Helen of Memphis

A high-end clothing store for the city’s “smart set.”



Photograph courtesy Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries

In 1931, a Memphis woman named Helen Quinn became the manager of Phil A. Halle men’s clothing store, located downtown on the ground floor of the Exchange Building. After three years, she opened her own place. The first Helen Shop, as it was then called, opened in Midtown at 1648 Union, in an old building that had formerly housed the Heirloom Antique Shop. It mainly offered antiques in its early days, but within a year or so city directories described the business as “women’s furnishings.”

And that business was obviously thriving, because in 1937 Quinn moved down the street to 1808 Union, the rambling structure shown here, which had originally served as St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and later became home to a beauty salon, florist, and dance studio. A Commercial Appeal article observed that Helen “played host to the fashionable women of Memphis,” and “debutantes of the past season mixed with many of former seasons, and with the city’s socially prominent matrons.”

The store still sold a nice selection of antiques, and it even had a glove counter, “where an artisan who learned her trade in Europe hand-tailors gloves to order.” This wasn’t the kind of place where you just bought clothes right off the rack; you had them tailored for you — even down to your gloves. The shop also included an infant’s department, jewelry of all kinds, shoes, hats, and hosiery “in all the new fall colors.”

Helen of Memphis, as the place was called in later years, went through many transformations, the most dramatic in 1958 when noted architect Nowland Van Powell was commissioned to give the store a new look to accommodate the widening of Union Avenue. According to the authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide, “Powell gave the ensemble an almost impossible-to-achieve coherence. His solution was to encase all the disparate elements in a sheer wall brought right out to the sidewalk.” The gleaming white building is the one most Memphians remember.

Quinn eventually sold the store to other owners, who opened a branch in Germantown, but in 1988 the Helen of Memphis stores closed. The fine building pictured here was bulldozed; it’s now a Rite-Aid pharmacy.

 

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