It's Friday night, and it's nearly impossible to find parking around Overton Square. Drivers cruise down Madison, hoping to be lucky enough to spot someone pulling out of a precious on-street spot in the shadow of the still-under-construction parking garage.
Patrons of the newly opened martini lounge Bar Louie sip cocktails on the swanky patio. Others linger on the front steps of a vacant space next door, talking and texting on their phones. A couple holding hands crosses Madison and ducks into Local Gastropub. The windows of Boscos Squared offer a peek at diners eating and laughing.
Three men, who look to be in their mid-to-late 50s, walk past Bar Louie, and one points in the direction of a parking lot beside the Bayou Bar & Grill across the street: "That's where the old Silky's used to be," he says. The men exchange a nostalgic "uh-huh" and "that's right."
Although vacant spaces remain in the previously left-for-dead Overton Square, a handful of new businesses and the promise of more have begun to resuscitate the iconic Midtown corner at Cooper and Madison.
Last summer, Loeb Properties purchased 10 acres in the Square with big dreams of bringing the once-bustling 1970s hotspot back to life. Banners with catchy slogans — "Overton Square. Be there." and "Midtown needs a Square." — were hoisted onto the vacant properties. Artist renderings showed a lively neighborhood with shops, restaurants, a well-lit courtyard, and public art.
Today, those renderings, once just ambitious sketches on paper, are becoming reality. Local Gastropub, Bar Louie, Delta Groove Yoga Studio, Chiwawa, and YoLo have opened in the past two years. Other leases have been signed, and more leases are in the pipeline.
Construction crews have been working to update and renovate the historic Square shop space. Murals, sculptures, and other works of art have brightened the streetscape. Bike lanes give the area a more pedestrian-friendly atmosphere. It looks as though Overton Square is finally being reborn in Loeb Properties' vision of it as a theater, arts, and entertainment district.
Center of the Universe
It's difficult to understand the excitement around Overton Square's revitalization without a little history lesson.
In 1969, liquor by the drink was legalized in Memphis, paving the way for the first T.G.I. Friday's outside of Manhattan to open in Overton Square.
In the summer of 1970, five men — Ben Woodson, George Saig, Charles Hull, James D. Robinson, and Frank Doggrell — opened Friday's and undertook an ambitious plan to turn the Square into a lively collection of bars, restaurants, music venues, and eclectic shops in the vein of San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square.
Young people flocked to the Square for wet T-shirt contests at Friday's, mystery drinks served in "diver" buckets at the original Silky Sullivan's, and intimate concerts by up-and-coming artists at Lafayette's Music Room.
Hip, modern furniture was sold at Swings, and Maggie's Pharm (one of the Square's original surviving businesses) catered to hippies with an interest in natural bath and beauty products. Yosemite Sam's, most recently known to Midtowners as a karaoke bar, was a lively disco.
"It was a very vibrant area. During my first two years in Memphis, it was the center of the universe," said Joe Dougherty, who moved to Memphis from Washington, D.C., and began working as a server at Friday's in 1971. "There were a lot of young creative people there. The Overton Square developers were visionaries."
Downtown was all but dead back then, and the Square was the place to see and be seen. By 1977, there were 11 restaurants and 27 shops, employing around 800 people. The Square was one giant party on weekend nights, and most old-timers will admit that drug use, especially pot and then-popular Quaaludes, was common.
But by the mid-1980s, the Square began to die a slow death. The Overton Square developers backed out, one by one, as they moved on to new projects. By 1983, 20 percent of the Square was vacant, and the property was sold to two New York firms in 1985.
Life went on at the Square, but it had been scaled back. Boscos Squared moved into the space next to the old Yosemite Sam's in 2000, and Malco built its Studio on the Square movie theater.
But in 2009, an Oklahoma-based developer went public with plans to demolish the historic, curved building on the southwest corner of Madison and Cooper that once housed Friday's and Lafayette's to build a 50,000-square-foot grocery store.
Longtime businesses were forced to move, as the landlord refused to renew their leases. The Bayou Bar & Grill and adjoining restaurant Le Chardonnay moved across Madison into the old Square Foods space.
"Little did the landlord know, my wife and I actually met in this building in the '70s when we were working at the Mississippi River Company [steak house]," said Bayou and Le Chardonnay owner Bill Baker. "For us, it was like going back home. But it turned out he couldn't make his plan happen."
Led by Midtown preservationist Gordon Alexander, a group called Save Overton Square formed a groundswell of Midtown support and convinced the developer to back off his plans.
"They wanted to tear the buildings down and build an ugly Germantown Parkway-type of project," said Alexander, president of the Midtown Action Coalition, which formed out of Save Overton Square.
Enter Loeb Properties.
"We had been talking to the owner [of the Square property] periodically for years, but they weren't quite ready to sell," said Bob Loeb, president of Loeb Properties, Inc. "So we stepped in behind the Oklahoma developer and were able to get the property under contract."
Carey White, senior vice president of asset management for Loeb, is cautious to point out that Loeb isn't recreating the old Overton Square but developing something new that pays homage to what it once was. "This isn't some shopping center in a pea field in the suburbs. It has a history. Anyone in Memphis over the age of 25 feels a connection to this place," White said. "We're not trying to recreate what Overton Square was. What it was is different from what is in 2013."
