UPDATED 11/10: With a demolition permit now filed, StoryBoard joins the building’s former owner to discuss the building and imagines possible re-uses for it
UPDATED: As reported by the Memphis Business Journal on November 9, 2020, a demolition permit was filed Monday for 7 Vance Ave., the site of the Nylon Net building.
By StoryBoard’s Urban Design Review Board
It’s the tall smokestack that gives it away.
You can see it from the Old Bridge and the M Bridge, from old views from the top of the Sterick Building and current views from Front Street. Standing in stark silhouette against the bright bold colors of the western skies over the Mississippi, in the heart of the South Bluffs Warehouse Historic District, the brick smokestack announces proudly that I am still here.
Behold “The Southern Warehouse.” Number 7 Vance.
Vacant since the 1990s, for years the building has been eyed for restoration and reuse for mixed-use and housing. However a generation later and a hundred and thirty years since its foundations were laid, on November 18 a panel of Board of Adjustment commissioners may have the final say on its fate when they consider a request by the ownership team of the Carlisle Corporation for a complete demolition of the property to make way for new construction.
A handsome brick-masonry industrial building, the Nylon Net Building is distinctive for its arched, full length window bays along its ground-floor façade along Vance Avenue and cornering Wagner Place. Its National Register of Historic Places listing includes a description of its ground floor walls that “give the appearance of engaged piers in a distinctive common bond pattern masonry and limestone bases.” And then, there’s the tall masonry smokestack that reaches the sky.
Preservation experts and enthusiasts, and former owner Dana Gabrion, the building’s owner from 2011 to 2015, are disappointed and dismayed with the Carlisle’s new plans to demolish the historic warehouse after previously submitting plans to restore it (read Tom Bailey’s full Daily Memphian story here). Speaking to The Daily Memphian, Memphis Heritage’s chief development officer June West called the new demolition plans extremely disappointing. In the same article, developer Chance Carlisle “said he has tried unsuccessfully to find a financially feasible way to preserve the Nylon Net Building,” while Ms. West wondered how much greater the Carlisle’s profit margin would be under the new plan.
In their official statement to the Board of Adjustment, Memphis Heritage asked that “We can’t help but wonder, what was the cost per unit when the plan was to save a considerable part of the building? What is it now? How much profit stands to be made in either case?” And, “Why not involve an architect experienced in historic preservation in determining the feasibility of adaptive reuse?”
“Just look at Crosstown… the Tennesee Brewery… I think anything is possible with enough want and effort.”
To their credit, the Carlisle Corp has a credible track record in tackling large scale preservation projects – the restoration of the Hotel Chisca and their partial repurposing of the Wm C. Ellis complex as part of their One Beale development – reminders to the preservation community that the developer has the experience in preserving historic properties.
(The corporation reportedly spent three months assessing the feasibility of restoring the 7 Vance facade “in a meaningful manner” but according to the developer “cannot come up with a way that wouldn’t jeopardize the project,” citing concerns about the financial challenges, the overall condition of the structure and the stabilization of that smokestack. (The Daily Memphian))
Further, at the July Board of Adjustment hearing for the corporation’s first application (to remove the non-historic 1970s addition, repurpose the structure for apartment dwellings and retain the historic Vance-Wagner-facing facade), the Carlisle’s representative David Lewis called the building’s Wagner-Vance facade lovely, and that “the intent is to preserve some of those architectural elements that are in good shape including the facade up to at least 22 feet, up to the stone coping and the tall smokestack to the north.”
Echoing the feelings of Memphis Heritage, former owner Ms. Gabrion understands the Carlisle’s challenges but feels that their recent assessments do not go far enough into finding a way to make a restoration project work.
“I think anything is possible with enough want and effort,” said Gabrion. “Just look at Crosstown (Concourse). That development was against so many odds and just mind-blowing in scale, but they set out to make it happen and they did! Even the Sears building in Los Angeles still sits empty. The Tennessee Brewery had a demo announced before folks rallied to save it, and thank goodness they did that as well.”
