The Rebirth of Memphis’ 100 N. Main – Courtesy of Architect Magazine

By Ben Schulman.  “Within a 5-minute walk of [100 N. Main], there’s $438 million of property value, 700 hotel rooms, and 1,200 residents,” says Brett Roler, the DMC’s vice president of planning and development. Roler helped orchestrate the DMC’s plan for the next phase of 100 N. Main’s life.

In June, the DMC issued an RFP for the disposition and redevelopment of not only 100 N. Main and its 579,000 square feet of space (429,000 of which is rentable) but also nine adjacent parcels totaling over two acres. The neighboring properties include four historic, late 19th-century buildings, a surface parking lot, and a pocket dog park. Taken together, the RFP offers the opportunity to remake a significant swath of downtown Memphis.

In 1963, developer Harry Bloomfield broke ground on 100 N. Main St. in Memphis, Tenn. Bloomfield was a prodigious real estate magnate who, like his contemporaries across America, was busy reshaping cityscapes with the introduction of new forms and ideas. In 1955, he led the development of Memphis’ Holiday Inn Towers, utilizing slip-form concrete construction for the first time in the world. Modernism was on the march, a mark of a city’s progress, and Bloomfield was Memphis’ messenger.

For 100 N. Main St., one of the city’s most visible locations in the heart of its downtown, Bloomfield employed architect Robert Lee Hall and his eponymous firm, Robert Lee Hall & Associates Architects, to articulate his vision. Hall was an adept interpreter of Modernist principles, able to express the emerging vernacular of the age in design and detail. Hall had designed the Mid-South Coliseum, an indoor arena that, after opening in Memphis in 1963, would soon play host to The Beatles, as well as projects such as the starkly vertical concrete-and-glass Anthony Wayne Bank Tower in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Memphis in the late 1950s and early 1960s was experiencing an economic boom as it maintained its status as an inland cotton and lumber exchange while accommodating a growing shift toward services. 100 N. Main was originally announced in 1962 as a 22-story development. Its ambition grew—first to 32, then to 37 stories. The skyscraper would open in 1965 as the tallest building in Memphis, as it remains to this day. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015.

Its intricate façade of precast concrete vertical fins is accented by white chip marble, and surprisingly, operable windows that provide depth to its otherwise smooth exterior. The building is supported on concrete pilings, allowing its reinforced concrete frame and floors to rise lightly, culminating with its space-age top that once contained a restaurant that rotated around completely every 90 minutes. “The Top of the 100” is actually 100 N. Main’s “38th floor.” When it opened, it offered views of the Mississippi River, the city of Memphis, and beyond, as well as the Japanese rock garden on the roof of the building’s 37th story.

A Building’s Death

Memphis today is more diverse than the average U.S. city: According to the most recent census data, 64% of the city is African American. Additionally, almost 21% of the population lives below the poverty line. For this reason, buildings like 100 N. Main hold the keys to the city’s upward trajectory in the next decade and beyond. A redevelopment project has the potential to serve a broad spectrum of the city, especially if it encourages MWBE participation and offers additional subsidies for those looking to start a business, as the city’s Crosstown Concourse project did.

Downtown Memphis did not experience the urban growth that was anticipated in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The shockwaves of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the city’s Lorraine Motel in 1968 spurred an exodus from downtown that decimated the area’s population and property values, the reverberations of which still echo in the city’s core today. Because of its proximity to city, county, and federal buildings, 100 N. Main continued to function for many years as a place for lawyers, doctors, and other professionals, even as maintenance on the property began to decline.

That decline was slow but steady. By 2012, approximately 30% of the building’s space was occupied. By 2015, that number was zero.

Until recently, New York-based Townhouse Management Company (TMC) owned the structure. The company announced various plans for the building’s redevelopment, including a mixed 200-residential-unit and 550-hotel-room conversion. The hotel was to be branded as a Loew’s property in anticipation of the $200 million renovation of the close-by Renasant Convention Center. However, Loew’s, citing additional development commitments in downtown Memphis, pulled out of any involvement in 100 N. Main’s redevelopment in early 2019.