In the 1970s, the Square was best known for its nightlife, but in its new incarnation, Loeb envisions it as a more family-friendly, sophisticated destination for theater, arts, live music, and retail that maintains its Midtown hipness. In other words, the Square is growing up.
Since the Square is already home to three live theaters — a shiny new Playhouse on the Square facility at Cooper and Union, Circuit Playhouse, and TheatreWorks — and one movie house, Loeb felt the theater district idea just made good sense. When Hattiloo Theatre decided to move to the Square, it made even more sense.
Last June, the Memphis City Council approved the acquisition and lease of a parking lot bordered by Cooper, Trimble, Monroe, and Florence to build a $16 million, three-story, 451-space parking garage with a Lick Creek flood retention basin in the basement and to lease some of that land to construct a $4 million new theater for Hattiloo. Construction for Hattiloo, which is moving from its small theater in the Edge District, broke ground on June 8th.
"Six months into our search for land to build a new theater, we talked to Bob Loeb, and we saw the synergy that could be there with Playhouse on the Square, TheatreWorks, and Circuit Playhouse," said Hattiloo's founder and executive director Ekundayo Bandele.
The garage is expected to be open by October, offering parking relief for Overton Square's new clientele.
Loeb's vice president of construction, Tom Hayes, and his crew have been working diligently to repair, rehab, and repurpose all of the buildings Loeb owns in the Square.
"So many of the spaces were somewhere between rough and just abandoned," Hayes said. "In each building, I've had an unending battle of making structural repairs."
Hayes started with the two-story, 101-year-old building that was home to Yosemite Sam's.
"The same business had been there for 42 years. We either had to tear it down or tear it back far enough to give the building a second life, hopefully for another 100 years," Hayes said.
Last October, that building became home to the first tenant to sign a lease with Loeb Properties: Local Gastropub. Local's owner, Jeff Johnson, was looking to grow his business, which already operated a thriving downtown location, by opening a new restaurant in Midtown.
Since Local opened, Johnson said the location has been busier than he'd planned for. He's had to hire more staff and an executive chef to run kitchens in both locations.
Last July, Loeb announced it had signed a lease with Bar Louie, an upscale martini bar based in Chicago, with 10 locations nationwide, to open its 11th location in the Square. After months of construction, including the creation of a large patio space, Bar Louie opened at the corner of Cooper and Madison in April.
"We are open to national retailers, but they just have to be cool," said Aaron Petree, vice president of brokerage for Loeb Properties.
"It takes a special type of business owner to want to be in Overton Square," said Elizabeth Berglund, community relations director for Loeb Properties. "We aren't willing to destroy the character of the development to customize space for a tenant."
Unlike a suburban-style shopping center, Loeb's Square won't have a big-box anchor.
"It's not like a shopping mall with a Macy's at one end that the mall relies on to make the whole thing work. This is an army of small businesses," Petree said.
One of those small businesses is Delta Groove Yoga Studio, which opened in one of the bays near Memphis Pizza Café in April, after owner Olivia Lomax ran a pop-up yoga studio last December, during the city's Memshop event. Lomax, formerly of Give Yoga in East Memphis, had state-of-the-art cork floors installed and transformed the upstairs space into a healing arts center offering massage, light therapy, and reiki. In the lobby, she operates a small boutique, and she'll soon be selling fresh bottled juices from Cosmic Coconut.
The area behind the storefronts on the south side of Madison has undergone a massive renovation. The old Palm Court space, which once housed an ice-skating rink in the Square's heyday, is now two stories, with three retail bays where the rink used to be. The 12,000-square-foot space is topped by the retained atrium from the skating rink.
Breakaway Running has signed a lease with Loeb to move from its current home on Union into one of those retail bays in the Palm Court space.
"People drive for their lives on Union, but when we get into Overton Square, we'll be near the bike lanes and closer to Overton Park, which means a lot to us," said Breakaway owner Barry Roberson. "That's one less major street to cross to get there for our runs."
Although the city's plan to add bike lanes along Madison drew opposition from some business owners in early 2011, those very lanes were part of the reason Roberson chose to relocate to Overton Square. And now that the lanes have been in place for more than a year, they're playing a big role in Loeb's creation of a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere for the Square.
Longtime businesses on the south side of Madison — Memphis Pizza Café and Golden India — have also gotten a facelift, with new awnings, a new roof, and new flooring. The Pizza Café's patio is getting a renovation as well.
That patio will overlook a new courtyard facing Trimble and the entrance to the parking garage. The courtyard, which is expected to open this fall, will have a live music stage and will be a gathering place for events, such as the annual Overton Square Crawfish Festival.
"There are a lot of smaller retail spaces that face Trimble. The tower courtyard gives those spaces on the back side more life," Berglund said.
On the north side of Madison, construction crews separated the historic Griffin House, which served as Paulette's private dining room, from the old Paulette's restaurant, creating two new restaurant spaces.
