VOL. 129 | NO. 11 | Thursday, January 16, 2014
By Amos Maki
The future of Ashlar Hall has become nearly as unpredictable as its eccentric former proprietor, Robert “Prince Mongo” Hodges.
Joe Thordarson, founder of the Memphis Comic and Fantasy Convention, has been working with Environmental Court on his proposal to transform Ashlar Hall into an arts and education center.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
A Monday, Jan. 13, hearing before Environmental Court Judge Larry Potter did little to clear the air surrounding a November transfer of the 1397 Central Ave. property and competing claims over its future.
After being slapped last year with thousands of dollars in fines over the state of the decaying property, Hodges entered into an agreement with Potter’s court and the city to find a new owner that could make the repairs necessary to bring the 11,114-square-foot building into compliance.
The Memphis Comic and Fantasy Convention believed it could be that new owner, but Hodges, who has a long history of skirting or ignoring local laws, transferred the property in November to an acquaintance, Kenny Medlin, without Potter’s knowledge or consent.
“Anytime you deal with ‘Prince Mongo,’ there are issues,” Medlin said. “He’s a great guy, he’s good at what he does and he has a really big heart, but there’s also a certain level of incompetence.”
Medlin said he was not aware of the agreement Hodges entered into with the court and that he would still like to turn Ashlar Hall into a home for terminally ill children.
“I never saw the court order,” Medlin said. “This is not about me making money; this about doing something good for the community.”
To turn his stated vision into reality, Medlin will have to present a plan for rehabilitating the property, including how he would finance repairs, to Potter before the next hearing, on Jan. 27.
“I was a little disappointed the judge didn’t say the quitclaim deed was valid, because it is,” Medlin said. “I really have the best interests of the citizens of Memphis at heart.”
Hodges did not attend the Jan. 8 hearing but said in an October Facebook post that he would turn the property over to a “recognized licensed charitable organization with available funds to renovate and operate already in place. Business plan and financial statement required.” Medlin’s nonprofit, the Urban Renaissance Initiative, was administratively dissolved by the state in 2011.
Joe Thordarson, founder of the Memphis Comic and Fantasy Convention, has been working with the court on his proposal to transform Ashlar Hall into an arts and education center.
Thordarson, a local remodeling contractor, has already submitted a plan to Potter for how he would turn the building into an arts and education center, and says other contractors have stepped forward to help make the necessary repairs.
“We’ve got a stone company that has volunteered to do that stone repair for free and we have other contractors to do the other repairs,” Thordarson said. “We’ve basically got 80 percent to 90 percent of the repairs taken care of.
“This is the epitome of a successful grass roots effort. People love our idea. They’re ready to come forward, and we’re ready to hit the ground on this.”
The fifth annual convention, held last year, attracted thousands of children, including around 1,300 kids who flocked to the Kroc Center on Oct. 25 to participate in “Geek 101,” which featured comic book artists and characters, craftspeople and local filmmakers.
Thordarson said Ashlar Hall’s castle-like appearance would make it the perfect venue for showcasing comic and fantasy art.
“We could use the space in a way the city would like and that would benefit everybody,” Thordarson said.
Ty Cobb, whose nonprofit Have A Standard Foundation operates the CoreFire Commando learning course at the Kroc Center, said he’s interested in teaming with Thordarson – and only Thordarson – to bring a new headquarters for the experiential learning challenge to Ashlar Hall.
“We’re both geared toward teaching and mentoring,” Cobb said. “That’s a perfect location to be able to do that, whether it’s corporate fieldtrips or having kids come out there.”
Ashlar Hall was built in 1897, according to the Shelby County Assessor’s office. The stone building served as the home of real estate developer Robert Brinkley Snowden before it was converted for commercial use in the 1960s. Hodges’ brother, Bernard Hodges, acquired the property for $300,000 in 1993 before transferring it via warranty deed to 1397 Central Ave LP in 1994. Robert Hodges began operating The Castle nightclub at the property after his brother acquired it, before closing the club’s doors around a decade later. The building has been vacant and deteriorating ever since.