TMC unsuccessfully sued Loew’s, attempting to get the company to honor its commitment to 100 N. Main. With no development plans or partners in place, and with the onset of the COVID pandemic, the building fell even further into disrepair. In March 2021, the Downtown Mobility Authority (DMA)—an affiliate of the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC), tasked with spurring investment in the city’s downtown—purchased the entire block on which the building sits for $12 million.

Life Again

“Within a 5-minute walk of [100 N. Main], there’s $438 million of property value, 700 hotel rooms, and 1,200 residents,” says Brett Roler, the DMC’s vice president of planning and development. Roler helped orchestrate the DMC’s plan for the next phase of 100 N. Main’s life.

In June, the DMC issued an RFP for the disposition and redevelopment of not only 100 N. Main and its 579,000 square feet of space (429,000 of which is rentable) but also nine adjacent parcels totaling over two acres. The neighboring properties include four historic, late 19th-century buildings, a surface parking lot, and a pocket dog park. Taken together, the RFP offers the opportunity to remake a significant swath of downtown Memphis.

Roler recognizes the monumental task that comes with redeveloping one of Memphis’ monuments. But he’s also keenly aware of Memphis’ ability to turn insurmountable projects into reimagined and revitalized places. “One of the things we believe at the DMC is that adaptive reuse and historic preservation is vital to creating neighborhoods that have authenticity and character,” he says. “And one doesn’t need to look far to see [adaptive reuse] projects like Sears Crosstown. We already do this.”

lready do this.” Sears Crosstown, which is now known as Crosstown Concourse, is located about three miles east of 100 N. Main. Locals often refer to the 1927-era Art Deco building as “The Chrysler Building tipped on its side.” All 1,500,000 square feet of the structure used to serve as a distribution and retail hub for Sears. By 1993, Sears had entirely left the building.

In 2010, a local arts organization, Crosstown Arts, was formed to realize visions around the redevelopment of the building, as well as build a hub for Memphis’ creative community. What began as a grassroots effort rooted in arts-led revitalization culminated in the successful rehabilitation of the building with its reopening in 2017. It is now an activated vertical village—with a mix of restaurants, retail, theaters, residences, offices, artist and gallery spaces, and even a community radio station—that sees upwards of 3,000 people walk through its doors every day.

“When you think about the project as a whole and what we needed to happen to realize it, it was crushingly overwhelming,” says Todd Richardson, the co-director of Crosstown Arts who led the redevelopment effort and currently leads the Crosstown Redevelopment Cooperative. “The only way to approach it was hour-by-hour and to break it down to its component parts, from curating tenants to financing to design—the 20 different things that all needed to line up,” he says.

Richardson, an art history professor by trade, highlights the project’s goal of achieving 25% MWBE participation on construction as an example of how its approach can be utilized on massive rehab projects. “What we ended up doing was breaking the project down to nine different projects,” he says, noting how the scale then became approachable. The Crosstown project ended up with 32% MWBE participation.

Roler, with the DMC, is already thinking about how the mix of uses for 100 N. Main can mirror the sort of activity now present in Crosstown. “One of the goals is to have an 18-hour vibrancy on the site—to have mixed-use where people are coming and going multiple times a day,” he says. “Maybe it’s a place to live and also a place to work. Maybe there are retail opportunities and also hospitality. But we need to bring in different types of people to the site as often as possible to create the street-level vibrancy that the site can really help us build.”

The City of Memphis is ready to help make the deal pencil out, including making a commitment—if it works with the developer’s vision—to lease out 60,000 square feet of office space as an anchor tenant, as well as providing an additional $10 million subsidy through its Accelerate Memphis program to “facilitate catalytic community projects.”

The Future Is Now

The DMC has been creative in publicizing the RFP for 100 N. Main’s redevelopment, touting a “Free Skyscraper!” in an op-ed and advertising campaign. Roler has led numerous parties on tours up the building. It’s an urban explorer’s dream to see the guts and, for now, faded glory of a prominent and imposing presence of architectural and urban might.

The DMC anticipates executing a developer agreement with the selected party by the end of 2021.

“Large skyscrapers get a bad rap,” says Leah Fox-Greenberg, the chief executive officer of Memphis Heritage, a preservation advocacy organization. “For Memphis, this was our show of being a formidable city. It is a formidable building because it showed our strength on a pattern of growth. You just weren’t a city until you had a 100 Main.”

