Crossing Peabody, south on Front Street, past a vast and soulless parking lot, down the hill through the intersection at Beale, and across the street from a utilitarian parking garage, one finds the grace, elegance and modesty of a block-long machine shop that has stood since the days of yellow fever, when the Memphis industrial renaissance was about to carry the city on its shoulders and toward the turn of the century.
In 1862 a young Tennessee farmer named William C. Ellis began a small business at 373 Second Street at the corner at Gayoso, as the manufacturer of “Buggies, Spring and Farm Wagons, etc.”
For a few years into the early 1870s William partnered with a man named Noah Daman, as a blacksmith. In the late 1870s he continued his “agricultural implements” business at the same corner of Second and Gayoso. Around 1879 his business became Wm C Ellis & Son (singular, with son William J.). Their work continued on Second St. and at a shop on East Georgia at Fort Pickering (about where E. Georgia and Riverside Drive is today).
Then in 1879 father and son built a new blacksmith shop, at 439 and 441 Shelby, which as the city grew became 241-245 South Front Street.
After the passing of the 1870s – after yellow fever had been contained and as Memphis was regaining its city charter – business grew. By 1885 father and son added a machine shop that fronted the original blacksmith shop at the center of the property. In 1890 they built a foundry to the rear of the property along Wagner Place, and for the wood foundry patterns a storage building at the corner of Wagner and Linden Ave.
After 1900 the “& Son” became “& Sons” as Samuel J. and Henry C. Ellis joined the business.
In 1905, a two-story wood working department, pattern shop and upstairs offices were added that directly overlooked Front Street. In 1922, the iron, steel and welding workshop at the north end of the property was added. In 1925 and 1926, the final structure in the complex was built: the garage and loft space of the machine shop and foundry that watches over the corner of S. Front and Linden (now Dr. M.L.King Jr. Ave).
It is a relic of the Industrial Age. It thrived and supported a growing Memphis during the Progressive Era, when much of our city’s infrastructure was laid out east from the Mississippi River. It is a local historic treasure, a key showcase building on the National Register of Historic Places in its own right (added to NR listing in 1983) and as part of the South Bluffs Warehouse Historic District (added in 1987), deserving of the same attention bestowed to The Tennessee Brewery and the warehouse repurposed as the Old Dominic Distillery down the street at 305-313 S. Front.
Within the brick and cast iron of the Ellis complex, Memphis was built here. Riverboat wheels and trolley chassis, trolley tracks and manhole covers, cotton presses and elevator pulleys. By generations of fathers, and sons.
In the fall of 2016, after one hundred and thirty-seven years in business in the Ellis name, it closed up shop for the final time, the entire complex sold to another couple of sons – the Carlisles – of the Carlisle Corporation, as part of their One Beale project. As reported by Wayne Risher for the The Commercial Appeal, the “long-awaited Downtown blockbuster” is proposed to occupy large portions of four blocks bordered by Beale St., S. Front St., E. Pontotoc Ave., the freight railroad tracks overlooking Riverside Drive. Wagner Place bisects the property from Beale St. north to south.
As documented by The CA and by Patrick Lantrip of the Memphis Daily News the proposed development, led by developer Chance Carlisle, last week took a big step forward with a unanimous approval by Center City Revenue Finance Corp., which voted to reaffirm a 20-year PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) incentive and the funding of an onsite public garage. The next hurdle comes Tuesday June 5, when Carlisle seeks zoning approval by City Council of a development that has doubled in size, to about 5.5 acres, since previous plans were approved in 2015.
As stated in the application, the first phase of the development has a proposed budget of $111 million. It is set to include:
A 201-room hotel at the south-west corner of Beale and Front; stated in the application as a 4 star hotel to be owned and operated by an internationally respected, publicly traded hotel company. It will include 20,000 sq. feet of meeting space and ground floor retail and restaurant space.
A new 227-unit apartment building located on the property at 263 Wagner, the demolished 275 S. Front and 287 S. Front (the existing Carlisle office building at 263 Wagner will be demolished). “The Apartments at One Beale” will include 17,000 sq. feet of office, restaurant and retail space, and a 400 to 490-space parking garage. As proposed, it will be similar to other residential developments in the downtown core such as Metro 67, Barboro Flats, The Chisca on Main, and others.
As proposed, the application claims that the development of One Beale, as “a first class amenity to Downtown and the Mid-South, … will improve access to our majestic riverfront with its restaurants and public lobbies while also significantly improving vital infrastructure such (as) parking for downtown destinations like Beale Street Landing and the Orpheum. However, in sheer development dollars, One Beale’s investment will be on scale to other city-dining projects such as FedEx forum, Bass Pro at the Pyramid and Sears Crosstown.”
