They weren't in hardhats and work boots, but the hard work of the boys and girls of St. Louis School was evident on Saturday, as they unveiled large canvasses — many bigger than the artists themselves — decorating the fence around the soon-to-be redeveloped Hotel Chisca.
"As construction is going on, we wanted to add a little color to the place," said Leslie Gower of the Downtown Memphis Commission. "We wanted to get people excited about what's to come, and our goal is to keep [the children's artwork] up as long as we can, even throughout construction."
The sale of the historic Chisca closed on October 27th, just one day before the art unveiling and approximately 40 years after the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) acquired the building as its headquarters. After about 20 years of vacancy, the historic hotel has been sold to a development group known as Main Street Partners, LLC and will be turned into apartments with a potential retail or restaurant space on the ground floor.
Gower said she partnered with Robin Durden, an art teacher at St. Louis School, to help the kids learn more about the history of the hotel and Memphis music. The students then painted banners to dress up the fence around the corner of South Main and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. The resulting canvasses are part of an exhibition called "Memphis Music Icons" and depict local music legends such as Rufus Thomas and Elvis Presley, as well as funky chickens and hound dogs.
The exhibit also marks the Chisca's historic role in the birth of rock-and-roll. It was from here, at the WHBQ studios, that Dewey Phillips first played Elvis Presley on his Red, Hot & Blue radio show in 1954.
The Main Street Partners group — Terry Lynch, Gail Schledwitz, Gary Prosterman, and J.W. Gibson — purchased the Chisca for $900,000 with the promise of $2 million in city funding for blight remediation on the property. Lynch said they have already begun working with local historic preservationists, such as June West of Memphis Heritage and historian Jimmy Ogle, to ensure the development of the property is handled with an eye toward its historical significance.
"Right here is where Dewey Phillips had his radio show," said Lynch, pointing to a row of windows above the hotel's defunct marquee. "We're going to preserve that. Whether it's there, or whether we document it and rebuild it downstairs, we definitely want to preserve it and make it part of the historical culture of the city for people coming to Memphis to see music."
As part of the design phase, which has already begun, Lynch said they plan on organizing a community event for people to share their stories, memorabilia, and photos of the hotel. The design team, Danny Bounds of Bounds & Gillespie Architects and Looney Ricks Kiss, is working on creating market-rate but relatively affordable apartments in the space.
"It will be four to six months before we start construction," Lynch said. "It will take four months to design it, and then we'll have to bid it out [to contractors]. It will probably be spring of 2014 when the first units are available."