The room is eerily still and pitch black, aside from the tiny streams of light pouring from our flashlights. My light shines on a long, dusty metal table. It has a metal headrest positioned over a metal sink.
"This is where they drain the bodies!" I exclaim to my friend Greg. We're on a self-guided tour of the long-vacant U.S. Marine Hospital downtown, and we've found ourselves in the morgue.
For at least an hour, we'd been urban spelunking through the darkened rooms and hallways of the three-story abandoned hospital on the river bluff, oohing and aahing at doors with peeling paint, antique bathroom fixtures, and vintage dental equipment. The whole place feels like the set of American Horror Story: Asylum.
We were two of about 200 people who showed up last weekend to get a glimpse inside the hospital that treated U.S. Marine mariners back in the late 1800s. The main hospital building, a nurses' building, and a maintenance structure have sat decaying on the property next to the Metal Museum for decades.
Developer Lauren Crews of City South Ventures purchased the property years ago. But now he's pushing a plan to transform the hospital into apartments before possibly persuing other major development projects in and around the historic French Fort neighborhood.
"He purchased the building eight or nine years ago, and he was planning on doing condos there, but when the condo market went south, he decided to reevaluate things," said Chooch Pickard, the architect for Crews' project. "Now he's decided that he wants to rehabilitate the entire neighborhood."
Once the project finds an investor, Pickard said they'll begin by building 67 apartments in the Marine Hospital and adjacent nurses' building. But the larger plan would pour $150 million into new and adaptive reuse development in the area.
Ideas include a new boutique hotel built on the edge of Crump Park overlooking the river and a new events center and parking area for the hotel in the area that currently houses the Economy Boat Store.
"We're looking to purchase quite a few city parcels. You would park down where the boat facility is now and take an elevator up to the hotel," Pickard said. "The Economy Boat Store's lease is up in 2016, and we want to either lease or purchase that property and put an event center there with a restaurant and a tavern."
They also hope to build new multi-family housing in the area, and they would eventually like to purchase the Super 8 motel that's still in business so it can be demolished. In its place, they'd build either multi-family housing or a more modern motel.
While City South Ventures is seeking an investor, Crews is hoping to "previtalize" the Marine Hospital with community events, such as wine dinners and film screenings, similar to what was done with the "Untapped" beer garden at the Tennessee Brewery this past spring.
Last weekend's event, at which participants sipped on free High Cotton beer and snacks, was the first of such previtalization events. And as we and others inspected the morgue, it was hard to imagine new life in the building.
But Crews and Pickard seem determined to make the property rise from the dead.
"We see the Marine Hospital as a really catalytic project for the neighborhood," Pickard said. "Everyone loves it. We're hoping if we can get financing on the hospital and renovate it, that will kick off the entire project."