VOL. 131 | NO. 212 | Monday, October 24, 2016
Clayborn Reborn Effort Charts Different Pre-vitalization Path
By Bill Dries
The hope has been that the redevelopment of Central Station in the South Main area would cause a ripple in development to the east and link up with the sprawling South City development that encompasses the Foote Homes public housing development, the area south of FedExForum, and go south of Crump Boulevard.
But the conversion of the train station into a mixed-use development with a hotel, apartments, an expanded market area and a movie theater has had a more specific cause and effect relationship to the redevelopment of Clayborn Temple AME Church south of FedExForum.
When The Downtown Church was told to get ready to move out of Central Station as construction begins on the its conversion to a hotel, the congregation began looking for a new home.
And the church looked at vacant lots nearby in the area of Clayborn Temple to build on.
“My response to that was Memphis doesn’t need another church building,” said Frank Smith, a developer and investor as well as member of The Downtown Church. “Can’t we think of something else? Out of that conversation we imagined a lot of places. And one of them was what about that beat up old church next to the forum. Is it possible that that might be a place?”
The temple is open to the public Tuesday, Oct. 25, at 4 p.m. for a “blessing ceremony” followed by a call to artists. Both are an opening to finding a new use for the church building that will include a home for The Downtown Church on Sundays.
“Let’s try out a lot of things because we’ve got Sunday afternoon through Saturday night every week that this building needs to be put to good use,” said Rob Thompson, Smith’s partner in the “Clayborn Reborn” venture. “We don’t want to be a museum, but we need to honor the past.”
Thompson refers to Smith’s role as “the dog that caught the bus’s bumper.”
Smith’s thoughts about a reuse of a Memphis landmark with lots of history might sound familiar. Smith is a partner in Wiseacre Brewing, which is currently exploring an adaptive reuse of the mothballed, 12,000-seat Mid-South Coliseum as an expanded brewery with a tap room and other attractions.
Smith says the Clayborn Temple what-ifs were the inspiration for the idea of seeing if the Coliseum was a feasible sight for the expanded Wiseacre.
But the two projects have not intersected. Smith and Thompson see a very different use for the church founded in the late 19th century.
In early 20th century Memphis, what was then Second Presbyterian Church was part of a neighborhood of churches, with St. Patrick Catholic Church and First Baptist Church on Beale the only others still standing.
The area was also a center of black commerce and finance at a time when the city was racially segregated by law.
By the 1950s, Clayborn Temple, as it was known once it became an African Methodist Episcopal church, was an important sanctuary for the civil rights movement, as were other churches in the area with black congregations.
Not only was it a meeting place, it was the place where the marches of the sanitation workers strike began in 1968, including the one in March of 1968 that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. joined late and later stopped as it became violent once the marchers reached Beale Street and turned onto Main Street.
The church became the gathering point as the march dissolved into violence and chaos. Police chased protesters from Main Street and Gayoso Avenue back to the sanctuary, firing tear gas into the church.
The block of Hernando Street on the west side of the church was where those who marched with King gathered for decades after King’s assassination to mark the anniversary of his death and call attention to the issues of new times.
The church sanctuary, because of the association with King and the movement, was also an important symbol in the rise of black Memphians to a political majority.
When he was still Memphis City Schools superintendent, Willie Herenton, at a King anniversary program in the church, argued that black Memphians should settle on a consensus challenger to incumbent Mayor Dick Hackett who was also present. Later, U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr. called for such a process and became a part of it – resulting in Herenton’s 1991 bid for mayor that ended with Herenton becoming the city’s first African-American elected mayor.
There have been Nation of Islam rallies in the sanctuary, weddings, the funerals of members of the original Bar-Kays who died in the 1967 plane crash that also killed Otis Redding, and musical performances on the church’s massive pipe organ and other instruments.
Thompson says all of that and the space that has always been a church makes the question of what its next use will be important.
“I think it is really important that it doesn’t become a place just for the affluent or a certain aspect of our city,” he said. “I think this is a physically important connector between the low-income community and all that is happening on Main. That’s a big part of our hope, is that this doesn’t just become a building that’s been redeveloped, but a building that is representative and available for – inclusive of – all of Memphis so that all of Memphis can participate in this renewal that’s happening in the city.”
Thompson and Smith have a slate of events shaping up. They are looking for ideas as well as groups that want to rent the sanctuary. But it’s not the kind of pre-vitalization that’s been seen in recent years. And while the pre-vitalization of the Tennessee Brewery led to its current redevelopment as a mix of apartments and some retail, a similar effort aimed at the former city fire station at Linden Avenue and B.B. King Boulevard didn’t generate an immediate adaptive reuse proposal.
“There’s the tension of hurry up,” Smith said. “At the same time, take your time and do it well.”
Smith would like to see a repurposed Clayborn Temple ready for “the world” by April 4, 2018, when the city marks the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, and possibly a use for the building settled on by the coming 49th anniversary in five months.
For now, Smith and Thompson, with Montgomery Martin Contractors, have stabilized but haven’t renovated Clayborn Temple. And just stabilizing it was hard work once they secured the title to it, which was also a struggle.
The church still looks like a work in progress, with some of its stained-glass windows damaged after emerging from years under plywood. Others are fully intact, and on a sunny day spread bright vivid colors across the floor and up the walls of stone and plaster.
Smith is encouraging any information about missing church pews. The floor of the sanctuary had to be replaced after years of flooding. And the Clayborn Reborn Facebook page is serving as the early collection point for ideas, booking inquiries as well as the further search for Clayborn’s history.
“I’m not sure we reached the point of discouraging,” Smith said. “There were days when we thought we are sure working hard with nothing to show for it.”
Thompson sees the vacant lots nearby where homes and other churches once surrounded Clayborn and sees the church’s new life as a catalyst to change that landscape. He also wonders aloud about the effect working the other way.
“Our big fear would be that this incredibly rich cultural and social history – we don’t want to see that lost,” he said. “This church, more than any of the vacant lots to the south of us, is just a big part of that.”