Pyramid’s Past Life Almost Vanished

By Bill Dries

On the north side of The Pyramid, you can still see signs of what once was, in a way that makes 20 years seem like centuries ago.

The past of The Pyramid’s first life as an arena is vanishing as Bass Pro Shops at The Pyramid takes shape in advance of a May 1 scheduled opening. That past includes an inclinator ride to the top that never materialized and that Bass Pro Shops reluctantly gave up on.

(Daily News File/Brandon Dill)

The logo for the city’s old Wonders series of exhibitions is the most noticeable indicator of the past life of a structure long ago stripped of the seating bowl that made it an arena.

The Wonders aqua blue globe logo is still partially visible on the north side of the structure. It is partly scraped away, leaving a shadow of the missing parts that gives it the look of one of the relics brought to Memphis as part of the series.

Of all of the past plans for The Pyramid since it was an idea with political backing and momentum in the late 1980s, the one that held on the longest was that of an inclinator, an elevator of sorts on the outside of the structure that would take visitors to the top.

It was just this year that Bass Pro Shops developers at The Pyramid finally abandoned the idea of an inclinator because they could not find a U.S. company to both make and maintain such a device.

The plans taking shape in The Pyramid in advance of a scheduled re-opening in May include twin elevators to the top level, where the attractions will include a restaurant and glass balconies offering views of the city, Arkansas and the Mississippi River.

The two elevator shafts rising 25 stories and open on all four sides are the largest free-standing elevators in America.

An inclinator would have been an additional attraction for a reborn Pyramid that has a history of plans for offering the public more than one use or attraction.

At least part of one inclinator already exists, as architect Tom Marshall found out when he began renewing his knowledge of the project from the early 1990s, when Marshall was a member of the Memphis City Council.

Marshall – the principal of O.T. Marshall Architects, which is designing Bass Pro Shops at The Pyramid – called ThyssenKrupp Elevator, the successor company to Dover Elevators. He found someone at ThyssenKrupp who had worked on the Pyramid inclinator project in the early 1990s. That person also remembered that Pyramid developer Sidney Shlenker had not paid Dover for the inclinator in development.

“Dover did, under the instructions of Mr. Shlenker, begin construction of an inclinator,” Marshall said. “The payment of the portions of the inclinator that were under construction were in dispute at the time, which was not uncharacteristic of the Shlenker days.”

Shlenker, who died in 2003, was unable to get the financing for the set of attractions he had planned.

He had some tentative commitments for The Pyramid, including the American Music Awards Museum and the College Football Hall of Fame. But all of the commitments were interlocking. If one didn’t happen, none of them would happen – and none of them happened.

Shlenker also had a lot of bills through his Pyramid Cos. organization, which filed for bankruptcy as the city and county ousted Shlenker as developer of The Pyramid.

He was barred from ever entering the structure under terms of a court order. The name of the structure was also changed from Shlenker’s “Great American Pyramid” to “The Pyramid.”

Some 18 years later, ThyssenKrupp was willing to complete an inclinator for Bass Pro Shops at The Pyramid, but not to maintain it.

“We got zero responses back for the construction and maintenance of an inclinator. It’s simply a technology that is not currently available,” Marshall said. “We felt that, although there are people willing to build an inclinator, if they were not willing to service it and rescue people from it in the event of an incident, that it would not be a safe venture for the city of Memphis.”

The only other inclinator is the one at the Luxor casino and resort in Las Vegas. The pyramid-shaped structure was built two years after The Pyramid in Memphis opened.

These days, the Luxor’s inclinator, which is on the interior of the structure, is used by hotel guests only and offers no views of the outside world.

Wonders, which opened in 1988 with the “Ramesses the Great” exhibition, moved from the Memphis Cook Convention Center to the base of The Pyramid toward the end of the series, whose other exhibits ranged from Etruscan civilization to the Titanic disaster to Russian czars.

While the Ramesses exhibit predated the construction of The Pyramid, it hosted a second showcase of ancient Egyptian artifacts under the Wonders banner “Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Art from the British Museum.”