Luckily for Memphis and 100 Main’s future development team, the city still has it.

Touring 100 N. Main: Shattered glass, shell casings, law books and spectacular views

The Downtown Memphis Commission is to issue a request for proposals June 15, but is taking steps already to find a new developer and life for the city’s tallest building.

“We’re at 12,300 steps,” Brett Roler announced midmorning Sunday, May 30. Roler had glanced at his Fitbit as he, a reporter and photographer descended 100 North Main Building’s dark stairwell.

This is the fifth or sixth tour up the 38 floors that the commission’s vice president has led since April.

Developers. Architects. Engineers. Public officials. Roler will take anyone who can help breathe new life into the dark, vacant, ransacked and vandalized skyscraper is welcome to take the guided hike.

He plans more tours, and soon. Summer is approaching, and climbing up the powerless tower in the heat may be too dangerous.

“Wear sturdy shoes,” Roler advised, because of all the broken glass.

“Wear a mask,” he said, because of the dusty stairwell.

“Bring a flashlight,” he said, because light is limited in the powerless building.

“Bring a water bottle,” he said, because of the exertion.

The 10 high-speed elevators – the five express ones ascended 700 feet per minute in their day – are useless now.

But Roler’s leadership made the challenge surprisingly doable for a reporter who hasn’t strenuously exercised since the pandemic started 14 months earlier.

Roler often stopped the stairwell climb to explore an entire, deserted floor. On Sunday, the trio caught their breath by wandering through floors 14, 18, 21, 25, 28, 30, 34, 35, 36 and 37.

Roler’s sunny curiosity elevated the dimly lit tour. “Let’s see what’s in here,” he said before opening the door to floor 30. “There’s a surprise around every corner.”

But the urban trek began with an orienting stroll around the entire block, followed by a pre-amble up the parking garage’s spiraling ramp.

Someone mentioned the oddity of a kitchen blender sitting on the ramp. Roler responded, “That’s not the weirdest thing you’re going to see.”

Right he was.

The skyscraper was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as a fine example of late International style architecture. But inside, the atmosphere created by darkness and massive evidence of misbehavior was more Gothic.

An unknowable number of humans have breached the tower since the last of the paying tenants left seven years ago.

The benign ones, perhaps, have been the urban explorers, who just wanted to be photographed illegally atop the city’s Mount Everest.

But the vandals have been ferocious.

Glass is their enemy, and they shattered a lot of it: Light fixtures; the small, square windows of every stairwell door; scores of exterior windows; glass partitions of desk cubicles; the plate glass separating the floor lobby from a law office’s reception desk.

The dining tables and chairs of the old Top of the 100 revolving, rooftop restaurant were hurled through the large, angled windows onto the gravel roof below.

Of all the wall-mounted, glass encasements for fire extinguishers on each floor, tour-takers on Sunday spotted only one that had not been shattered.

Graffiti marks much of the interior. From “Chance in yo pants” in the stairwell on floor 17 to “Don’t B A Democrat” on level 21.

Just as destructive have been the thieves of copper and other material of value. Gaping holes are punched through the sheetrock walls. Ceiling panels are torn away, and uncountable light fixtures dangle by their wires.

The stairwell’s concrete steps on the lower floors are consistently and mysteriously chipped in the middle of each step. Roler speculates that perhaps copper thieves damaged the stairs by dragging heavy objects down them.

The commission has taken a number of measures to secure the property since its Downtown Mobility Authority bought 100 North Main for $10.75 million earlier this year. But the preceding owners, including New York-based Townhouse Management, had allowed the building to sit vacant, deteriorate and be abused the past since 2014.

Roler had to unlock the outside gate and two more doors to get inside. Commission personnel monitor the fence twice daily for telltale damage and illegal entry.

But 100 North Main is so vast that the best way to secure the building is to populate it with tenants, Roler said.

Even the legal visitors left disturbing waste.