It is hoped that this development has the positive lasting impact on par with such similar Memphis success stories, Crosstown in particular. In comparing itself to the redevelopment of Sears Crosstown, there is real hope that the Carlisle group intends to follow through on its early interest in the final and important piece of their development puzzle, the property that is of great importance and value to Memphis history and preservation: the Wm C. Ellis & Sons Iron Works and Machine Shop building complex.
A Hopeful, Nostalgic, and Stormy One Beale History
The Carlisle family’s stake in the Beale property has deep roots. As stated in their application, in 1978 the elder Gene Carlisle was selected as the developer for the Beale Street Historic District, and later developed No. 1 Beale Restaurant, Captain Bilbo’s restaurant, Beale Street Landing Office & Retail, and Beale Street Landing Parking Garage.
The Beale Street development that Gene Carlisle and his team of developers began took on historic proportions in 1978. Ten years removed from the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the demolition of Beale Street had left this part of downtown almost as desolate as a ghost town. Just a block and half of historic Beale Street remained, and the hulking, ten year-old MLGW Building dominated a landscape once home to the density of store fronts (though occupied of course by music clubs, bars and pawn shops).
The former machine shop and later a cotton warehouse, No. 1 Beale Street was occupied by the new Beale Street Landing from 1977 to 1984. It closed in ’84 due to slow dinner business. In 1985 its menu and atmosphere were upgraded and it became Riverside Grille. That establishment struggled and was in business only until 1989.
The warehouse to the south at 245 Wagner Place, the former Linden Station and Reichman Crosby Warehouse (built in 1907 and 1922, respectively), from 1982 to 1985 was a collection of retail boutique and gifts shops known as the Emporium. It was resurrected in 1993 with the same name as a marketplace for antiques.
In July of 2003 No. 1 Beale suffered massive roof and structural damage by the legend known as Hurricane Elvis, the storm that caused millions of dollars of damage across Memphis. Parts of the building’s roof was found blocks away and its walls were reduced to piles of bricks along Beale and Wagner Pl. The damage put at risk the fate of the 80-year-old warehouse. Ultimately, efforts failed to restore it, and in the fall of 2004 the former Beale Street Landing was demolished.
In 2008, plans by the Carlisle Corporation to resurrect a new One Beale development fell through with the ’08 recession. And in May of 2015, Gene Carlisle passed away at the age of 72.
However before his death Carlisle had cemented his legacy not only with his One Beale and his early involvement with the redevelopment of the Beale Street Historic District, but also with his investment in the restoration of South Main’s historic Hotel Chisca to mixed-use residential, a project that is often mentioned as one of the shining examples of historic restoration in Memphis.
“He loved Memphis,” Downtown Memphis Commission president Paul Morris said in 2015. “He loved Downtown and he put his money where his heart was.”
Heart and money ought to continue to work together as the Carlisle’s move forward on One Beale. The purchase of the Ellis property and the hard work put into redeveloping the project’s plans brings the development closer than its ever been to becoming a reality. And in the wake of the elder Carlisle’s death, it may also carry with it an air of hope and destiny.
StoryBoard’s Vision For Redeveloping Ellis & Sons
The third portion of the project included in the Carlisle Corporation’s Phase I calls for “redevelopment plans for the former Ellis Machine Shops, located at the northwest corner of Dr. M.L. King Jr. Avenue and Front Street, (for) future commercial use.”
The application goes on to say that the developers are not certain yet the types of retail or restaurants that the site will attract. However their intent is to investigate “the feasibility of adaptive reuse for several of the existing buildings on (the) site.”
Stepping into his father’s shoes and becoming the public leader in this development is developer Chance Carlisle. Chance is one two Carlisle siblings who had previously worked alongside their father in his development efforts, but who now finds himself alone in the family One Beale driver seat – his younger brother Chase left the Carlisle Corporation in early 2017 to become vice president of the commercial real estate firm Avison Young (that has also indicated they could be involved in the One Beale project).
StoryBoard hopes that Chance has the same vision that became a part of the Carlisle legacy, with an understanding of the value of adapting historic structures for current, relevant use.
Brett Roler, vice president of planning and development for the Center City Revenue Finance Corp., has been quoted as saying “They (the Carlisles) hope to save some or all of these buildings, but they’re evaluating a full range of options.”
Chance, when asked in a “philosophical debate” if the city would “rather have a historical connection to a really cool space” versus wipe it clean for a brand-new, modern riverfront, has admitted that he gets “more people who say ‘We’d rather have a historical connection and one nice new modern tower than an entire new city.’ “
StoryBoard agrees with the latter. To quote George Eliot, “I desire no futures that break the ties with the past.” In addition, the restoring and repurposing of the Ellis building would retain the only historic warehouses on the Linden-Front-Beale-St. block that remain. And, the blocks only link to Memphis’ industrial past.
