This is the first in a series chronicling an important piece of Memphis history while it still lasts.
Driving – or better yet, walking – down Front Street south of Madison in Memphis one will encounter the ornate and grand architectural styles in historic building after historic building, built anywhere between the 1870s and the 1920s, that are representative of Memphis’s history. The Union Planters National Bank, 1924. The Cotton Exchange, 1925. The Butcher Shop, 1904. The Gayoso Hotel, 1902.
Then crossing Peabody, 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.
Listed in the National Register as “William C. Ellis & Sons Ironworks and Machine Shop,” its name conjures the echoes of clanking metal and men cursing orders, and images of soot- and sweat-covered workers toiling away with sledge hammers and blowtorches, standing over draftsmans tables, handling the machines that would feed West Tennessee’s agricultural industry and supply its growing transportation needs, and build the future of Memphis.
In the manufacturing business since 1862, William C. Ellis, as described in Paul R. Coppock’s Mid-South, “was a maker of wagons, springs and agricultural implements.” Mr. Ellis would later enlist his son (singular) and later sons and grandsons, and the family business would make its home at this warehouse and shop at the corner of S. Front St. and Linden Ave (now Dr. M.L. King Ave) starting with the original blacksmith’s shop in 1879 and its six additions.
The first of this “industrial vernacular” type structure went up with the blacksmith’s shop, which was located at the center of the property, between Front and Wagner Place. The last of the historic structures were added in 1922 and 1925, and an iron furnace (number 7 above) was built in 1970. The entire property was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
As noted on a found work-order tag, in its heyday Ellis & Sons’ services included the work of “Designers, Manufacturers, Millwrights, Founders, Welders.” But in its present state it is akin to a museum of Memphis industrial history dating back to the Civil War, including machinery and molds used to make wagons, trolley cars, steamboat parts, manhole covers, cotton presses, the massive gears that keep time ticking in clock towers, and yes, cannon balls.
But in the late summer and fall of 2016 ownership decided it was finally time to shut off the steam and lower the presses, and sold this one hundred and thirty-seven-year-old property to the Carlisle Group, who have proposals to use parts of this historic site to move forward with “One Beale,” a development that could include a luxury high-rise overlooking the Mississippi.
From an outsider’s perspective, the Carlisle Group would seem to have much to consider with regard to the property. Its status on the National Register, its iconic position in Memphis industrial history and the beauty of its industrial architecture should put due pressure on the developer as they continue with their One Beale plans.
However as of this writing, most insiders are saying that the Carlisles plan to demolish the property (plans I have not yet confirmed) and have already contracted out the removal of the remaining hundreds of tons of pre- and post-Industrial Age metal, foundry items, machinery and nuts and bolts. The former ownership has gathered and removed their Ellis family belongings and documents, Memphis’ National Ornamental Metal Museum (metal museum.org) has purchased important historical machinery and metal artifacts, and a local antiques dealer has purchased a host of other items that would appeal to collectors worldwide.
What remains in the building – decades-old office furniture, metal shelving, containers, presses and machinery weighing in the tens of tons, and generations of dust and grime – is enough to drive the de-clutterers in us running for the garage doors and leaving scrap metal dealers looking at dollar signs.
But for those of us who appreciate good ol’ store fronts and the old warehouses around South Bluffs, the building itself is gorgeous. One could easily see the northwest corner of the building, at Front and M.L.K., being preserved and renovated into a restaurant and bar, and the long two- to three-story center of the building being saved and repurposed into a garage entrance for valet parking. Investors made repurposing happen for the Tennessee Brewery and the Old Dominik Distillery – why not here.
In that spirit of appreciation and lament I walked its perimeter one late November morning and captured the exterior of the property from Front to MLK and down the Wagner Place alley that runs parallel to the river. After the New Year I perused my Instagram feeds and made a few inquiries, and learned I wasn’t the only one to take such an interest in the property. A couple of photographers had gotten there first.
In the spring of 2016 local photographer Thomas Woodley was fortuitous enough to be around the property and its owner during the filming of the television series “Million Dollar Quartet” (to debut this month as “Sun Records”), capturing a few location photos along the way. After learning of the building’s sale and uncertain future, Thomas contacted the owner, received permission to re-enter the premises, and invited fellow photographer and Commercial Appeal alumni Mike Kerr to take photo after photo at will.
I talked to both of these gentleman in late January and early February, and we all agreed a photo essay tribute – a love letter – would be a worthwhile effort in capturing what’s left of the place, this place in time, a bit of Memphis Americana just off the Mississippi bluffs. Here are but just a few in our series:
With our next visit, we will explore more of the historic property, including the structures along Wagner Place, and take a look at the historic machinery inside.
Photographers Thomas Woodley and Mike Kerr are longtime Memphians passionate about capturing Memphis in all its beautiful glory. Thomas “photographs it all” and can be found on Instagram at @yesiwood. Mike Kerr goes by @mikekerrmemphisphoto.