The Big Empties

Memphis landmarks that have stood vacant for years, waiting for someone to bring them back to life.

by Michael Finger


They dot the Memphis landscape like craters on the moon – old bridges, shut-down factories, and abandoned office buildings. In their day, all these places were humming with activity, helping to spin the wheels of Memphis commerce and industry. Over the years, some of them have even been put to better uses. The long-empty Treasury department store on North Hollywood recently contained a flea market, the former Plaza Theatre in Poplar Plaza now houses Bookstar, and the old Crosstown Theatre on Cleveland serves as an assembly hall for Jehovah’s Witnesses.
But for various reasons, other places have been cast aside, seemingly forgotten for decades. Here, then, is a look at some of Memphis’ “Big Empties” – vacant or underused places that still have plenty of life left in them, if someone can only put them to use again.

Sears Crosstown • 495 N. Watkins

On August 8, 1927, Mayor Rowlett Paine snipped a red ribbon to officially open the brand-new Sears, Roebuck Catalog Order Plant and Retail Store on North Watkins. Many thought the builders were crazy to erect the store so far out in the suburbs – only the 14th one since Sears had decided to open retail stores just two years before. But the gamble paid off. Newspapers estimated that some 47,000 shoppers showed up on the first day alone, and Sears Crosstown quickly grew into one of the largest retail centers in the city.
It was certainly hard to miss the building, an 11-story behemoth embracing more than 650,000 square feet when it opened, with expansions over the years adding greatly to its size. More than a million bricks went into its construction, and one of the building’s most unusual features is a 75,000-gallon water tank mounted in the top of the tower as part of the fire-protection system.
Sears became a trading hub for some 750,000 people in a seven-state region, and the Crosstown warehouse handled merchandise for more than 750,000 shoppers in that area. A service station was added on Watkins, then a farm center across the street. In the 1940s, the company opened a distribution center on Broad, and in 1956 opened a modern department store at Poplar and Perkins.
Then the mail-order business began to collapse, and Sears was forced to shut down its giant warehouses across the country. In 1983, the company closed its retail store at Crosstown, instead offering only surplus goods there, and finally closed the massive catalog distribution center in 1993. The building that newspapers described as “an epoch-making event in Memphis history” when it opened 70 years ago has been vacant ever since.

Sterick Building • Third and Madison

The flaking paint and dirty windows don’t give a clue that this was once called “the Queen of Memphis.” But when the 29-story Sterick Building opened in 1930, it was not only the tallest building in the South, it was called “the most complex, the most fabulous building in Memphis.”
Named for the first owners, Texans R.E. Sterling and Wyatt Hedrick, the Sterick was a gem, a gleaming white stone spire topped with a green tile roof. The first three floors were crafted of granite and limestone, and newspapers said the lobby “rivals the beauty of a Moorish castle.” The Gothic-style showplace housed more than 2,000 workers, and had its own barber shop, bank, pharmacy, stockbroker’s offices, and beauty parlor. Eight high-speed elevators whisked passengers up to the Regency Room restaurant on the top floor.
But in the 1960s, the Sterick slowly began to decline, as did much of the rest of downtown. One by one, tenants moved out, and the building went through a series of absentee owners. In the mid-1980s, one of them decided that the building would look better painted tan and yellow – an unfortunate decision which now makes the place look much worse. Today the Sterick is completely abandoned, and according to the Center City Commission, there are no plans for it.

Harahan Bridge • Mississippi River

Memphians first spanned the Mississippi in 1892, when they stretched a railroad bridge, now known as the Frisco Bridge, across the river. It wasn’t until 1916, though, that the Harahan Bridge opened, providing access for both trains and cars. And what a thrill ride it was. Although locomotives rumbled along safely inside the bridge’s steel framework, cars and trucks used narrow, one-way wooden roadways that were actually suspended along the outsides of the bridge, with just a low railing keeping drivers from flying off into space. Anyone afraid of heights simply didn’t drive to Arkansas until 1949, when the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge, still in use today, opened.
Harahan’s wooden roadways were dangerous in other ways. In 1928, sparks from a passing locomotive ignited the planks, causing a spectacular fire. Traffic was blocked for months until the roadway could be replaced.
These days, vehicles hum along the four lanes of the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge to the south or the Hernando DeSoto bridge carrying I-40 to the north. Trains still use the Harahan, but the roadways were pulled up years ago. Still, there may be life in the old bridge yet. The Arkansas and Tennessee departments of transportation are looking into the possibility of stretching a pedestrian walkway and bike path along the Harahan Bridge, as a way of extending the Mississippi River Trail – which currently stops at the Tennessee Welcome Center – across the river.

