Skyline Reflections Old and New by Charlie Lambert
Landmarks Lost and Revived
Memphis has about the most arcane, varied city skylines anywhere.
Composed of half a dozen true high-rise buildings and a few lower level ones, the architecture is an array of vintage structures dating back to the early 20th century, subsidized by a couple of more modern offerings. To explore the history and chaos that has emerged as “downtown Memphis” is an interesting pursuit. To some, it might be hard to imagine that much city planning went into the development of our inner city.
The top two floors of the 19-story Exchange Building for instance, was once the home of a Civil War Confederate Soldiers’ Private Club, at a time when thousands of those 1860’s stalwarts were still alive and kicking.
The Peabody Hotel, dating from 1925, stands as a unique piece of local history on its block-wide expanse. It has been a hodge-podge effort that has, over the years, depended on the fortunes of the city, interested developers, fires, floods, and other far-flung factors.
The absence of very many clean, sleek, multi-storied, metallic monuments on our horizon makes Memphis unique when viewed from the standpoint of other cities. Today’s Nashville, which projects a modern and thriving skyline, renders ours as primitive by comparison. And some of the half-dozen or so real “skyscrapers” in downtown Memphis have, unfortunately, fallen into vacancy, disrepair, and neglect.
An example is the Dermon Building on Third Street, built in 1925 as home to Dave Dermon Insurance Offices. Mr. Dermon was a prolific Jewish immigrant from Russia who built many structures around the city, many of them low-rise apartments. The 11-story Dermon is adorned with bright yellow, green, and white terra cotta ornamentation, terrazzo floors on the upper levels, and a gray marble lobby. It has sat vacant for a decade but is now under re-development. The new owner Amit Patel plans to turn the Dermon into a boutique hotel.
Other beautiful and historic buildings downtown have met worse fates like been demolished after sitting empty for decades. The King Cotton Hotel, imploded a few decades ago is a prime example. Built in 1925 as an Elks Lodge, the 150-room hotel was equipped with a gym, pool, handball/squash courts, a bowling alley, and grand ballroom. Despite efforts to keep afloat, it closed in the 1970’s and was imploded in 1984 (footage caught on film that was later used in the movie “Heathers.” Pictured, below).
The Queen of Memphis
Another impressive tower that still, despite a checkered history, manages to dominate the skyline is the beautiful Sterick Building.
This Gothic structure was built in 1929-30 at the height of the Great Depression, and at 29 floors high was for many years the tallest building in the Southeast U.S.
In its early years it was adorned by a white stone spire. Its eight high-speed elevators, its granite/limestone walls on the bottom three floors, and its rooftop restaurant were great innovations at the time, making the structure the so-called “Queen of Memphis.”
As downtown Memphis fell into decline – exacerbated by the 1968 killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., – tenants began to slowly move away from downtown in the 1960’s and 70’s. The then-owners of the Sterick, for unknown reasons, painted the building a garish yellow and brown color, making the property somewhat of an eyesore.
By 1987 it was completely vacant – the way it has remained ever since.
Efforts to bring it back into productive use have been thwarted by many issues: seismic concerns; the height of the floor plates; ductwork issues; and its large size (350,000 sq. ft.). Additionally, the building is under a 99-year land lease that as of this writing has thirteen years remaining. The land is owned by the Sterick LLC trust; the structure by AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company. That bifurcated ownership has been yet another stumbling block to any effort to restore the building. Many offers have come and gone over the years, to no avail.
The Tallest Tower
A few blocks away is 100 North Main. At 38 floors of prime office space, it has been the tallest building in the city since its completion in 1965.
With ‘60s amenities such as a revolving restaurant on its roof (Top of the 100 Club, Diane’s), a lighted and impressive Union Planters Bank sign on the top (which remained until 2005 when Union Planters was sold to Regions Bank), and adjacent to the top-floor restaurant a decorative Japanese Garden, were impressive features when Harry Bloomfield opened the building with a grand party. With its size and a location in the heart of the business and legal community, tenants for most of its tenure have included several hundred law firms.
Never known for a stunningly upscale interior, the building became more and more shabby in recent years. Abandoned a few years ago, it was condemned by Environmental Court as chunks of concrete dislodged and fell to the sidewalks below, neglected elevator systems became inoperable, and fire hazards persisted.
“…imagine a Loew’s Hotel in Memphis! Not since we boasted two Loew’s Theatres (State and Palace) has a Loew’s logo graced our downtown”
It was sold in 2015, and plans to convert it to a hotel/apartment venue were reported this past month, giving Memphis hope that the abandoned building may once again be a vibrant and thriving member of the high-rise community. The plans released are impressive – imagine a Loew’s Hotel in Memphis! Not since we boasted two Loew’s Theatres (State and Palace) has a Loew’s logo graced our downtown.
Making a Comeback
Locals have always referred to Memphis as a small town parading itself as a big city. Our humble, perhaps awkward skyline illuminates that concept extremely well, stretching from the lower-rise contributions of the Bass Pro Shop Pyramid and the FedEx Forum, the medium-rise St. Jude Research and Le Bonheur hospital buildings, and other less iconic structures, which make the case for Memphis being a big presence in a series of small components.
However the future looks bright if all the plans for building and repurposing materialize. The best example of revival is the fabulous – and near-miraculous – renovation of the Sears Crosstown building in Midtown. No one ever imagined it could be brought back to life after decades of the neglect of over one and one-half million square feet of obsolescence.
And do not dismiss the new One Beale project announced this summer by the Carlisle Group: a new office tower at Beale and Riverside; a new luxury hotel at Beale and South Front; a new urban apartment building at South Front and Pontotoc; and the anticipated reuse of the historic Ellis & Sons Machine Shop. As a project that encountered numerous stumbling blocks over the years, from financial challenges to objections by the city and by local residents, it promises to remake the Memphis skyline at the foot of Beale Street.