As we close out 2019, we take a look back at the historic structures that have been saved and repurposed since the dire days, post-2008 Recession, a decade ago.
By Charlie Lambert, Gordon Alexander, and Mark Fleischer
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Ten years ago, as Memphis struggled to recover from the devastation of the 2008 recession and home foreclosure crisis, historic preservation was facing what Rozelle-Annesdale resident Stoy Bailey termed “a tipping point” in preserving the city’s architectural heritage.
Hundreds of homes were vacant due to foreclosure. Neglected properties were being torn down at alarming rates. The Tennessee Brewery, Sears Crosstown and the Hotel Chisca among other significant properties were vacant or boarded up. And a desolate Overton Square was under threat by a developer who intended to tear it all down in favor of a suburban-style grocery store.
“We’re talking about losing entire blocks,” said Keith Kays at the time.
It was June of 2009. And Kays, a commissioner for the Memphis Landmarks Commission, was speaking to Tom Wilemon of the Memphis Daily News about the state of historic preservation in Memphis.
Read the entire 2009 Daily News story here: “Historic Preservation Reaches Tipping Point”
“Tight credit markets, long foreclosure lists, frequent mortgage flipping and financially struggling property owners have proven to be bigger threats to the city’s landmark structures than bulldozers,” read the 2009 article. “Demolition by neglect is rampant, and preservation leaders don’t yet know what to do about it.”
“We’ve got to pull all the agencies together to figure out what everybody is doing and do some kind of education for the larger community,” said Nancy Jane Baker (Baker at the time was still manager of the Memphis Landmarks Commission, a position that was eliminated in 2017). One of those agencies has been the nonprofit Memphis Heritage (MHI), led from 2002 to 2019 by executive director June West, which since 1975 has been dedicated to protecting landmarks and educating the general public about why historic preservation is important. However, as West said in 2009, “as an education advocacy organization, we have to choose our battles.”
The battles from 2009 on would get tougher, and some overall battles would be lost.
2011 arrived and saw Delta Airlines cut a quarter of its Memphis-based flights. Forbes declared that year that Memphis was the third-emptiest city in the country. And on the historic properties front, a Midtown fight to save the historic United Methodist Church at Union and Cooper was lost when it was demolished for the building of a CVS store.
But 2011 also marked some turning points. It was the year that the Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) was created to spark economic development for Memphis and Shelby County. It was the year when the Commercial Appeal reported that a new venture – “Project Would Remake Sears Crosstown into Memphis Arts Village.” – could bring one of those vacant properties back to life. And in May of that year, Memphis Heritage began pulling those agencies together and educating the public by releasing a listing of the most endangered historic properties in Memphis (read more about each property by clicking on the link):
- The Nineteenth Century Club (profiled below)
- The Hotel Chisca (profiled below)
- Sears Crosstown
- The Tennessee Brewery (profiled below)
- The Marine Hospital
- The Goyer Lee House
- The Clayborn Temple (profiled later in this series)
- Cobblestone Landing
- Justine’s Restaurant (profiled later in this series)
- Sterick Building (profiled later in this series)
- Ashlar Hall
- The Mid-South Coliseum
Not included in this list was Overton Square, whose fate in late 2009 was still in question until a Midtown crusade, spearheaded by June West of MHI, halted the proposal to build a grocery store. The successful campaign led to the purchase of the Square by Loeb Properties, which in July of 2012 closed on its purchase of the Midtown anchor and immediately began the restoration and revival we see today.
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Also not on the list (and profiled later in this series) was the Memphis Central Police Station, empty since 1982. Plans were announced late this year on a partial demolition of the north side of the building as part of Loews Hotels purchase, restoration and reuse and of more than two-thirds of the historic property for a hotel. And finally, the Dermon Building, which was vacant from 2010 until it was purchased in 2016 and restoration began in 2017 (also profiled later in this series).
PERSISTENCE, COORDINATION, EDUCATION ARE KEY
Finally, it is fitting to pay tribute to the lasting (literally, lasting) contributions of MHI executive director June West as she retires from her position. In her role as director June worked tirelessly, both publicly and behind the scenes, talking with and educating developers on the cultural and economic values of retaining and restoring historic properties.