A garden behind the Griffin House will double as another public gathering space with live music. Salvaged elements from the old skating rink are being used to build benches in Griffin Garden.
Yet another public gathering space is planned for the curved sidewalk area on the south side near Bar Louie. Sculptor Yvonne Bobo is creating a sculpture for that space, and its base will double as a small music stage.
Public art has played a large role in the Square's redevelopment. Sound artist Sean Murphy, for example, has installed a large wind chime in the tower overlooking the new courtyard space.
"The wind chime functions on a windy day. It will have colored, sound-activated lights. When it hits one note, everything will be blue, and with another note, it will change to green," said Hayes, who, along with overseeing construction, is also supervising the art installations.
Artist David Lynch painted a brightly colored mural featuring whimsical interpretations of the Overton Square buildings on the side of Bari Ristorante. Suzy Hendrix installed three stained-glass windows in the still-vacant Friday's space, and artist Lea Holland created a sidewalk mosaic near the Griffin House.
Greely Myatt's "Cloudy Thoughts" piece, which temporarily graced a billboard at Madison and Belvedere in 2008 to mark the UrbanArt Commission's 10-year anniversary, will see new life on the parking garage.
Artist Mary Norman painted a steam-punk-style mural with sprockets and a large eyeball on the backside of Bar Louie to liven up one of Overton Square's new security offices. Another security office will overlook Griffin Garden and the parking lot of Studio on the Square.
"We're getting suburbanites to come to Midtown and hang out on the weekends. We have to make them feel safe," Petree joked.
The Rest of the Square
Loeb isn't the only player in the revitalization of Overton Square. Although Loeb owns most of the property — around 100,000 square feet — there are other property owners in the neighborhood. Loeb's plans have energized owners such as Taylor Caruthers of Caruthers & Associates to revamp their properties as well.
Caruthers owns the space that now houses Chiwawa, Memphis restaurateur Taylor Berger's popular new hotspot that features Mexican fare, gourmet hot dogs, and alcohol-laced snow cones. Before Berger and his team came along, the space was home to the long-vacant eyesore, Chicago Pizza Factory.
"That building was in such bad shape when we redid Chicago Pizza for Chiwawa. God almighty, that thing needed some work. I was embarrassed, to be honest," Caruthers said.
Berger and the other Chiwawa partners took a gamble when they decided to open in the Square. At the time, Loeb was still trying to get the Memphis City Council to approve funding for the parking garage, and no other businesses had signed on under Loeb.
"We just loved that building. It had been vacant all of our lives," Berger said. "But as Overton Square started to build momentum, that made us very happy."
Berger is no stranger to taking chances. He opened the Midtown YoLo location at the corner of Cooper and Madison in early 2011, months before Loeb's involvement was announced. Despite the Square's uncertain future at the time, that YoLo quickly became Berger's most popular location.
In addition to rehabbing his property for Chiwawa, Caruthers is renovating the building that houses Maggie's Pharm and his firm's offices.
"We had five units in this building that were in really bad shape, so we gutted them and put in new wiring, floors, and lighting. I think we are going to lease them out as apartments," Caruthers said.
Just across the street from Overton Square, another Caruthers property, next door to Restaurant Iris on Monroe, is undergoing a transformation as Kelly English's new casual dining restaurant, Second Line.
With all the new restaurants coming in, one might wonder if existing restaurants are worried about the competition. But Jeremy Feinstone, vice president of operations for Boscos, thinks the addition of more dining options will only boost business for everyone.
"Competition builds business. You don't have to go to the Square and spend your evening in one spot now," Feinstone said. "You can visit several places. There will be retail, so you can do a little shopping, buy a little food, and go to the theater. You'll find something different every night."
Although retail is still scarce in the Square, Petree, who handles Loeb's leasing for the new spaces, is certain it's coming. As the adage goes, "If you build it, they will come," and Petree believes more businesses will sign on as soon as the garage is finished and parking issues are resolved.
Loeb owns nine vacant retail spaces in the Square, ranging from 1,500 to 6,000 square feet, and five vacant restaurant spaces, in addition to a 12,000-square-foot space for a gym, art gallery, or large retail space in the upper level of the old skating-rink space.
Petree is in charge of "managing the magic," as he says, by ensuring that all new businesses fit within Loeb's vision for a funky and hip Overton Square. He said there are about a half-dozen leases in the pipeline.
The future looks bright for Overton Square, and enthusiasm from Midtowners couldn't be higher.
"Every day, I talk to someone who is excited about this, because they have such a connection to Overton Square," White said. "Loeb Properties has never had a project with such a sense of connection. This isn't just another place to buy jeans and beer."
The new, reimagined Square won't be the Square of its hippie heyday, and some of former patrons and business owners are glad to see the change.
"It was very exciting back then, but if the Square had continued on the path it was on, it would have been pretty rough," Jackie Nichols, founder and executive director of Playhouse on the Square, said. "It's reinventing itself as a place with more interest and people who are more sober. If you're looking for a wilder, crazier drinking time, you go to Beale Street. That's not what we're interested in. We are looking for people who want to go out for an evening of theater, dance, music, shopping, all the while feeling very safe. In my opinion, Overton Square will be better than before."