I’m in Memphis for a talk sponsored by AIA Memphis and Memphis Heritage and I soon discovered that this is a city that surprises. Nothing catches your eye so quickly as the wealth of historic buildings that remain throughout the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. In fact, according to Memphis Heritage the city ranks sixth in the nation in the number of properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The day began with a tour of a terrific preservation project at the Lincoln American Tower. In the past ten years, the downtown has seen a number of buildings brought back online by enterprising developers such as Willie Chandler and architect Chooch Pickard. (The “Chooch” is a high-school nickname for “Choo Choo Charlie.”) Willie and Chooch gave me a top to bottom tour of the Tower and adjacent Lowenstein Building (see photo at right) which is under renovation right on Main Street. This mixed-use development has incredible views of the downtown, Court Square Park, and – of course – the Mississippi River. Downtown housing units have increased from 10,000 just a few years ago to more than 27,000 today, and with the rapidly developing urban vibe one can see why.
Jumping into Chooch’s mini-Cooper convertible, we took a quick tour of the business districts, stopping across from the 1974 Gassner Building (see photo at top of post) to take in this very significant – and threatened – mid-century Modernist building.
The C&I Bank Building was completed in 1974, designed by Francis Gassner, FAIA (1927-1977) of Gassner, Nathan, and Browne Architects. The innovative design used tubular truss framing and butt glazing to shape the building and enclose its atrium. When completed, the C&I Bank was applauded for its geometry and light-filled atrium. The C&I Bank was recognized by both state and local AIA Awards, and, in 1979, the Museum of Modern Art included the building in its exhibit of the 400 buildings that “have had a significant influence in the recent directions of architecture.” In 2000, the C&I Bank building was recognized by the Memphis Chapter of the AIA as the Design of the Decade (1971-1980).
Memphis Heritage and AIA Memphis – like preservationists all across the country – are increasingly at work to save buildings like the Gassner which were built mid-century or later and are already threatened with demolition. The Gassner appears to have a better chance than many to be saved – thanks to the indefatigable leadership of June West (Heritage) and Heather Koury (AIA) and the work of their boards and membership.
We had a great time with tonight’s talk at the Brooks Museum, focusing on endangered historic properties and how preservationists can use tools such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places to rally support for preservation. After a spirited Q&A session, Heather, her husband Joseph, June and I headed for a Memphis institution, the Rendezvous, for a rack of dry ribs. It was heaven! When I was in college, I waited tables for a year in a Nashville rib place called Spats that fashioned its ribs after the Rendezvous, so it took me back in time. And you can’t beat a place that rates a mention in a John Hiatt song.
We finished off our ribs and drinks, and I went back to June’s Jeep to pick up my bag and computer for the trip around the block to the Peabody Hotel. I’d been glancing at this writing on her dashboard, but only focused on it now. “What is this?” I asked. “Why that’s where Wynonna Judd signed my dashboard,” replied June — as if this was something that everyone had in their car. “Okay, why was Wynonna in your car and why did she sign your dashboard?” I asked, playing the role of straight-man. And the story was pure Memphis, going back to the King himself.
As June tells it, Elvis (you knew there had to be an Elvis sighting somewhere in Memphis) was to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Since Elvis is dead (at least most people believe he is), they asked Wynonna to be the stand-in recipient. She came to Memphis for the ceremony, and a friend of June’s was responsible for getting her around. June had the only non-sportscar among the friends, so her Jeep was selected. June said, “Sure she can ride in my Jeep, she just has to sign the dashboard.” Wynonna apparently thought this was cool…and 10 years later June has a great story to tell. But she can’t bear to sell the car!
I’ve met a lot of preservationists in my line of work, and I almost drowned in a Jeep going through a creek in Kentucky about 12 years ago to look at a historic site, but this story tops them all. If June can talk Wynonna Judd into signing her dashboard, she can certainly talk some recalcitrant developer into saving a historic building. Memphis is in great hands.
More to come…
Image: Gassner Building in Memphis by DJB