I’ve been looking at the Tennessee Brewery for years. I used to have an office next door, and now from my agency’s current location, I can see its majestic, Romanesque arched windows towering over the South Main Arts District.
The entire district is in the midst of a major infrastructure improvement project that will replace South Main Street itself, as well as improve its sidewalks and trolley line. This neighborhood is a patchwork quilt of vacant lots, bocce ball courts, apartments, art galleries, shops and boutiques, and iconic landmarks like the National Civil Rights Museum.
Yet the Tennessee Brewery – built in 1890 and vacated in 1954 – remains dark, dormant and daunting.
Earlier this year, the property’s owners, frustrated with years of unrealistic schemes and onerous carrying costs, announced their intention to demolish the building. The subsequent public outcry brought forth a torrent of ideas for its use – a farmer’s market, a movie soundstage, a performing arts center – all stymied by financing challenges.
Conventional development methods were not suited to handle an aging property with complex floor plans, significant abatement needs and limited parking.
We needed a new way of thinking. Instead of trying to raise millions of dollars to renovate the whole building at once, could the property be slivered into smaller pieces for reactivation, letting us discover how people might actually use it and very gradually bring it back to life?
Similar approaches have had success in other parts of town, namely along the Broad Avenue corridor and in the Crosstown neighborhood. Temporary activation events and “tactical urbanism” techniques show what’s possible in these forgotten places, inviting Memphians to revisit and explore them.
Can the same agile, “bootstrapping” tactics be applied to a single, complicated structure like the Tennessee Brewery? Moreover, how can we define success if demolition truly is imminent?
Some friends – including Taylor Berger, Michael Tauer and Andy Cates – and I decided to give it a try.
The purpose of our project is not to save the Brewery, but rather to prove a theory that those historic properties, approached resourcefully, imaginatively and deliberately, can be made profitable in unorthodox ways not common in our current real estate development vernacular.
While the effort is serious and has economic and real estate development ramifications, we still want to have some fun while we activate the building and challenge our theories. Our initiative, dubbed “Tennessee Brewery: Untapped,” will include craft beer, food trucks, mobile retail, live music and other programming – all of it local and homegrown, and all of it family-friendly.
The Tennessee Brewery is a beautiful building and a terrific piece of Downtown’s history, we would love for it to remain on the landscape. But it may fall.
So let’s enjoy it while it is still here. Success will not be determined by saving the Tennessee Brewery, but rather by inspiring people to think differently about these kinds of properties elsewhere throughout our city.
Maybe it will work, maybe not.
But on behalf of everyone involved in Untapped, please accept this invitation to come have some fun with us and find out.
Carpenter is founder and principal of doug carpenter & associates llc, an advertising, public relations and consulting firm in Memphis.