In Metropolis of the American Nile, a very fine history of our city, John Harkins writes: “From the start of his success, he shared his time, talents, and good fortune with others. Long known for his quiet kindnesses, his love of children, and his secret philanthropies, this French immigrant of humble origins became one of this city’s leading citizens.”
You probably think this is an accurate depiction of me. Anyone would. But Harkins is actually talking about a remarkable fellow named John Gaston, who put his name on a world-famous restaurant, hotel, hospital, and city park.
Gaston was born in France in 1828 and worked at his family’s café in Paris when he was only 6. Sometime in the 1850s, he took a job as a steward aboard a French Line ship, and when the vessel docked at New York City, he decided to stay in America. The enterprising fellow managed to land a job with the world-famous restaurant Delmonico’s, quickly working his way up from waiter to chef, and it is there, so the story goes, that he mastered his culinary skills.
When the Civil War started, Gaston inexplicably relocated to Memphis. That wasn’t a good career move. “War wiped him out,” writes historian Paul Coppock. “He took the side of the South, but exactly what he did was unclear.” Apparently he joined the Confederate army and was wounded in action, but some tales have him injured in the shoulder, while others say he was shot in the foot.
None of that really matters. What’s important is that in 1866, with the war finally over and Memphis beginning to recover, Gaston opened the Commercial Restaurant downtown at Adams and Main. It must have been quite a place; within weeks a newspaper was referring to him as “that prince of caterers.” In 1871, his growing reputation (and bank account) allowed him to open a considerably larger restaurant called Gaston’s — complete with a first-class hotel — overlooking Court Square. According to Coppock, “details got his attention, such as buying 20,000 quill toothpicks from France, each with his name in gold lettering.”
Gaston became very, very rich. Big-name politicians dined at his establishment, and celebrities such as Oscar Wilde made a point to visit when they toured Memphis. Gaston built a wonderful mansion on South Third Street, and also had the good business sense to purchase property all over town.
He died in 1912 at the age of 84. His famous restaurant and hotel closed, though the handsome building at 33-35 South Court has survived to this day. Before his death, he told friends that he wanted his mansion converted into a public hospital. That couldn’t happen until the death of his wife, Theresa, in 1929. By then the mansion was deemed too small for a hospital so it was demolished, and the property on Third Street was converted into Gaston Park, complete with a $100,000 community center.
The bulk of his fortune, supplemented by funds from the Public Works Administration, was then used to build a brand-new city hospital in the Medical District. John Gaston Hospital opened on Madison in 1936. It remained one of our city’s busiest hospitals until it was demolished in 1990 to make way for expansions to The Med.