Just look at this photo. Nine women in starched white uniforms face the camera. Dimly visible behind them are elaborate lighting fixtures, marble walls, and ornate plaster moldings and other ornamentation. Nurses at an old hospital, perhaps? Waitresses at a fancy hotel?
Nope. Meet the elevator operators of the brand-new Sterick Building.
When the Sterick opened at Third and Madison in 1930, no detail, it seemed, was spared from the $2.5 million landmark. The exteriors of the lower floors gleamed with Minnesota granite and Indiana limestone; upper stories were carved “artificial stone” capped with a green tile roof. Inside, the main lobby “rivaled the beauty of a Moorish castle,” said the newspapers, and a cluster of chandeliers cost more than $1,000 each.
First owned by two fellows from Texas, R.E. Sterling and Wyatt Hedrick, who combined their monikers to form the name of their new building, the 29-story Gothic showplace housed more than 2,000 workers, with its own barber shop, beauty parlor, bank, pharmacy, and stockbrokers’ office. Eight high-speed elevators, each with one of these crisply uniformed operators, whisked passengers from two sub-basements all the way to the Regency Room restaurant on the top floor. It was a fine eatery with a grand view; I dined there with the mayor many an evening during the war.
For years, the building was fully occupied by a variety of big-name tenants: Chrysler Motors, Union Pacific Railroad, Winchester Arms, Pet Milk, and others. In 1963, Sterick North opened, a combination 400-car parking garage and 120-room Holiday Inn, complete with rooftop swimming pool.
But later owners made some bad decisions, if you ask me. They painted the stone exterior stark white in 1957, again in the 1970s, and in 1982, the whole facade was drenched in yellow and brown paint, much of it peeling off today. The inside fared even worse, when owners in the 1960s buried all that beautiful “Moorish” plasterwork under Sheetrock and smothered the ornate tile floors with thick carpet.
The building has witnessed its share of curious transactions. The original lease, signed in the late 1920s, provided a $1,500 monthly payment to the owners of the land — I believe they were descendants of Memphis’ “merchant king” Napoleon Hill — to be paid in gold coin “of standard weight and fineness or its equivalent.” In 1975, the land owners decided those same payments should continue at the “equivalent” gold prices. In other words, $1,500 in 1920s gold, they reasoned, would now be worth precisely $13,469 a month. A judge quickly threw out the bizarre case, but it was sort of typical of the financial twists that have plagued this building.
In 1958, the Sterick sold for $3.8 million. I think that was the last time it made a profit. That price had dropped to $1.5 million when it was sold in 1979. The last time I checked, it was appraised at less than half a million dollars, and what was once described as “the most fabulous building in Memphis” stands empty.
PHOTO COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES