VOL. 132 | NO. 214 | Friday, October 27, 2017
Montgomery Martin Builds an Urban Renaissance
Memphis stands at the threshold of incredible possibility. In this series, we introduce innovative Memphians who are driving our city forward and forging its future success.
Montgomery Martin has Memphis grit on his feet. He’s spent the afternoon walking through the Tennessee Brewery building, a 125-year-old South Bluff structure being reimagined and renovated with the help of Montgomery Martin Contractors. In other cities, an aging giant like the Brewery might be seen as condemned – too daunting to be granted new life. But Martin says, “We’re not afraid of old buildings – we figure out how to get it done.” And, he adds, “all this is coming together to draw people back into the city.”
Now founder and CEO of Montgomery Martin Contractors, Martin grew up seeing buildings from the inside out. His father, an architect, worked on the design of Clark Tower and the original Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, among other local landmarks. On his mother’s side, also in the Memphis area, Martin’s family members were in the hardwood lumber business – and, ironically, bore the surname Woods.
“After school let out,” recalls Martin, “I’d take the city bus down to Overton Park, walk through the park, and the two miles home. I walked and biked this whole city, growing up – Frayser to Whitehaven, the Mississippi River to the east end of Fayette County.”
Martin is a true believer in the possibilities around every corner in Memphis. “Today,” he observes, “a lot of factors – culturally, socially, spiritually, economically – have come together to make this a great time to be part of the difference being made in our city.”
He founded Montgomery Martin Contractors in 1995 and has built the company to a full-service, regional commercial and industrial construction firm with a team of about 125. A current focus is on multifamily development – apartments, student housing, and senior living communities – but the company is working on projects in the office and medical spaces, too. A key factor, he says, is “just paying attention – what’s going on culturally, and in the market.” And part of that paying attention is the kind of exploration Martin began on his after-school explorations.
Martin’s inquisitive nature drew him to the construction industry, but his aptitude for what he calls “three-dimensional thinking” is part of what kept him there. In college at Auburn University, Martin majored in Building Science, a program within Auburn’s school of architecture. Rare for its day, the program offered the unique opportunity to learn about the construction industry in an academic setting.
Speaking of academic settings, Martin believes Memphis would benefit from more programs that specialize in four-year degrees in construction. “The technical aspects can be challenging, and not just anybody can do it,” he says, noting that the need for skilled craftspeople will only grow as the city continues to bustle.
The projects that Montgomery Martin Contractors undertakes are labors of love. And Martin himself is keenly aware that the imagining and negotiating and projecting and designing are only the beginning of the process.
“We build it on paper in the office,” he says, “but these guys in the field, who are taking plans, estimates, and data and digging holes and pouring concrete – that’s hard to do well. Those guys are heroes.”
Heroism comes in handy when renovating some of the beautiful, but neglected old buildings. “Concrete isn’t supposed to rot,” Martin points out, “but in the Chisca, it had.” The Chisca, an historic Downtown hotel now home to apartments and restaurants, stood vacant for close to two decades before Martin’s team intervened.
While the process is built on the basis of those out doing the work, it’s reinforced by the support of clients who “understand at a visceral level what we’re talking about – who are willing to walk through the process with us,” Martin remarks.
As he sees it, the construction industry is building more than structures. It’s also building a community for the future of the city. A collaborative vision is key.
Martin shifts into a particularly reflective register when talking about the revitalization of Clayborn Temple, the 120-year-old Downtown church that served as a central organizing location during the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike. After several decades of neglect, Clayborn Temple has been in the process of restoration by MMC for several years – and just this week, the Temple was named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. To Martin, urban restoration can be about so much more than concrete. Around issues of racial and economic justice, he says, “we’re watching Memphis evolve.”
Memphis grit, indeed.
Montgomery Martin is a graduate of the New Memphis Leadership Development Intensive. Learn more at newmemphis.org.