VOL. 133 | NO. 108 | Wednesday, May 30, 2018
Merging Past, Present
By Patrick Lantrip
The Medical Arts Building at the corner of Madison Avenue and Fourth Street in Downtown Memphis, much like its hometown, has seen its share of ups and downs for nearly a century.
But as the city continues to reinvent itself, Walk-Off Properties, the building’s current owner, is also in the process of reimaging the iconic property.
“From the beginning of this project, we believed that it was critical that the name of the building be strong and have a real sense of purpose,” Stuart Harris, principal with Walk-Off Properties, said. “It should capture many elements of the project, which include the history of the building itself, the urban renaissance that our city is experiencing, and the narrative of our intentions for resurrecting the building.”
With this in mind, the development team has settled on The Commonwealth, a name they feel encapsulates and epitomizes the next chapter of the building’s story.
“When it was bought nearly three years ago, our group sought to support the urban core and convey that we are ambassadors for the city that we love and work to serve,” Harris said. “In our attempt to find its highest and best use, we determined that a collaborative, multifaceted project would be best for the building and the neighborhood.”
The Commonwealth will have a mix of commercial tenants on the top floors, anchored by SouthernSun Asset Management, which will be taking 18,500 square feet, four floors of luxury apartments, and 5,500 square feet of ground-floor retail.
“When we made the distinction to buy this, I was adamant that this was not going to be a place that didn’t show an enormous amount of love and have respect for its history,” Walk-Off Properties lead investor and SouthernSun CEO Michael Cook said. “So we knew it was going to be more expensive at that moment.”
Walk-Off purchased the Hickman Building for $1 million and an adjacent former American Legion building for $130,000 in 2015, public records show. The nine-story Hickman Building is located across Madison Street from the Fogelman Downtown YMCA building.
At the time it was purchased, the investment group indicated it would invest about $16 million to develop the mixed-use project now called The Commonwealth.
Though the companies share some overlapping ownership interests, Cook emphasized that Walk-Off Properties and SouthernSun are not affiliated entities.
The building’s rich history began in the 1920s when it was conceived as a place for doctors and dentists to collaborate and share expenses. It found new life in the 1950s when humanitarian Francis Hickman converted it into a publishing house that covered political developments, economic trends, and advances in technology and mechanization in the commodities markets.
But the past 40-plus years have not been as enterprising, as the building has been vacant since 1971 until Walk-Off Properties purchased it.
“I don’t know how they were kept, but we have high-res scans of the original plans from 1924,” Harris said. “We have actually used these on so many instances to track down where things are. When we peeled back the 1950s lay-in tile, we found the original mahogany-coffered ceilings. We have carpenters rebuilding that now.”
Unlike some other developers who make decisions based on their desire to complete a quick, efficient renovation and then sell the asset, Harris said Walk-Off has made intentional choices throughout the process that maintain the original craftsmanship and quality of the building.
“I think the development team got that vision from Michael (Cook) from the get-go, and they’ve done a great job finding that balance between old and new,” he said.