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VOL. 128 | NO. 82 | Friday, April 26, 2013

Chisca Rebirth

Former hotel’s renovation signals brighter future for South Main

By Bill Dries

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“Memphis: The Musical” meets the real life setting Friday, April 26, for the fictional story of a Memphis radio announcer in the 1950s.

Main Street Apartment Partners LLC purchased the Chisca Hotel in October. The $24 million renovation of the property into apartments begins Friday at 4:30 p.m., just as the monthly Friday Art Trolley Tour brings throngs of visitors to the district. 

(Daily News File Photos: Lance Murphey)

Actor Bryan Fenkart will walk about a block on South Main Street from The Orpheum Theater to the old Chisca hotel to perform at the project’s launch party. The party in the hotel’s garage space kicks off the $24 million renovation of the hotel as an apartment building.

Fenkart plays the character in the musical modeled on WHBQ disc jockey Dewey Phillips who worked at the radio station when its studios were on the mezzanine level of the Chisca, or what Phillips routinely referred to on air as the “magazine” level.

No structure in the South Main Historic Arts District of 11 blocks and 105 buildings better symbolizes the waves of hope, plans and reality of the area better than the 100-year-old, eight-story structure.

Its construction came with the building of the Union and Central train stations that turned what had been a 19th century residential area into an area of commercial development. It became a neighborhood geared to modest hotels like the Chisca for train crews, blue-collar restaurants and bars and businesses that relied on the trains to distribute their goods.

The Chisca’s decline wasn’t intentional. WHBQ left the hotel in 1963 for new studios on South Highland Street near the University of Memphis. And in 1972, the family that owned the Chisca, represented by Robert G. Snowden and his sister, May Snowden Todd, donated the hotel and its newer “motor plaza” to the Church of God in Christ.

COGIC sold the hotel last year to Main Street Apartment Partners LLC, the current developers.

“We are sure the church will use it properly and we are equally sure it will better serve God,” Snowden was quoted as saying in a 1972 Memphis Press Scimitar newspaper account.

The Memphis-based Pentecostal denomination that claims Memphis as its birthplace and headquarters had some plans for the property in the early 1970s and accumulated other property in the immediate area over the years.

COGIC still owns property in the area. But it no longer has the ambitious plans it once had for “Saints University” and similar developments.

The 1972 announcement was made in the ballroom of the old hotel.

The ballroom is a casualty of decades of neglect, specifically a deteriorating to nonexistent roof. It won’t be part of the new Chisca, said Terry Lynch, one of the partners of Main Street Apartment Partners.

Main Street Apartment Partners LLC’s renovation of the Chisca Hotel, a property it purchased in October, begins this month. Once complete, the property will be one more piece in the growing South Main Historic Arts District.

The partners originally thought they would bring down the newer annex or “motor court” that opened 52 years ago. But when they weighed the cost of building the new parking spaces they wanted to put there versus keeping the rooms and the three-level parking garage that is part of the structure, they decided to keep and renovate the annex.

Those units will feature balconies.

The overhaul, renovation and conversion is expected to take 14 months with remediation and selective demolition in the first month of the project. By next March, the leasing office for the apartments should be open.

But this spring and summer is seen as a critical point in what Downtown Memphis Commission President Paul Morris has termed the “rebirth” of South Main. The spring and summer crowds in South Main have grown with Friday Art Trolley Tours as well as the Downtown Farmers Market at Central Station and a growing nightlife in general.

It was Morris who went to Lynch two years ago, shortly after he becoming president of the commission and asked Lynch to look over the building to see what its prospects were. Lynch remembers looking it over and telling Morris the hotel was not worth salvaging. Morris then asked Lynch to estimate what it would take to make it salvageable and the project started to move, albeit with some formidable barriers.

Meanwhile, the rest of South Main began to blossom and as the renovation work begins, Lynch said the area’s future is linked to its past as a residential community.

People who live or work in the area are the key to reanimating the area and drawing in visitors from other parts of the city and beyond.

The 150 to 190 apartments to come are aimed at young professionals who can’t yet afford the higher-rent high-rise units or the condominium wave that converted some of the oldest Downtown high rises farther north just before the recession hit. Condo fever spread to the South Main area as well.

“A lot of the boom was in condominiums developed down here. Some of us made the mistake of overbuilding and building too big,” Lynch said. “People really want 800 maybe 1,200 square feet. When you start doing stuff that is 3,000 to 4,000, the air gets pretty thin up there.”

But for the smaller units, Lynch says demand is stronger among what developers call “bookends.”

“First timers and last timers,” he said referring to young adults and retirees.

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PROPERTY SALES 52 136 5,209
MORTGAGES 79 182 6,891
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 13 50 1,606
BUILDING PERMITS 328 328 12,307
BANKRUPTCIES 70 175 5,475
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UTILITY CONNECTIONS 85 182 7,240
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