By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN — The old Melrose High School at 843 Dallas Street once stood as a beacon of pride in the Orange Mound community, where an indomitable spirit remains.

Vacant for nearly 40 years, the city of Memphis Division of Housing & Community Development (HCD) is transforming the three-story red brick school building into vibrant commercial and residential spaces. 

City officials and project partners will break ground on the Historic Melrose Redevelopment Project Friday, Oct. 7, at 2 p.m. The project is scheduled to be completed in two phases.

“We’ll transform the first floor into a neighborhood branch library, which will include a genealogy center that will be a resource for the whole city,” said Arlenia Cole, responding to questions via email.

Cole, the city’s media affairs manager, said the second phase of the project will include two floors of senior apartments. Construction will start this fall and the library will open in December 2023.

The project is designed by Self+Tucker Architects and managed by Allworld Project Management, LLC, both headquartered in Memphis. Construction is handled by Grinder, Taber & Grinder, Inc., also a local firm. 

The project has been on the drawing board since its temporary activation in 2018, Cole said.

The community was heavily involved in the initial stage when input was sought. “Orange Mound residents spoke up about what type of project they wanted in their community through a series the community meetings,” Cole said.

This included the Melrose High School Alumni, their local CDC (Orange Mound Development Corporation), and Orange Mound residents, including Mary Mitchell, a noted community historian.

As it stands, the building has a first-floor footprint of about 13,200 square feet. Cole said, “We’re going to add a small addition that will increase it to about 16,200 square feet.” 

In total, the building will grow from just under 41,200 square feet to about 45,000 square feet, Cole said.

The total construction cost is around $14 million. The city of Memphis announced in 2021 that $10 million had been allocated to redeveloping the ole school building.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) announced in May $3 million for HCD’s Historic Melrose Redevelopment Project and the Orange Mound community via the appropriations process. 

The project is a boon for Orange Mound, one of the oldest Black communities in the United States. Founded in 1890 on the former Deadrick Plantation, Blacks were able to buy land and build their own homes.

The school was one of the anchors in Orange Mound. It still is. The newest Melrose High School opened on Deadrick Avenue in 1972. On May 2, 2001, the old school building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. 

It is also a pitstop along the Memphis Heritage Trail, which celebrates the rich business, culture, and musical heritage of African-American achievements.