving as a minister of such a small congregation would not have been a full time job and almost certainly would not have paid the bills.

Over the years, ministers have changed. Among those serving Cedar Grove were the Reverend Robert A. Morris (1935-1939), the Reverend Illinopolis Jackson (1940-1947) and the Reverend Hugh Blacknall (1948-1955).

In 1961 a new congregation arrived and it left its mark on the church – literally. Members of Mt. Bethel Missionary Baptist Church has the name engraved in the stones above the door. Some of these large letters – especially the “MT” – are still visible today. The minister at that time was Reverend Clemmie Mickens Jr., and the church remained a stable part of the neighborhood for over 20 years.

Then the change came again. At one point in the early 1980s, Mt. Bethel has moved to a larger facility on Deadrick, a few miles south. It was apparently a smart decision; this church is still there today and very well maintained. After being vacant for a while, Trinity Church of God moved into the Tanglewood building. I presume at that point they removed (or tried to fill in) the lettering that had written “Mt. Bethel. “

The interior, essentially an open room with a worn red carpet and very little religious ornamentation, still contained its original pulpit, light fixtures, and 13 old wooden benches. At the back there was a small kitchen and two bathrooms. The rows of old windows were just plain glass, but Jill said, “Years ago someone put some sort of red film on them, which made everything inside very. red.”

No disrespect, but I’m surprised they bothered, because just two years later the church changed hands (and names) again. In 1986 it became the home of the Church of Christ Tanglewood, with Reverend John DeBerry as pastor.

When this church closed in the late 1990s, another congregation purchased the property, the Abiding Faith Church. For the past 20 years or so, it has also hosted the ministries of true glory, the Baptist Missionary Church of the Word of Truth, and the ministries of the life of glory. My God, all the names are confusing. Even though I studied the Shelby County Appraiser page until my eyes met, I couldn’t comprehend all of the collateral deeds, resignation deeds, and other transactions involving this tiny place of business. worship.

Around 2017, however, a local musician – he doesn’t want his name mentioned here – stumbled across the property, in disrepair after all these years. “I was so in love with this building,” he says, “but I never got to dive deep into it.”

Last year he sold the church and the land to my pals Jill and Ken Steinberg. The price was – now look, do you really have to know all? I won’t tell you how much it’s worth. Jill, originally from Chattanooga, moved to Memphis in 1985 to work as a lawyer with Baker Donelson. Ken, a native of Memphian and a proud graduate of White Station High School, is a bond broker at Duncan-Williams. However, these are only their daily tasks. They also own over a dozen properties in Memphis, which they renovate and then lease as Airbnbs.

The church was a whole different matter. “It’s hard to explain, but we’ve always wanted to buy an old church,” Jill says. “And it’s especially strange, considering that we’re Jews,” Ken adds with a laugh. Either way, they admired the wonderful stone and decided it would be a good investment.

The interior, essentially an open room with a worn red carpet and very little religious ornamentation, still contained its original pulpit, light fixtures, and 13 old wooden benches. At the back there was a small kitchen and two bathrooms. The rows of old windows were just plain glass, but Jill said, “Years ago someone put some sort of red film on them, which made everything inside very. red.”

“We thought it was the coolest place ever,” says Ken, and while they certainly had no intention of using it as a church again, “we thought we could convert the interior into three separate living areas.

Now, that was before a close inspection revealed that the church couldn’t be saved. Not all, anyway. Under the stones, the building is a basic timber frame construction. “So the plan is to save the masonry, remove the rest of the structure, and somehow integrate the facade into some form of residential property,” Jill explains. The Steinbergs also bought the empty land next to the church, where they plan to build three houses.

A father and son team of local developers, Frank and Clayton Kemker, recently unveiled plans to build Central Yards, a 350-unit apartment complex just around the corner of York and South Cooper, with retail space and offices. Jill and Ken are convinced that this once dormant neighborhood, with so many empty lots and abandoned buildings, is about to explode. They hope the old Cedar Grove Baptist Church – and all the other names it has borne over the years – will be an attractive addition to Cooper-Young’s new development.

So what does the rest of the building look like? Would you like to take a tour? Here is a beautiful gallery of photographs provided by Jill Steinberg.

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