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VOL. 121 | NO. 203 | Monday, October 16, 2006

Despite Recent Fire, Court Square Projects Move Forward

By Andy Meek

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NOT SO BYGONE: The $45 million mixed-use development that's transforming a chunk of Downtown's Court Square will preserve a historically significant public space that was established by the founders of Memphis. -- Image Courtesy Of The Memphis Room Of The Memphis Public Library System And Architectural Historian Judith Johnson

As intense as it was, the Oct. 6 early morning blaze that damaged three Downtown buildings overlooking Court Square apparently didn't extinguish plans to transform them into a $45 million mixed-use development.

News of the three-alarm fire that wrecked the buildings that morning was so dramatic it was picked up by CNN and several national newspapers.

One thing that emerged from the coverage, both local and otherwise, is that three developers still are pressing on with their plan to create Court Square Center at Main Street and Jefferson Avenue.

But to understand their enthusiasm for the project, which Center City Commission president Jeff Sanford has said features the most complicated package of financing he's ever seen, it helps to consider a little history.

Memphis 101

What is being proposed by the three developers - C. Yorke Lawson, William Chandler and John Basek - is the transformation of an entire city block fronting the square into upscale residential and commercial space.

Chandler used to head Memphis Heritage Inc., a local historic preservation organization, which means he knows as well as anyone that the roughly one-acre patch of land owes its existence to the men who established the City of Memphis.

Moreover, the park is the only public square contained in the original plan for Memphis that still retains its early character, said architectural historian Judith Johnson.

In 1819, the city's founders set aside what's now Court Square for public use to build a court house. It was eventually the site of Memphis' first schoolhouse and later abounded with restaurants and hotels.

By 1849, Court Square had evolved into a bucolic public park, shaded by trees and teeming with wildlife.

"The (Court Square historic) district is an intact grouping of architecturally significant commercial buildings constructed between 1880 and 1930," Johnson said.

Yesterday, today, tomorrow

Today, Court Square also is the centerpiece in the city's effort to shore up the area around North Main Street and the neighborhoods surrounding the Court Square park.

"That the developers are committed to moving forward after the recent setback is cause for real celebration, in terms of our efforts to bring the Court Square neighborhood back."
- Jeff Sanford
President of the Center City Commission

"That the developers are committed to moving forward after the recent setback is cause for real celebration, in terms of our efforts to bring the Court Square neighborhood back," Sanford said.

Not surprisingly, the years between Court Square's creation and its special status as a touchstone for Downtown redevelopment are filled with presidents, businessmen, colorful figures and the footprints of history, both large and small.

In the early 1900s, wearing her usual black cloak and bonnet, Carrie A. Nation visited Memphis to give one of her usual tirades against the evils of alcohol. Commonly seen in photographs holding a hatchet - from which she got her name the "bar-room smasher" - the anti-liquor spokeswoman drew a crowd to Court Square.

Nation was known as one of the most colorful members of the Women's Christian Temperance Movement (WCTM). Born in 1846, she was arrested 30 times between 1900 and 1910 for causing destruction in bars.

Businessmen inside the nearby Tennessee Club continued to enjoy their drinks, apparently unfazed during her visit.

Court Square was the heart of Downtown Memphis until the Great Depression, according to historical accounts. And several mementos of that time remain, reminders of the area's historical importance.

Famed writer Oscar Wilde is one of the notables who once visited the Gaston Hotel, which still stands on the south side of Court Square.

And speaking of the Tennessee Club - the exclusive social club for male business and civic leaders - its first home was the property at 119 South Court St., built in the mid-1870s by prominent Memphians R.B. and Annie Snowden.

"The Tennessee Club was a group of men that entertained presidents and dignitaries who visited Memphis all the way up until just a few years ago, when it disbanded," said James Meng, principal of Formus Inc. Architects and Planners, whose office is at 119 South Court.

Meng also suspects the building may be the oldest on the square.

More modern makeover

That five-story building currently is being renovated to house Cadence Bank, which will occupy about 3,600 square feet on the first floor and mezzanine. Nineteenth century touches are on the way; stone arches will replace the building's glass facade with stained woodwork and period lighting inside.

And from his vantage point inside, Meng has seen change ebb and flow around the square.

"There's been a great deal happen since we came here in 2003," he said. "At that time, there were about seven properties that fronted directly on the square and were empty and for sale.

"Since that time, they've all sold and are now different projects."

Some of them belong to the trio of developers who plan to reshape the former Lowenstein Department Store, Court Annex building and Lincoln American Tower, all damaged to some degree in the recent fire.

Not far away, former Vice President Al Gore held a late-night rally in Court Square on Nov. 3, the year of the hotly contested 2000 presidential election.

Court Square was also once the site of Memphis City Hall - now housed at 125 N. Main St. - at the beginning of the 20th century. Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest attended church with a Presbyterian congregation that met near the square.

Detailed plans for the Court Square Center project were unveiled in 2003, and the developers spent the following years rounding up tenants and putting the financing together. To get an idea how complicated the project has been, a total of seven local and national law firms reportedly have been involved in it at some stage.

Once the project is finished, it will mark another historic milestone for the pleasant, unassuming plot of land in the heart of Downtown Memphis.

"That project kind of plays a big part right now, so we're all waiting to see what comes out of that," Meng said.

PROPERTY SALES 50 389 12,758
MORTGAGES 21 248 8,003
BUILDING PERMITS 295 813 29,934
BANKRUPTCIES 35 164 6,064