A Tall Challenge

April 18th, 2019

Rather than look at our ghosts hovering over everything new, I’d rather see our spirit.

As published in The Daily Memphian

(photo: Townhouse Mangement reimagines 100 North Main)

100 North Main


It’s 38 stories of butt ugly, but it’s ours. And what happens to it next is more up to us now than anytime since it became an empty reminder of another time. It could become a beautiful part of what’s next or remain the biggest ugly elephant in our biggest room. 

I remember 100 North Main and I’ve written about it before.

I remember when the big hulk was a big deal, its unimaginative gray mass full of imagination and local color.

On our first date in 1967, I took Nora to the Top Of The 100. I’ll never forget when she leaned over the table, her blue eyes wide, and said, “You eat parsley?” The building was two years old and Top Of The 100 was a private club occupying the top three floors with its own set of elevators and a revolving bar on the top, a panorama 38 stories high served straight up above everything else in town.

A couple of years later, Memphis would pass liquor by the drink and private dinner clubs would start to pass into history. Top Of The 100 would close and the venerable Tennessee Club would move in for its last throes. During a dispute in their billiards room, I once offered to throw Cybill Shepherd’s little brother through a window, prompting his response – I’m not kidding – “You’ll never work in this town again.”

I remember.

My first job out of college was with Brick Muller, Swearingen & Dorrity Advertising, three Southern-fried Mad Men with offices in the city’s hottest address – 100 North Main. Brick Muller thought he was Leo Burnett and I thought so, too. Dave Swearingen taught me a great many things, many of them very funny and space and taste limit my getting into them right now. Ed Dorrity wore aviator sunglasses and walked with a limp, the right to both earned Airborne over Europe.

An agency client managed the building, Percy Galbreath & Son, run by Son, the crusty Billy Galbreath who, prohibited from smoking cigars, chewed several to death every day keeping something handy to spit the pieces into. Mr. Galbreath once charged one of his rising stars – Henry Turley – with the task of moving into the Lowenstein Tower and clearing it of hookers. Henry learned early on that Downtown is just more interesting.

I remember.

Four years ago, Townhouse Management Co. from New York bought the building and started buying up the neglected if not abandoned buildings in the rest of the block to the south. They had plans to convert 100 North Main to hotel and residential and to build parking and office towers next door. They partnered with the ritzy Loews Hotel brand and the project seemed to be on its way.

But then the city and Loews started to talk about building a new hotel from scratch on Civic Center Plaza and Townhouse said that would take all the available city incentives. 100 North Main became an afterthought, the ugly alternative to something brand-new and shiny. Townhouse would just have to figure out what to do with it.

Well, now they have.

They broke up with Loews and decided to go after those incentives themselves –  a total package of about $180 million. They propose a 506-room convention hotel in the tower, a separate 1,100-car parking garage topped by another building to house meeting rooms and ballrooms, and plans for future twin towers. They’re going to remove the whole building’s ugly concrete face and the world’s worst parking garage, wrap the whole thing in glass, and slim it down by 20 feet all the way up to a new height of 37 stories. In the process, our tallest building and the whole block it sits on could move from embarrassing liability to civic asset.

It’s up to us, the city of Memphis.

Loews says it will stay the course to build on Civic Center Plaza and compete with Townhouse for the incentives. Each project is about $230 million and both will not survive. The city will make the decision on just what does. In my estimation, and I hope the city’s, any decision that doesn’t guarantee a resolution to the 100 North Main problem to the satisfaction of all concerned is as empty and ugly as the building itself.

So here’s my humble suggestion.

The city should take the Civic Center Plaza off the table and Loews and Townhouse should go to dinner somewhere and talk. Make nice. If somebody eats the parsley, just let it go. Work it out.

Then you can split dessert. At around $180 million, it’s pretty sweet.

Remember the abandoned Pyramid and the long-abandoned Chisca. The condemned Lowenstein’s/Rhodes Jennings building and dying neighbor, the Lincoln-American Tower. The abandoned Goldsmith’s and the forgotten Gayoso Hotel swallowed by it. The abandoned Sears Crosstown and the lonely echoes of a million-and-a-half empty square feet. And more. All new and reimagined.

I’m a Memphian, and while I remember, I’m still looking forward to tomorrow.

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