Owners name buildings to give them identities and personalities. Once a building becomes part of the public domain, however, control over both the name and the character of the structure are largely out of their control. This occurrence is made clear in the case of this museum’s name. When Clarence Saunders planned his behemoth mansion, he christened it Cla-Le-Clare. The moniker was a combination of the names of his children—Clay, Lee and Clare. Memphis legend tells us that locals renamed it the Pink Palace as soon as the Georgia marble was added to the mansion.
The Memphis Park Commission was later tasked with turning the empty home into a museum. The commissioners decided to rename Cla-Le-Clare the Memphis Museum of Natural History and Industrial Arts. Before the museum opened to the public, members of the Museum Advisory Board began making recommendations to shorten the clumsy name. They got their way in 1936 after telling the Park Commission that they wanted their current “limiting” and “cumbersome” name shortened to the Memphis Museum. In the same meeting, they remarked that the Pink Palace nickname was not “definite” enough to become the official name. Nevertheless, visitors and the press continued to talk about the museum inside the Pink Palace. The “Memphis Museum” stuck until 1966 when the Board realized that they were having issues publicizing the museum. As part of a larger campaign to increase visitors, they received permission to change the name to the Pink Palace, making official what was already common practice.
The museum underwent a major expansion in the 1970s, and a part of this change included refocusing the exhibits on regional and local history as well as constructing a new building to house them. The Board of Trustees felt that the “Pink Palace” did not fit the museum’s new identity. As Board Chairman William Reed said, the expansion would leave the museum “no longer pink nor palatial.” They suggested multiple new names including “Memphis Museum of Interaction” and “Museum of Man and Nature.” The suggestion to change the name to anything new was fought vigorously in the newspaper editorials. The Press-Scimitar editors concluded their argument by saying, “And, of course, the name changers are embarking on a futile course. No matter what new name might be adopted, Memphians will always call it the Pink Palace.” The Park Commission agreed, and the Pink Palace was here to stay.
“Pink Palace Name Faces Test at Meeting,” Memphis Press Scimitar, 1/13/1976.
”Our Colorful Pink Palace,” Memphis Press-Scimitar, 12/12/1975.