Further, we offer these thoughts:
Over the last twenty or so years, cities all over the world have not only rediscovered their downtowns, but also their historic warehouses and industrial buildings. Here in the U.S., cities from Seattle to Boston, San Diego to Asheville have discovered the authenticity, size and strength of these historic industrial structures.
“Let’s look at New York as an example,” said architectural historian Shumi Bose about Manhattan’s famed Meatpacking District. “The warehouses and lofts in downtown Manhattan were completely derelict in the 70s and very cheap.”
In the mid-’90s, artists started moving in, and a new creative community began a regeneration that made renovations attractive, authentic and hip. Night clubs, art galleries and restaurants soon followed, and the Meatpacking District – for 100 years the district of slaughterhouses and meat wholesalers – became one of the first places where an entire district of warehouses were converted for renewed use. The district revival is a huge success story.
Frederick Jung, the founder of Jung Architects in Paris, has said that “these types of industrial buildings offer specificities that you can’t find in a regular building produced by (today’s) construction.” And for architects, “it’s an opportunity to create new elements inside an old structure and keep alive the history of these amazing places.”
By introducing them to younger generations (i.e. the millennial generation Memphis needs to prosper into the near future), these historic structures keep us connected to our history. They are also affordable.
Justin Stein, of the Commercial Real Estate magazine CIRE, has said that “redeveloping these buildings for flex users often is a viable, cost-effective alternative to new construction.” Recent figures in construction costs have shown that new, from-scratch construction product can cost up to three times more than the costs involved with re-finishing or restoring industrial properties for new use. According to the commercial real estate CoStar Group, some ratios in recent new construction puts costs at four times that of industrial re-use costs.
“Industrial redevelopment outside of the nation’s central business districts takes on a grander, more diffused focus. A growing number of examples of ambitious mixed-use projects reconceive sites that once were hubs of burgeoning industrial activity. Once completed, the projects can change the entire landscape of the area.”
Indeed, the revival of New York’s Meatpacking District in the late ’90s sparked a regrowth on Manhattan’s far west side that is unprecedented in New York’s history. New hotels, warehouse renovations, and the transformation of the old High Line elevated freight line into a public park and garden turned a dying area into one of the hippest spots in the world.
The Meatpacking District’s transformation did not occur without a cost. “Gentrification” is a word used often to describe changes in areas that have experienced vast transformations at the expense of generations of diverse ethnicities and with income levels at the lower end of the economic spectrum. Unfortunately, residents in these neighborhoods have sometimes been forced to relocate when affordability of these areas has gone through the renovated roofs.
However with our repurposing efforts here in Memphis, gentrification is typically not an issue. Our efforts here have not been those that have displaced residents. Rather, our restorations here have brought new life to structures long-dormant. The list of empty shells brought back to vibrancy and relevancy is something we in Memphis are proud of: Overton Square; The Nineteenth Century Club on Union; Central Station on S. Main; The Hotel Chisca; The Old Dominick’s Distillery on S. Front; The Tennessee Brewery. These are transformations that are great for development and that revitalize areas, all the while reminding us of who Memphis is.
We would like to see a repurposed Ellis & Sons Irons Works and Machine Shop added to that prestigious list. We would like to see the Ellis building complex transformed into one of those – shall we say cool? – success stories that garner local and national attention, like in journalist Alyson Krueger’s recent New York Times Travel article “From Blight to Bright Lights in Memphis” that highlighted our historic reuse successes, described as remarkable turnarounds where anything can happen.
With a building like Ellis, anything can indeed happen. And there are dozens of examples the developers can use as reference points. (See gallery that follows)
To quote the younger Carlisle brother – Chase – who said in 2017:
“The thing that’s most gratifying to me is adding to this growing wave of city pride we’ve had over the last decade. I’m glad we were able to be part of saving this wonderful property (the Chisca). Hopefully, it’s going to be around for another 100 years.”
Of the Ellis & Sons building, we hope that we’ll be able to quote Chance Carlisle the same way here in the very near future.
Gallery of Industrial Re-Use
Thanks to friends Henry Carlyle Acosta, Joe V. Lowry, Thomas Woodley for help in researching the history of No. 1 Beale.
The reporting of Wayne Risher of the Commercial Appeal and Patrick Lantrip of the Memphis Daily News were referenced for this article.
Mark Fleischer is the founder and executive director of StoryBoard Memphis. The Orpheum’s Forgotten History was originally published as a front-page feature in StoryBoard’s former print edition in November of 2018. This summer-long online series expands from the confines of print and features more in-depth stories and analysis, never-before published interviews and stories, and recorded interviews from the participants who brought the vintage palace back to life.