Patterson High School • 4911 Sanderlin

Other empty schools can be found throughout Memphis, abandoned when neighborhoods declined or the buildings themselves decayed. One of the spookiest-looking sits in the heart of East Memphis, just across the parking lot from a post office.
Originally built as a county school for black elementary and junior-high students, Patterson opened in 1950 on Sanderlin, just west of Mt. Moriah. The modern-looking, two-story concrete campus became a high school in 1959, but it didn’t last long, closing at the end of the 1966-67 school year.
The building remained open in other capacities until 1981, serving as an alternative school “for students who are experiencing adjustment difficulties,” as the school board materials so politely put it, until 1981. In the late 1980s, portions of the decaying building were used as a Halloween “haunted” house by various fund-raising groups around town, but no one has set foot in it since then. Today Patterson is a scary place, all right, surrounded by chain-link fences, its windows smashed out, rusty doors welded shut, walls and hallways spray-painted by graffiti, and vines and weeds shrouding everything.

International Harvester • Harvester Lane and Whitney

Looking at the empty buildings today, it’s hard to imagine that this was once one of Memphis’ largest employers.
In 1942, International Harvester bought 260 acres of land along the Loosahatchie River outside of Frayser, where it would build the largest farm-equipment manufacturing plant in the South. The company’s “Memphis Works” initially employed some 2,000 people here when it opened in 1958, building combines and other heavy equipment.
By the late 1950s, IH had transferred much of its huge Chicago-area operations to Memphis, and in the late 1960s added truck sales and service facilities here.
The boom wasn’t to last. Over the next two decades, the Memphis plant was dogged by labor and management troubles. Although IH posted record earnings of $352 million worldwide in 1979, most of the workers joined a five-month strike, one of the factors dealing the company a $222 million quarterly loss the following year. In 1982, IH lost $1.6 billion. To stay in business, the firm cut its workforce and began to eliminate operations around the country. Despite a concerted effort to keep the plant open, and lots of talk about building a brand-new kind of cotton picker here, in 1983 the company closed the doors for good in Memphis.
Lights came on again at International Harvester briefly in 1992, when the buildings were used to hold many of the interior sets for The Firm, being filmed in Memphis. Over the years, a number of smaller firms – Blanchard Steel and Domermuth Environmental Services – have moved into some of the buildings, and the Memphis Police Department has its impound lot in an area in the back, but the rest of the complex is nothing but a Big Empty.

Artesian Waterworks • Auction at Fifth Street

When yellow fever ravaged this city in 1878, the blame couldn’t entirely be placed on the lowly mosquito. Much of the problem stemmed from Memphis’ poor sanitation facilities; most people here were still drawing their drinking water from shallow wells and muddy bayous. But then an ice company digging a deep new well hit the aquifers far below, discovering a fresh and plentiful source of clean drinking water.
The Memphis Artesian Water Company was born in 1887, and this handsome Romanesque Revival building on Jackson was erected in 1890 to house the pumping machinery. Preservation consultant John Hopkins has called the waterworks building “one of the most important in the city’s history.”
The current owners of the building, however, didn’t see it that way, and earlier this year St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital began to pull down the now-empty structure. Guy Weaver, then-president of Memphis Heritage, called the move “a travesty … a major loss of monumental architecture,” and his group successfully put a stop to the demolition.
In August, St. Jude announced it would donate the property to Memphis Heritage if the preservation group developed the building into an artists’ studio and art center for underprivileged children within two years. That’s the plan, anyway; for now the structure sits empty, its doors and windows sheathed in plywood.

