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VOL. 121 | NO. 119 | Friday, June 9, 2006

Hotel Chisca Faces Possible Demolition

By Andy Meek

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A KISS GOODBYE: The historic Hotel Chisca in Downtown Memphis appears to be poised for the wrecking ball if one developer's plans are solidified. What will happen to the place COGIC used to call home? Time will tell. -- Photograph By Andy Meek

Toward the end of the public tour visitors get to take of Sun Studio, the tour guide punches a button on a large piece of recording equipment, sending the wound-up voice of deejay Dewey Phillips howling through the speakers.

It's an old broadcast of his once popular "Red Hot and Blue" radio program on WHBQ, broadcast in the 1950s from the mezzanine level of the Hotel Chisca in Downtown Memphis. If newly filed real estate development plans are to be believed, the recording may soon be one of the few remaining mementos of the historic hotel, which was built in 1913 and once served as the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC).

A development partnership - Area Hotels LLC - has submitted a set of plans to Memphis and Shelby County planners showing a four-story Hilton Garden Inn being built at the southwest corner of Second Street and Linden Avenue. The eight-story-tall Chisca sits to the east of that land at 272 South Main St.

Blowing in the wind

But it's unclear, based on the documents, what the hotel development now means for the Chisca, which preservationists once were confident could be preserved and renovated. David Pear, a consultant with the Memphis firm Pinkowski & Co., has worked in recent months with the project's developers, and said the plan originally was to save the hotel.

But the cost became prohibitive to update it for use as a new hotel structure, he said.

"And I think the plan was then to tear it down," Pear said.

That's what current drawings, which city-county planners are now reviewing, also suggest could be on the way.

"As you look at their drawing, you see that they're talking about moving an alley, and the way that they show that alley looks to me like it has to go through the Chisca - although that's not what's directly in front of us right now to review," said planner Don Jones. "So there's some things about their drawing that make you scratch your head and say, 'Now wait a minute, how does that affect the Chisca?'"

Beat to the chase

Hotel Chisca
272 South Main St.
Built in 1913
Besides the Elvis connection, the Chisca was donated to the Church of God in Christ for $10 in the 1970s. COGIC bought other properties Downtown during that time with the idea of creating something called the Saint Center, a cultural complex for the black Pentecostal denomination's faithful. But plans for it ultimately fell through. The Chisca served as COGIC's headquarters from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. The group left the hotel around that time because of maintenance expenses, moving to the Mason Temple at 930 Mason St. Downtown, where it has been ever since.

Last year, COGIC announced a splashy $80 million redevelopment for the four-block hotel site, a plan that included a new 110-unit Hilton Homewood Suites and the redevelopment of the Chisca into a 150-room Hilton Garden Inn. The idea for the Hilton Homewood Suites apparently has been scrapped, as the application currently in the site review process only includes the Hilton Garden Inn.

Jim Schumpert, who works in the landscape architecture and planning department of The Reaves Firm, said COGIC has put together other partnerships in the past to develop the hotel project, but none panned out. And the current developer, Schumpert said, is passionate about making something happen.

"I think the developer wanted to keep this kind of quiet until he made a formal announcement of it, but it is public record at this point," said Schumpert, whose firm is working on the project's site plan. "And he's very adamant about this. He's not blowing smoke. He will develop the project, one way or another here."

Schumpert said the developer will be re-submitting a set of plans to city-county officials soon, once they've been fine-tuned. And in the new version, he added, the Chisca won't be touched.

"The problem is there's a lot of opposition to tearing down the Chisca hotel," he said. "But what a lot of people don't realize is that it is prohibitively expensive to refurbish, despite what people will tell you. So our new plan is just to leave the hotel alone."

Vacant - and vast

But the significance of that is unclear. It's long been understood that the impetus for the project was to shore up the neglected Chisca and the land surrounding it. In essence, a new Hilton hotel would stand next to the still forlorn historic building.

In addition to once serving as COGIC's headquarters, perhaps the Chisca's biggest claim to fame is it's where Elvis Presley's landmark record, "That's All Right (Mama)," first was broadcast in July 1954. Phillips gave the record a test spin a few days after Elvis recorded it at Sun Studio and ended up playing it several times back-to-back on his show that night.

Phillips, still remembered by some Memphians by his nickname as "Daddy-O-Dewey," also conducted Elvis' first radio interview on his show at the hotel. The Chisca is the place where it all happened, where the frenetic deejay spun rock and blues records and uttered catch phrases - still famous today - like: "Get yourself a wheelbarrow load of mad hogs, run 'em through the front door, and tell 'em Phillips sent ya."

"Tearing down the Chisca would be an affront to Memphis' music history, to the memory of Dewey Phillips and to Elvis Presley," said Mike McCarthy, who works at Sun Studio. "The problem is that people eventually left Downtown - it doesn't mean the buildings are inferior."

Diane Gordon, a spokesperson for the South Main Arts District, said the Chisca isn't beyond salvaging. The property has a balance of more than $190,000 in taxes and other charges due, according to City of Memphis records.

No meetings have been scheduled yet with any city boards - the Memphis City Council and the Memphis Landmarks Commission, for example - that would have to weigh in on any demolition plans.

PROPERTY SALES 21 82 6,474
MORTGAGES 7 53 4,088
BUILDING PERMITS 240 353 15,714
BANKRUPTCIES 38 58 3,328