February 26, 1953
The telling and retelling of this one event has over the years produced articles, book chapters, and posts of varying degrees of accuracy. That event was the burning of the former home of Robert Church Jr. Mr. Church was a prominent businessman and political organizer in Memphis who through his considerable influence helped Memphians, both black and white.
In 1953 Mr. Church’s home at 384 S Lauderdale Street was involved in a massive urban renewal project. It along with 19 other homes on Lauderdale, located just north of Georgia Street, were scheduled for the wrecking ball. Because of the deterioration of this neighborhood it was determined that the houses should be razed and the area revitalized from the ground up. By this point Mr. Church had not lived in the home since 1941. Several other families had lived in the home until 1951 when the property was abandoned and sat vacant for the next 2 years. Records from 1943-46 show David Williams occupied the home, followed by Ella Dotson who lived there from 1948 to 1950.
Beginning in 1934, and every year thereafter, Fire Department Instructors and Chief Officers from all over the world came to Memphis to learn new ways to fight fires. In 1953 the Fire Service introduced the “Fog Nozzle” to the national fire service. This revolutionary new nozzle was designed to break up the stream into smaller water droplets designed to absorb heat faster and convert that heat to steam. The aim of this new design was to put the fire out faster and with significantly less water damage. In order to fully demonstrate this new nozzle the Fire Service needed structures of different sizes, with two and three story homes being the desired targets. The Church home, a three story eighteen room dwelling, was perfect. Next to the Church’s abandoned house was a two story nine room house that made the possibility of this very first comprehensive test a reality. Some past articles have stated the test included a fire retardant, but this was not the case, as this test was strictly for the Fog Nozzle.
After installing thermocouples in both homes which were used to gauge the internal temperatures, the firemen started and extinguished several small one and two room fires in the two story home to the North. They then purposely allowed the smaller home to catch the larger home on fire.
The fire was put out by the firemen using the new nozzles and only 10,000 gallons of water. The water was applied through a 500 gallon per minute (GPM) nozzle from a Salvage Corps deck gun, a 500 GPM nozzle on Ladder Truck 3, and 250 GPM hand line from Engine 10. The heavy stream nozzles worked great. They put the fire out quickly and exactly as the fire department had planned. Fire officials of the day stated that if conventional nozzles had been used, it would have required 75,000 gallons of water along with multiple alarms to bring a fire of this size under control.
After the fire was out the wrecking ball did the rest. The remains of the structures were demolished by the city and were not left to burn as has been quoted in other articles.
Historically there are those who have said that E H Crump was sending a message by destroying the former Church home. He might have been, but given this demonstration was more than a decade after Mr Church and his family had left the home, it seems unlikely. The former Mayor was in declining health in 1953, and while he may have had some involvement with the test, it’s not clear that he specifically wanted any certain dwelling destroyed as a political statement.
Images provided by the Memphis Fire Museum
Written by Joe Lowry with research and editorial assistance by Trish Gully.