The Shelby County SWAT team has used the building for training. So on the floors are countless simulation cartridges, which have metal casings but paint instead of harmful bullets. And on numerous walls are posters with the target images of men with the kind of head scarfs that are perhaps worn by terrorists. Images of angry looking women pointing a gun are also used as targets.

A large knife lay ominously on one office floor.

Not that the skyscraper doesn’t shelter a ton of more benign, even humorous objects. Like the antique Battle Creek brand vibrating belt “fat shaker” in the massage room of the Tennessee Club on the penultimate floor.

The club’s space was of its time. At the rear of the dining area is a door marked, “Men’s Dining Room.”

Despite the daunting destruction, 100 North Main’s unrivaled views prevail over the darkness. By floor 30, the tour-takers could look down on the nearby Raymond James Tower.


<strong>Despite the daunting destruction, the unrivaled views from 100 North Main prevail.</strong>&nbsp;(Brad Vest/Special to the Daily Memphian)
Despite the daunting destruction, the unrivaled views from 100 North Main prevail. (Brad Vest/Special to the Daily Memphian)

If those south-facing offices were somehow turned into, say, apartments, the sight of the layered, gorgeous architecture of the Shrine Building, the Sterick Building, One Commerce Building and other towers would serve more like wall art as a window opening.

Coming with the purchase by the Downtown Mobility Authority was the entire, two-acre block on which the tower sits. Main, Adams, Second and Jefferson form the block. The property comprises the tower’s nine-level parking deck of about 400 spaces, an adjacent surface parking lot, and a row of historic buildings on Main built between 1890 and 1920.

The latest appraisal by CBRE counts 579,000 square feet of gross space, 429,000 of which is leasable, Roler said.

Despite all the interior destruction, Roler describes the property as “two acres of prime opportunity.”

“Within a five-minute walk of this there are 7.5 acres of surface parking lots … $428 million in property value, 1,200 people who live within a short walk, 713 hotel rooms,” he said.

Two blocks south is the newly renovated Renasant Convention Center. Two blocks west is the Mississippi River.

Left vacant, Roler said, “a building like this can harm the tax base and drive down property value. And it signals that disinvestment is OK, that we tolerate large vacant blight to go on. It discourages people from investing their hard-earned capital in our market.”

The request for proposals will ask questions about three areas, he said.

What is the developer’s experience in getting such projects completed and does the developer have the ability to attract capital and investors?

What is the developer’s vision for 100 North Main? The commission’s first goal is to save the tower. But if adaptive reuse is not proposed, what is the vision?

And what does the developer need to make the project a success? What public incentives, if any, are needed? And what would the developer pay for the property?

<strong>The 100 North Main Building is seen on a model of Downtown Memphis at the Downtown Memphis Commission offices on Sunday, May 30.</strong> (Brad Vest/Special to the Daily Memphian)
The 100 North Main Building is seen on a model of Downtown Memphis at the Downtown Memphis Commission offices on Sunday, May 30. (Brad Vest/Special to the Daily Memphian)

New CEO continues Indigo Ag’s commitment to Memphis headquarters

The Daily Memphian. October 2, 2020. “The Memphis area, Hovsepian said, “has been a really pro-business climate, which allowed us to really get access to the world-class talent that we need for the agricultural industry in the area. “That’s why we stayed very committed to our headquarters down in Memphis for the North America commercial operations.”

Prospero Health Doubles Downtown Office Space

In September 2019, Prospero leased 14,000 square feet and had 16 employees in Downtown Memphis.

Today, April 29, the home health care company announced a new lease that will double its Memphis footprint. In total, the company has 67 Memphis employees.

“We thought about our growth prospects and [even with] what we were seeing unfold, we really saw nothing but a continued demand for the services that we offer,” Scarbrough said. “And so, we decided it was the right decision to make to go ahead and move forward with our planned expansion.”

DMC Board Members Hit the Road

The Downtown Memphis Commission hosted a bus tour that spanned years of Downtown development.

“These projects are literally and inexplicably not possible without these board incentives,” said Ethan Knight, vice president of development with Development Services Group, which received a 20-year PILOT and garage funding for its expansive revitalization in the Edge District, including the Wonder Bread factory.

All in all, Downtown Memphis has $3 billion of development in the pipeline and is preparing for more projects to be announced in 2019.