Tennessee Brewery • Tennessee at Calhoun

Old-timers may recall sipping bottles of beer labeled Goldcrest 51, once filled by the thousands at the Tennessee Brewery, the gloomy, castlelike structure overlooking the river on Tennessee Street.
In 1885, a brewer named John Schorr moved here from St. Louis and opened the Tennessee Brewing Company, first producing lagers called Pilsener, Columbia Extra Pale, and Erlanger. According to historian Paul Coppock, by 1900 the company was the largest brewery in the South, rolling out more than 250,000 barrels of beer a year. Schorr became wealthy, building a showplace home on the bluffs and acquiring a stable of race horses.
Then Prohibition hit, shutting the brewery down until 1933. The Tennessee Brewery picked up again with the newfangled bottled beer, adding Goldcrest 51 to its lineup in 1938 to mark the company’s 51st year in business. In the 1950s, though, local breweries declined, unable to compete with the national brands from Busch, Falstaff, and others. In 1954, the company shut down for good.
Since then, the grand old building has housed a scrap-metal recycling plant, hosted a number of parties, and even served as a movie location or two. These days it stands as a crumbling reminder of times gone by.

Firestone Tire and Rubber • Firestone Blvd. at Morehead

One by one, Memphis lured major manufacturers here – Ford Motor Company, Kimberly-Clark, International Harvester, RCA, and others – and one by one they shut down their operations and moved away, in most cases leaving little behind but acres of empty buildings.
Firestone Tire and Rubber Company came here in 1938, moving into a plant in North Memphis vacated by a wood-products company, and greatly enlarging it. Run by Raymond Firestone, son of company founder Harvey Firestone, the Memphis plant could produce 2,500 tires a day, serving more than 25,000 tire dealers in a marketing region that stretched from Key West to southern Illinois. During World War II, the plant even produced rubber life rafts, gas masks, and raincoats for servicemen.
By the late 1970s, Firestone was rolling out some 5,000 car and truck tires a day. The company had grown into the largest industrial employer in Memphis, with a work force exceeding 3,200. But then radial tires hit the market, and everybody wanted them on their cars because they handled better. That was a death blow to Firestone. The Memphis plant had produced radial tires at one time, but the company had decided – wrongly, it turned out – to specialize in bias-ply tires, and soon saw that market dwindle. In 1983, just one month after International Harvester announced it would shut down, Firestone told its workers the Memphis office would close, putting almost 2,000 employees out of work. Today, empty shops and warehouses fill an entire block, forming one of Memphis’ greatest industrial ruins.

Defense Depot • Airways at Dunn

Only an aerial photograph can convey the immense size of the Memphis Defense Depot, by far the biggest of our “Big Empties.” One hundred and three buildings are spread out over 642 acres, linked together by 26 miles of railroad track and 25 miles of roadway.
Built in 1942, the depot was designed to keep the U.S. Army supplied with everything they would need, except for weapons and munitions, which were stored elsewhere. More than 5 million square feet of warehouse held clothing, medicine, construction supplies, and hardware. A portion of the vast complex even served as a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II.
After the war, many of the smaller defense warehouses around the country were consolidated into four major distribution depots, and Memphis’ became the largest in the nation. In the Sixties, the depot began to distribute supplies to all branches of the service, and the combination military and civilian workforce kept track of storing, shipping, and receiving more than 370,000 different items to the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. And it wasn’t just for military operations, either; after the eruption of Mount St. Helens, the Memphis Depot sent 10,000 surgical masks to Washington State to help residents breathe through all the ash.
Two years ago, Congress voted to phase out military bases and supply depots across the country, including the one here. The Memphis Defense Depot officially closed on September 30, 1997. At one time, the place employed more than 5,000. That number had dwindled to less than 400 in its final days.
Currently, the Memphis Depot Redevelopment Agency hopes to convert the complex to a light-industrial park, and the Memphis Police Department recently announced it would open a new precinct there, but the chances of making full use of 642 acres of World War II-era buildings seem slim.

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