RSVPhillippi | February 2017
By Dennis Phillippi
This may be the first time I have ever endorsed a website in this space, but I heartily encourage you to visit Atlasobscura.com. I get nothing from telling you this other than knowing that you will discover a lot of cool things you probably didn’t know about cool places you might want to go, and at this point, anything positive is a plus.
I first went to Atlasobscura because my wife and I were going to New York and we wanted to see some things that we had never seen. What we found was a little known mini-walk of fame outside of a tiny theater in the West Village. It took us a while to scare the thing up, because when I say small, I mean small. You could walk the entire length of the walk of fame in less time than you it would take to get to your mailbox. It’s shorter than the line to get into see the latest Shia LeBouf movie. Still, if you do find it and stop for just a few seconds, the very friendly, and possibly very lonely owner of the theater, will magically appear to help you make out the handprints of the likes of Gloria Swanson and Myrna Loy worn almost out of existence by millions of unknowing footfalls. It’s more interesting than it sounds, and if he’s bored enough, which he almost certainly is, the owner will take you inside and give you a tour of Al Capone’s secret speakeasy that once stood on the site.
The reason I bring this Atlasobscura thing up is; once we got home we did a search on the site for interesting things in Memphis and what we found were some things that, you know, were interesting. Everyone who lives here has driven past Elmwood Cemetery more times than we can count, but the site encourages people to actually visit the place, something that exactly one of my friends has ever done. It’s a terrific stroll through our history, the Civil War and Yellow Fever being two of the largest contributors to its tenants. There are, according to Elmwood’s own information, veterans of every American war, mayors, governors, senators, madams, blues singers, suffragists, martyrs, generals, civil rights leaders, holy men and women, outlaws, millionaires and ordinary citizens interred on the grounds. It is a very pleasant place to kill a nice afternoon.
Not to dwell on boneyard attractions, but also mentioned on the site is the Crystal Shrine Grotto at Memphis Memorial Park, which neither my wife nor any of our friends knew existed. If you drive around pretty much any cemetery you’re going to see some strange sights, but the grotto is something special. The signage for it is modest, and the time we visited there was one family there, and they appeared to have accidentally wandered in to get out of the heat. You enter through, and I can’t stress enough that I am not making any of this up, a hole in the huge concrete stump of “Abraham’s Oak”, whose origin I leave it to you to discover. Once inside the place is a rabbit warren of alcoves, each depicting a different point in the life of Jesus. The grotto is constructed of concrete but features crystals of every size shape and hue hanging from the ceiling, jutting from the floor, and adorning virtually every surface. Over five tons of quartz crystal was used in the creation of the grotto. Walking through this catacomb visitors are treated to alcoves depicting different phases of the life of Jesus, created by the original architect and generations after. The juxtaposition of the crystals, the weird lighting, and the wildly varying forms of art together forms one of the most bizarre, unique places anywhere, much less in Memphis.
To my delight the site also mentioned the House of Mews in the heart of beautiful crime-free Cooper-Young. In the interest of full disclosure, we got two of our cats from the House of Mews. Elaine Harvey, the founder of the House of Mews, is a self-described “crazy cat lady”, and boy howdy is she ever. Tucked into a little building between high-end restaurants and bars, the place is literally crawling with cats, often over a hundred of them. There are cat toys treacherously underfoot everywhere. For that matter there are cats treacherously underfoot everywhere. There are older cats languishing on rocking chairs and random shelves. There are rows and rows of cages overflowing with kittens just waiting to be picked up and played with. If you’re a cat lover, it’s a paradise. If you’re not a cat lover, you might want to wait outside. The House of Mews is dedicated to cat rescue and cat adoption. It is not a government shelter. It is free to visit. If you fall in love with a cat or two, all they ask is that you cover the cost of spaying or neutering. Yes, with that many cats it smells like, well, a place that has a ton of cats, but you get used to it quickly enough. It’s one of those places where even if you don’t pick up a new pet, you can actually witness people doing something good just for the sake of doing something good.
Of course, if you have guests in from out of town you’ll likely have to carry them to Beale Street and Graceland, but it’s nice to know that there are a few amazing places in Memphis that don’t cater specifically to tourists. Elmwood and the Crystal Grotto and the House of Mews are things that can only be seen in Memphis, and generally are only going to be seen by people who live in the Mid-South. As if we needed more reasons to love this city.