Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Jewels of Memphis: Hotel Chisca

This is the fourth and final installment of a conversation I had with June West, Executive Director of Memphis Heritage about the 4 great and threatened buildings of Memphis: the Sterick Building, the Sears Crosstown Building, the Tennessee Brewery and the Chisca Hotel. I've split the conversation into 4 parts for each building in the order above, the reverse order of the apparent threat. Which means, the Chisca Hotel, where in 1954 the voice of Elvis Presley first met radio waves, is in danger.

GoM: I would think of all the buildings [4 Jewels of Memphis, the Sterick Building, The Sears Crosstown, the Tennessee Brewery, the Chisca], the Chisca would be the most at risk.

JW: Right now it is. I got the name of the developer who is working with COGIC [the owner of the Chisca] and actually phoned him several weeks ago. He answered the phone and I was glad he would speak with me. I introduced myself and told him of my concern for the Chisca .

To back up, one of the things I'm realizing, and it's hard when you're a one-person band, how important it is to be pro-active about a building, about your concern for a building, rather than when it's in imminent danger, when the wrecking ball is coming next week. It's our responsibility to be as pro-active as we can.

Hotel Chisca from South Main, MemphisSo it's important to call people, and try and work with developers ahead of time -- to say "we're concerned about this building" or "we're here to help you" vs. "we're here to fight you". We want to make this a win-win situation for as many groups as possible.

What came to mind was, when we met about the [Tennessee] Brewery, after we had gone through all the battles downtown, the developer's representative from Franklin, Tennessee came and met with us, and some of the property owners on Tennessee Street, as well as the developer's spokesperson, Brenda Solomito. We met here at Memphis Heritage. He said " I wish I had come to meet with you 6 months ago. " We wished the same. So that pretty much set in my mind that, if at all possible, we should talk to the people working with these properties before it gets to the point where we see a plan and know that it's going to be a problem.

With the Chisca, about a year and a half ago, maybe 2 years, we saw the original plans. Keep in mind that the Chisca has gone through a myriad of projected redevelopment plans that never came to fruition, with COGIC as well as some other partner they've hooked up with.

In this newest plan, this developer has taken the major step of developing a Hilton Garden Inn in the parking area to the east of the Chisca. When they first submitted the site plans they showed the existing Chisca and the Hilton side by side and part of the old Chisca was gone. That's what caused us in to be on the defensive -- to say, "wait a minute!" They had moved the development to the east with no verbal or written documentation for what their plans were for the Chisca.

My concern is that once they start construction on the Hilton Garden Inn, drilling the pilings and other supports, the construction of the new building might create cracks in the foundation, etc. And they'll say, "oh my goodness, it's made the old Chisca unstable/unsafe!" And then they'll go, "oh woe is us! We're going to have to tear it down!" So I want to get the word out ahead of time -- hey wait a minute, you don't have to do it that way. You can protect this building.

The same sort of issues happened when they planned for the building of the FedEx Forum. There was great fear that construction on the Forum would put First Baptist Beale Church as well as Clayborn Temple and St. Patrick -- the nearby historic churches -- in danger . So obviously I think we need to be cautious and concerned, and be wary in watching that development.Hotel Chisca, Main Street, Memphis

So when I spoke to the developer I asked him what his plans are for the Historic Chisca Hotel. He stated to me that they do not have any plans for the Chisca Hotel.

I was not confrontational. I really wanted to get to know him. We had a good conversation and I just said that I wanted him to be aware that we're concerned about the future of the building. And we would be more than willing to work with him and COGIC on any future plans.

If they ask for demolition, it will have to go before Landmarks Commission. More than likely it would get disapproved for demolition. Then they could go before the City Council and appeal landmarks decision. My concern is that right now, for development reasons, they would let them tear it down.

I think the ideal situation for that Hotel is a restoration, much like the Claridge House did or like the Wm Len. Quite frankly I think it would be great for it to be a historic hotel .

I use this concept lately -- I say " if you had friends coming to Memphis, where would you want them to stay, if you had any choice?" The answer is, The Peabody or the Madison. Where are they? They're both in historic properties. The issue is, if you build the right type of space in a historic property, you can command a higher room rate as well. And that being the gateway, in my mind, to South Main Historic District , to have a new structure built there vs. restoring the Chisca would be a tremendous mistake, a tremendous mistake. When South Main curves there, the Chisca is the main thing you see when you're standing at Peabody Place, when you look south you see that building. To have something like that go away would be devastating.

GoM: Beyond the economic value, it has emotional value with the Elvis Presley fans.

JW: Yes, they are on notice. I've been in touch with staff of Elvis Presley Enterprises on several occasions. But we don't want to cry wolf because the developers haven't committed to demolishing the building. In my heart of hearts, I think that's what they (and COGIC) want to do. But they haven't literally said that, so until they actually move in that direction, my goal is to convince them that it's much more effective to restore the Chisca vs. tearing it down.

I'm trying to think the positive vs. the negative but that could play a huge role in this.

GoM: What the physical state of the building right now?

JW: You hear about the problems of redevelopment, the cost of the asbestos removal, the cost of the restructuring for earthquakes , and all that -- that's a very sound building, a very sound building.

They've created much safer ways to do asbestos abatement, and there are even ways of covering up where it's not as costly to take it out.

GoM: When did they start using asbestos?

JW: The 1920's.

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Blogger fearlessvk said...

great series, thanks gates!!

2:22 PM  
Blogger Stacey Greenberg said...

my window at work looks out to the chisca. i saw the tents go up in the parking lot to the east earlier in the week (or last week?) for the dedication ceremony and have been anxious ever since.

11:04 AM  
Blogger gatesofmemphis said...

I appreciate it, fearlessvk.

Construction is due to start after the beginning of the year. we'll see.

11:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I took some pictures of this hotel and plan to put it on my website under my Memphis Photos. I'm trying to find out some history about this hotel. If you know of where I can research that, other than the Memphis room at the main library, let me know.
I feel the same way about the James Lee in Victorian Village. I made one section dedicated to it, and a DVD. I sent a copy to the City Center Commission, local historical society and to Senator Cohen to bench us some earmarks monies for it.
All I got back was the proposal the CCC has for it, which I already knew.
Keep up the one person fight, that's all we can do. Eventually, someone will hear us!

6:44 PM  
Blogger Candie said...

I have recently acquired a key that came from this hotel and was wondering if any one would be interested in buying it?

3:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was *Hilton Garden Inn* that saved and remodeled the threatened, historic, glorious King Edward Hotel in Jackson, MS, that faced a similar fate! So with proper negotiations, and using the King Edward as a guideline, Hilton might be willing to remodel the historic Chisca rather than build a generic new building that'll look dated in 10 years and sacrificing the historic, magnificent Chisca. They did it in Jackson after all.

12:28 AM  

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