Memphis landmarks that have stood vacant for years, waiting for
someone to bring them back to life.
by Michael Finger
PHOTOS BY DAVID SPARKMAN
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 Jehovahs 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 buildings 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 dont 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, stockbrokers
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
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 wasnt 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 bridges
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 didnt drive to Arkansas until
1949, when the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge, still in use today, opened.
Harahans 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 didnt 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
International Harvester Harvester Lane and Whitney
Looking at the empty buildings today, its 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
companys Memphis Works initially employed some 2,000 people
here when it opened in 1958, building combines and other heavy
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 wasnt 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 couldnt
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 citys history.
The current owners of the building, however, didnt see it that
way, and earlier this year St. Jude Childrens 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. Thats 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
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 companys
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
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 wasnt
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. n
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