StoryBoard’s Urban Design Review Board would likewise like to see restoration efforts extended and reconsidered, siting Memphis against-all-odds success stories like Crosstown Concourse, the Tennessee Brewery, the Carlisle’s own efforts with Hotel Chisca, Doug Carpenter & Associates restoration of the former National Biscuit Company warehouse at 11 West Huling, developer Billy Orgel’s restoration of downtown’s Joseph N. Oliver Building (known as the old Butcher Shop Building) at 101 S. Front Street, Kemmons Wilson Companies’ restoration plans for the old Spaghetti Factory directly to the south of the Nylon Net property, and the recent restoration of the Marine Hospital by developer Lauren Crews.
StoryBoard sat down recently with Ms. Gabrion to gather her thoughts on the hoped-for reuse of the Nylon Net Building. Here’s the rest of our conversation:
StoryBoard: You owned the building from 2011 to September of 2015, and you had high hopes for restoring the historic parts of the building fronting Vance Ave between Wagner Place and the rail tracks to the west. What have been some of your hopes for the building?
Dana Gabrion: I always dreamed of developing it into a hotel that paid homage to the Memphis music and arts scene with recording rooms incorporated and finding a way to bring together visitors and Memphis musicians. The day that I signed the contract to sell, I gave a tour to the president of ACE Hotel group as well as their head of F&B. I was especially excited to show them the 2-story basement machine room at the corner of Vance and the railroad tracks (John Pickle took a phenomenal photo of this room, below). While the building could work as a hotel, I now think it’s probably better as apartments or condos with original brick walls, wood floors and river views.
SB: What about the building’s overall condition? Carlisle has described it in not so glowing terms.
DG: While it has definitely seen better days (as have most vacant buildings), I believe it is salvageable. I secured the brick on the iconic chimney stack to help ensure preservation and installed a new roof on half of the old structure to help protect it until it could be developed. The brick itself is in excellent condition compared to most historic brick buildings. I was in the process of further securing the building when the purchase offer came in.
SB: What about your decision to sell it back in 2015? That had to have been a difficult decision.
DG: I did not want to sell the building, but the building is a massive undertaking for just an individual like myself (versus a company). Also, while it was obvious to me the neighborhood would be a different story in a few years, I don’t think it was quite ready to easily support a development of this size at that time (2015).
SB: Considering the undertaking, specifically what kind of repurpose or reuse do you think could work with the building?
DG: Like any structure built for a different use, there are challenges to be addressed with adaptive reuse. A common issue with buildings built as warehouses is the lack of light at the center. Deborah Berke and Partners (21c hotels) have found creative solutions in many warehouse conversions.
Following Gabrion’s lead, StoryBoard followed up on some great warehouse restorations. There are many.
Above, clockwise from top-left: A creative adaptive reuse of the Wythe Hotel from an old brick building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, by Morris Adjmi Architects. A restoration and reuse of the Distillery District in Toronto, Canada. The repurposed Green Building in Louisville, Kentucky, designed by (fer) studio. The adaption of Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse by Marvel Architects. The reused old mill in Charlotte, North Carolina.
And Below: Locally, two huge restorations in the restoration of the Tennessee Brewery and the Sears Crosstown building, transformed into the great Crosstown Concourse, recognized and awarded nationally for the restoration by LRK.
Dana Gabrion: I also love combining modern and historic as it ends up complimenting both. One of my favorite examples is the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn by Morris Adjmi (right) where they added a 3 story steel and glass tower on top of the historic structure and it’s stunning! The building has a similar industrial past and they incorporated those historic elements into the new construction. I see Nylon Net as having a perfect opportunity to do a similar design especially with its missing floors. You could even build a tower in place of the 1970s portion to match in glass and steel. The modern and historic would tie together beautifully.
When she still owned the building, Ms. Gabrion envisioned how a similar, creative repurposing might look for Nylon Net, based on previous work by LRK and from a sketch by artist Tom Schaller, which positions a new steel and glass structure on top of and within the body of the original 1907 structure:
SB: These are wonderful visions. What are the financial benefits – or hinderances – with adaptive reuses like these?
DG: Adaptive Reuse of structures typically has a lower investment return than new construction (unless it’s truly replicating the detail and artistry of the original which is impossible in some respects). So, there has to be a desire above and beyond just the bottom line to preserve them. But there are many tax incentives and local incentives that can help justify preservation. I also think there’s an intangible value to the neighborhood, city and surrounding new construction when you have these buildings as anchors. I fully support and encourage any incentives that would help save this structure.
SB: Financially-speaking, preserving and repurposing structures like these have long-term economic benefits beyond new construction, while also retaining the authenticity of the neighborhood. And, to be plain, there’s no replacing the coolness factors of structures like these.
DG: Right. Sometimes, we might take them for granted, but when you see tourists come from around the world to explore the culture and history of Memphis, they are drawn to these historic buildings.
“Old places are deeply beneficial to people because of the way they give us a sense of continuity, identity and belonging, because they inspire us with awe, beauty and sacredness, because they tell us about history, ancestry and learning, and because they foster healthy, sustainable communities.”~Economics, Why Do Old Places Matter? from the Preservation Leadership Forum
SB: Considering the above quote, what about Nylon Net’s significance in the heart of the South Bluffs Warehouse Historic District?
DG: The Nylon Net building sits in the middle of the Historic District, as well as the South Main Historic District. The success of both adjoining neighborhoods are a direct result of beautiful restoration of the historic buildings. While new construction is essential for infill and to add density, I believe our historic structures need to serve as anchors in those historic districts to retain the sense of place and authenticity that makes the neighborhood so desirable. The Nylon Net building does need to be developed ASAP, but I believe that repurposing the existing structure will be a much better contribution to the neighborhood and downtown long-term. Look at what they did with the Distillery District in Toronto. That would be amazing in the South Bluffs Warehouse District.
We at StoryBoard certainly applaud the work the Carlisle Corporation is doing with One Beale and the reuse of the Wm. C Ellis & Sons building complex, as well as their prior work on Hotel Chisca. And though we aren’t going to pretend to know all the financial and logistical challenges of another such undertaking, we hope that more financial feasibility questions are asked before a demolition is approved.
If there are any possibilities that the Oliver-Finnie/Nylon Net building can be at least partially re-purposed, we encourage the Carlisle Corporation to pursue them. In this day an age, they have a chance to be heroes, not unlike developer Lauren Crews, who is completing work on his years-long restoration of the historic Marine Hospital.
Just this week, Tom Bailey of The Daily Memphian toured the newly-restored Marine Hospital with developer Lauren Crews.
During the walk-thru, Mr. Crews commented that restoring the 1930s building to accommodate 71 apartment units was “a difficult project to make work,” but that he was glad he was the one to be able to restore the building. “I hated to see it go,” he said. “It’s not necessarily all about the bottom line.”
The same could be said with regard to the Nylon Net Building – and we echo these statements from Memphis Heritage, and hope that eventually it will be made to work: “There have been so many amazing adaptive reuse projects in Memphis, especially Downtown – Hotel Chisca, the Tennessee Brewery, Universal Life Insurance Company, Arrive Hotel, etc. This could be one of them.”
“It’s impossible for new construction to capture the same character that already exists,” said Dana Gabrion. “People come to Memphis for our history and we really have few historic buildings compared to our empty land, so I hope we are careful to not kill the character that makes our historic neighborhoods so charming and enticing. Money can fix an ailing historic building but it cannot recreate a historic district. No other city with any amount of money can recreate what we have authentically. I do hope that Carlisle Corp. takes the opportunity to adaptively reuse the historic structure rather than demolish.”
About Nylon Net
The once and former Nylon Net building (1961 to c. 1980s) and Oliver-Finnie wholesale grocery and food warehouse (1904-1907 to 1961), it was built in 1890 on its original foundations as a single-story cotton warehouse. It was enlarged from 1904 to 1910 to five stories with two elevators, filled for a half of a decade with the aromas of coffee and sweets after the Oliver-Finnie Grocery Company relocated their growing business to the building in 1907.
Follow the latest developments on Nylon Net and peruse its history on the Save the Nylon Net FaceBook page.