Off the Endangered List: The Hotel Chisca

Profile #1 in StoryBoard’s look at progress in historic preservation over the last decade


By Gordon Alexander

Located at the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue and South Main Street, the Hotel Chisca (now known as The Chisca on Main) has stood as a Downtown Memphis icon for over a century.

Hotel Chisca in a vintage postcard. Various sources.

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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.

On July 5, 1954, a young Elvis Presley recorded “That’s All Right (Mama)” at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio at 706 Union Avenue a mile and a half away. The next day Sam headed to the mezzanine floor of the Chisca where he played the acetate of the record for disc jockey Dewey Phillips, who was broadcasting his Red, Hot & Blue radio show for WHBQ. As soon as Dewey blasted out Elvis’ record repeatedly over the airwaves, the station was flooded with hundreds of telegrams and phone calls. A new star was born.

Dewey called Sam and Sam called Elvis, urging him to go to the Chisca for an interview. Elvis nervously introduced himself to Dewey and said, “I don’t know nothing about doing interviews, Mr. Phillips.”

Dewey is said to have replied, “That’s okay son, just don’t say anything dirty.”

The Hotel Chisca in 1963 with the motor plaza addition (top), and DJ Dewey Phillips (right) on WHBQ radio in the Hotel Chisca (left). Various sources.

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Following the bulldozers of urban renewal and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, downtown Memphis businesses began losing patrons to the new malls and shopping centers out east. Many businesses closed, including the legendary Peabody Hotel. In 1971 the owners of the Hotel Chisca donated it to the Church of God In Christ, and the building served as its headquarters until the 1990s.

In 2012 the Church sold the building to Main Street Apartment partners, LLC, and local developers of the Carlisle Corporation invested more than $30 million in the rehabilitation of this historic landmark, as well as its more modern motor plaza, transforming it into a modern apartment complex. It opened in 2015, offering living spaces from studios to 3-bedroom apartments (profiled here by Style Blue Print).

Hotel Chisca today, post-restoration (photo Downtown Memphis Commission)

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To the delight of local historic preservationists, who lobbied vigorously for its rehabilitation, the Hotel Chisca has been reborn just like many other older structures downtown and along the thriving South Main District. The citizens of Memphis are reaping its benefits. <>

~Gordon Alexander

Today the Hotel Chisca is home to the bar and restaurant Catherine and Mary’s and the apartments Chisca on Main.

This is first profile in our series on progress in historic preservation over the last decade. To read more in this series, please visit the main article here.

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