When the Most Endangered list was put together in 2011, twelve properties made the list; however another dozen or more high-profile historically- or culturally-significant properties were vacant, blighted, or otherwise at risk. Some of these are still vacant or at risk: The Sterick Building, 100 North Main, The Nylon Net Building (at 7 Vance Ave), The Lamar Theatre, and The Luciann Theatre (2432-34 Summer Ave). And the list does not include historic neighborhoods that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places but that are not protected by local historic zoning under the Memphis Landmarks Commission.
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Some have been purchased and are restored or are currently being restored: The Hickman Building, The Joseph Oliver “Butcher Shop” Building (99-105 S. Front), and The Artisan Hotel (now part of The Citizen in Midtown).
By the time of the 2011 most-endangered list, some structures had been lost post-recession, such the largely-forgotten Alabaster Building at 678 Beale Street. Part of the Southern Railway Industrial Historic District, it was demolished in 2011 for a surface parking lot for Southwest Tennessee Community College.
Others, though not endangered in 2011, have been lost. These include the mid-century modern Century Building on Poplar, and the Memphis College of Art’s apartments on Poplar, which were ultimately demolished late in 2019 to pave the way for the six-story Poplar Arts Lofts apartment building across from Overton Park.
Still others, also not on the endangered list, have seen significant repurposing efforts under new ownership. The Wonder Bread Bakery building, closed in 2013, has been transformed into the new Memphis headquarters of Orion Federal Credit Union. The historic Wm C Ellis complex, sold by the Ellis family in late 2016 to the Carlisle Corp., is being carefully repurposed and is now surrounded by the new One Beale development. And finally, the area known as the Snuff District, north of downtown and showcased by the historic American Snuff Factory, will under redevelopment early in 2020 by developer Billy Orgel.
In terms of retaining Memphis’ historic structures, there have been many more wins versus losses, requiring undying persistence and sometimes-massive coordinating efforts. Memphis Heritage, under West’s leadership, has been at the heart of this preservation, along with the financial incentives of the Downtown Memphis Commission, the battles to address blighted houses and neighborhoods at The Blight Authority and Neighborhood Preservation Inc. (NPIMemphis), grassroots organizations like the Midtown Action Coalition, and the creativity and vision of local firms such as Loeb Properties, Looney-Ricks-Kiss (LRK), brg3s, A2H, Architecture, Inc, and the development teams led by Billy Orgel.
A LOOK BACK
This past November, StoryBoard Memphis invited Gordon Alexander and Charlie Lambert to share updates to eight of these properties as part of StoryBoard‘s Memphis Heritage Keystone coverage. As we close out 2019, we take a look back these eight structures, restored or otherwise, since those dire days a decade ago.
The Hotel Chisca
By Gordon Alexander
Built in 1913, the hotel became a popular destination for vaudeville stars performing in Memphis, including Kate Smith, best known for her definitive rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” In 1959 the Chisca helped lay the foundation for future downtown development when it added a motor plaza to its origin building. Most importantly, the hotel played a significant role in the launching and introduction of Rock ‘n’ Roll music to the American public.. . . Click here for the rest of the article.
The Nineteenth Century Club
By Charlie Lambert
Usually referred to as the Nineteenth Century Club, it’s one of the last remaining grand houses on Union Avenue, a reminder of the pre-World War II era when Union in Midtown was primarily a residential avenue of stately mansions, bearing a closer resemblance to Peabody or Central avenues today. Continue reading here.
The Tennessee Brewery
By Gordon Alexander
The brewery business was launched in 1877 by G.H. Herbers as The Memphis Brewing Company. In 1885 it was bought by J.W. Schorr, Casper Koehler and Associates and soon they made it into one of the largest breweries of the era. The red-brick Tennessee Brewery was erected in 1890 at 477 Tennessee Street at Butler Ave., in the “Richardsonian” Romanesque style. The structure is basically unchanged from that time… continue reading here.
The Clayborn Temple
By Charlie Lambert
On the heels of urban renewal, the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the emptying out of Downtown Memphis, the building fell into disrepair and suffered the woes of total abandonment. The roof nearly collapsed and the interior rotted. … continue reading here.
And The Rest
Coming soon, profiles of the Memphis Central Police Station, the Dermon Building, Justine’s Restaurant and the Sterick Building.
StoryBoard’s Preservation Board is made up of various contributors to the publication, including but not limited to Charlie Lambert, Dane Forlines, Gordon Alexander, John Dulaney, Margot Payne and Mark Fleischer.
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