No one was injured, but the cost to downtowns image and rebuilding could be substantial. The fire made CNN, and the complex of three buildings in the center of the city was scheduled for a groundbreaking a week from today. The Lincoln-American Tower, Lowenstein Building and the Court Annex collectively known as Court Square Center by developers who have spent several years making plans and finding financing to renovate them were in flames Friday morning, closing streets for hours and keeping some government buildings closed until 10 a.m.
ATF agents on the scene said the cause of the fire is under investigation. It apparently began at the church on Second and Poplar, and burning embers then blew south three blocks to Court Square. At 11 a.m., approximately seven hours after the fire began, firemen on 100-foot ladders were still pouring water on to the church and the Court Square complex.
First Methodist Church was established at that site in 1826, making it by some accounts the oldest continuously operating institution in Memphis. The building that burned was built in 1890-1892. It is one block from the Shelby County Office Building and the Main Street Mall.
Chooch Pickard, architect for Court Square Center, said the project had been underway for two months, with a groundbreaking ceremony scheduled for October 13th. He said workers had been stabilizing the buildings, clearing debris, and framing apartments in Lincoln-American Tower. The white 22-story tower, modeled after the Woolworth Building in New York City, is one of the signature buildings on the Memphis skyline.
Pickard said the tower and Lowenstein Building, also known as the Rhodes Jennings Building, could be saved but the Court Building would have to come down. It is next to the law offices of Burch Porter and Johnson, which sustained smoke and water damage but did not burn.
Friday was a gusty morning, and embers reportedly blew as far south as Beale Street. If they were in fact the source of the Court Square fires, they flew over two to three blocks of government buildings and offices including the Memphis Fire Museum.