The Dream Lives On

The legacy of the civil rights movement is explored in the building from which was fired the shot that killed Dr. Martin Luther King 35 years ago
August 11, 2010

In the minds of many Americans, the civil rights movement died on April 4, 1968, when a shot rang out from a bathroom window in the rear of a run-down Memphis boarding house, killing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as he stood on a balcony outside his second-floor motel room across the street.

Dr. King's assassination dealt a severe blow to the movement, but his legacy and that of the civil rights movement live on, according to officials at the National Civil Rights Museum.

The museum, which opened in Memphis in 1991, incorporates the infamous Lorraine Motel, where King was slain 35 years ago. Until last year, the museum's tour ended at Room 306. A wreath now hangs on the balcony outside of the room where he fell. But visitors often commented that ending the tour in such a manner reinforced the idea that the movement also ended there.

"Tour guides had to be grief counselors at the end of the tour because it's such an emotional experience," says Gwen Harmon, the museum's director of marketing and public relations.

Remarkably, the boarding house and the commercial retail building adjacent to it known as the Young-Morrow Building still stood across the street, as if frozen in time. Now reconstructed, the two three-story brick buildings serve to further educate museum visitors about the assassination, the ensuing investigation, and assorted conspiracy theories.

The expansion continues the museum's use of structures that played a role in the assassination, says Harmon. "We are taking visitors through the actual rooming house. They walk across the street to the second part of the museum without losing any of the authenticity. They can see the bathroom [where the shot was fired] as it was in 1968 and be a part of that physical space."

But just as importantly, the buildings, which are now adjoined, explore the legacy of the civil rights movement and its continuing effect on the world. "No longer is the civil rights movement simply something to talk about in history class," says Harmon. "It's living testimony."

The buildings's additional 12,500 square feet of high-tech, interactive exhibit space, designed by Ralph Applebaum & Associates, New York, seeks to engage young people by connecting the past to present-day events and personalities.

An initial goal of the project was focused on preserving the context of the setting. "A chief concern was the physical exposure of the Lorraine to the boarding house," says Frank Ricks, a principal with locally based design architect Looney Ricks Kiss (LRK).

Bringing the buildings together

The Building Team had to figure out a way to connect the motel with the two buildings. The Lorraine was physically separated from the buildings by a courtyard wall that bounded the Lorraine; Mulberry Street, which bisects the two museum sites; and an 11-ft. grade change from the motel up to the two buildings, which sit facing Main Street.

To tie the sites together, LRK, together with Self Tucker, the locally based minority-owned architect of record, decided to remove the wall and tunnel through the hillside into the newly lowered basement levels of the boarding house and Young-Morrow Building. The section of Mulberry Street bisecting the two sites was blocked off, effectively combining the sites.

Since the assassination, the condition of the buildings had severely deteriorated. This, together with the need to accommodate the exhibit space and the building code, resulted in the removal and replacement of all floors and the roof structure, under the direction of locally based GC Wooldridge Construction Co.

"The windows were wide-framed structures," says LRK's Ricks. "They would not hold the live load required for the museum. So we gutted the buildings and stabilized the existing walls. The historic elements were taken out and then reinstalled as much as possible," he says. The bedroom and bathroom were rebuilt according to crime scene photos.

On the exterior, masonry brick and terracotta was restored and joints repointed. Because Memphis is located in a high seismic region, a pinned shotcrete system was applied to the exterior walls for increased strength and stability.

A moment-resistant frame technique, one of the first such installations in Memphis, was applied to the structure.

Doors and windows received both historic replacements and a modified curtain wall system. Historic window units on the front side of the buildings facing Main Street, as well as those at the rear of the buildings significant for their appearance in crime scene photos, were maintained. To create a modern look that contrasts with the historic building and complements the high-tech exhibits located within, the remaining window openings were glazed without mullions.

An all-glass curtain-wall system was used to connect and enclose the two buildings, where previously a 4-ft.-wide alley was located. The glass enclosure was designed to maintain the historic character and provide a wall-free lookout over the campus.

New M/E/P and fire-protection systems were installed, with the mechanical housed partly on the roof and partly in the basement.

A place for reflection, community

On what was once a dusty vacant lot on the hillside adjacent to the Young-Morrow Building, an outdoor green serves as a link between the two parts of the museum. It also provides an open sightline of the boarding house and the Lorraine for pedestrians, motorists, and trolley riders on Main Street.

Designed by Houston-based landscape architect SWA Group, the plaza is bermed to provide a place for visitors to pause and rest or to contemplate. The park-like setting also has become a staging place for community events.

The reconstruction was complicated by the insolvency of the project's general contractor, Wooldridge Construction, midway through the project. However, with help from LRK and other members of the Building Team, Wooldridge completed the project.

"We're very pleased," the museum's Harmon says of the addition. "We were able to marry the past with future, and do it with dignity."

The tour of the boarding house closes with a call to continue the struggle for civil and human rights. "We're linked by one human thread," says Harmon, "the ability to be a free people."

Construction Costs

General requirements $356,000
Site 466,000
Concrete 507,000
Masonry 516,000
Metals 363,000
Wood and plastic 170,000
Thermal 220,000
Doors and windows 300,000
Finishes 448,000
Specialty 35,000
Equipment 25,000
Specialty construction 124,000
Conveying 120,000
Mechanical 750,000
Electrical 500,000
Exhibit 3,300,000
Total $8,200,000