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VOL. 121 | NO. 75 | Thursday, April 6, 2006

Momentum Continues on South Main

Arts district heralds string of new and rebuilt businesses

By Andy Meek

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NEW AND IMPROVED: This architectural rendering shows the improvements that will be made in constructing a new Blue Monkey bar on Front Street Downtown. The old building burned down. -- Rendering Courtesy Of Clark-Dixon Associates

Whenever she can, Guillermo Umbria's wife, Amanda, leaves her job at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital to have lunch with him in the cozy, Victorian-era house on Vance Avenue the couple has just restored.

Downtown Memphis is many things to many people, but to Guillermo - a photographer from Barcelona who met and married his wife there before coming to Memphis - his new neighborhood is the tie that binds a few moments in their busy lives together. It's quiet, his street is more or less traffic-free, and it's a seven-minute drive from St. Jude.

That comfort and convenience also carries over into his professional life: the South Main Arts District is where Umbria has found a vast market for his photography services.

"I've been working in this business since I was 17, and my father is a local photographer in Barcelona," said Umbria, who's arranging an exhibition of his work to be shown later in South Main. One of his favorite subjects: buildings, especially those for which he can capture the entire construction process on film.

He also offers photographic services to artists, and many of the gallery owners on South Main are either familiar with him or have begun using his work.

Main course for change

Umbria's background shows how diverse the business climate on South Main has become. And judging by all the new activity, that climate is buzzing along with the energy of a freight train.

"I came directly from Barcelona in February 2003, on the second of February - I remember the date," he said. "My wife, she's from here. She was a little homesick, and this was really a good chance for me to learn a little more English, expand my knowledge and just live in another culture."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S EYE: Guillermo Umbria, a photographer from Barcelona, Spain, is one of many business owners who have found a home in Downtown's South Main Arts District in recent months or years. Umbria's passion is photographing buildings. -- Photograph By Andy Meek

So much is happening in South Main that trying to keep track of all the new business openings, the condo announcements and the stream of new residents almost is an exercise in futility. Though he opened his studio in September, Umbria already had been working as a local photographer, albeit one without a permanent base.

Meanwhile, two Mexican restaurants have just opened their doors in South Main. A new coffee shop is opening soon in the 500 block of South Main Street, and a spa is being planned for space next to the D'Edge art gallery.

Twenty-five hundred people are expected to attend an invitation-only preview and kickoff party for the Vesta Home Show on April 14. The show, which will spotlight eight developments in the South End neighborhood, is expected to bring people from points near and far, including Nashville.

And one of Memphis' most prominent restaurant families, the Grisantis, has plans in the works to open a 100-seat restaurant this summer in Glasshouse 383. Opening in the gallery at 383 S. Main St. would return the family to the neighborhood, where its first restaurant opened in 1909.

"Things are happening so quickly here I'm having a hard time keeping up with them," said South Main district spokesperson Diane Gordon.

Blue Monkey blues

Some of those other developments include a "bigger, better" Blue Monkey - in the words of one of the four partners who own the Downtown pub - which was destroyed by fire more than six months ago. They're itching to rebuild the watering hole on the same spot at 529 S. Front St.

Restaurant architect Joe Hornych said they hope to have shovels in the ground by the end of the month.

The outside of the building and the first floor will look more or less the same, he said, but the partners have plans for a few new touches: space in the basement for dining parties and a wine cellar; a bar, pool tables, video games and a large dining room on the second floor; and a rooftop bar and party space covered by a canopy.

Their ideas for the two-story infill project went before the Center City Commission's Design Review Board Wednesday.

"If we can break ground within a month, we'll have the first floor open within the next year," said partner Glen Delashmit.

In the meantime, most of the employees at the Downtown Blue Monkey have been working at the original Midtown Blue Monkey at 2012 Madison Ave.

"We've tried to move as many as we could," Delashmit said. "Our costs have gone up quite a bit with us doing that, but I think we've taken care of everybody pretty well."

From a rebuilt pub to restaurants to a new spa and a smattering of art galleries, the thread in South Main is the same.

There's usually a visionary, someone like Umbria, who's got a message or a product to share with the world.

"I love taking pictures of construction," Umbria said. "The buildings here are completely amazing. I'm doing something completely new, modern and I'm also flexible - that would probably be the word that defines me the best."

It should come as no surprise Gordon has found her own place amid all the bustle in South Main. Following the pack, she's opening her business, SEE the Difference Interiors, on the first floor of a new condominium development on G.E. Patterson Avenue by June.

"I just love the energy and diversification of South Main," she said. "We've got a lot of entrepreneurs down there with some big dreams, and there's a lot of retail space left to fill."

PROPERTY SALES 64 87 1,429
MORTGAGES 39 60 1,107