Looking back, moving forward
August 27th, 2021
(published in The Daily Memphian)
I used to sit with Mr. Ellis in front of the old stove at William C. Ellis & Sons on Front at Linden, now Martin Luther King, and chat about all manner of things Memphis. History. The river. Downtown. Everything going to hell in a handbasket, and other opinions, mine and his.
He wasn’t the original Mr. Ellis, or even one of the sons.
The business dates from 1862, and on Front since the foundry was built on that lot in 1879 making wrought-iron straps for carriages and shoes for horses and mules. They later made agricultural and railroad equipment there and things for the river trade, big iron things, strangely shaped things, piled all around us, deep in the shadows of those old buildings, from all the years behind the tall and old doors all along Front. Henry Ellis was a grandson but listening to him talk, you’d swear he was there from the beginning, and you knew that he knew what every one of those things was, what it did, how to make it, and where the original pattern and molds were.
You’d also know that they broke the mold when they made Mr. Ellis.
I also used to sit with Gene Carlisle, with various glasses and cups in front of us, and chat about all manner of things Memphis. History. The river. Downtown. Everything going to hell in a handbasket, and other opinions, mine and his.
He was the original Mr. Carlisle, founder of Wendy’s franchisee, Wendelta, and the Carlisle Corporation, now Carlisle LLC. He was a Downtown dreamer, and father to Chance and Chase, dreamers and doers in today’s Memphis. Chance is CEO of Carlisle LLC and Chase is a city councilman and a senior member of Avison Young’s leadership group here.
Gene didn’t live long enough to see his dream become reality, but he rests assured that it’s happening, happening even bigger than he imagined, and he would be very proud of his sons.
They are in the mold of their father, and the impact of that mold is still far from finally formed. It is most certainly taking shape.
My office was across the street from Mr. Ellis, who would have returned to 1879 if possible, and also from Gene Carlisle, who dreamed of the future and shaped the destiny of the block we all occupied.
They weren’t alone.
In 1995, I met Henry Turley in the empty ground floor of the Candy Factory at Linden and Wagner and negotiated a purchase. Henry and the late Ben Reisman had pioneered
the conversion of an old abandoned Downtown factory into cutting-edge residential condos on the three upper floors with commercial space on the ground floor.
Henry and Ben were Davy Crockett good at pioneering. Ben died far too young, but Henry is still carving his name into our urban landscape and our history.
I bought the ground floor and Henry threw the muddy basement beneath it into the deal. Architect and friend Charles Shipp put a mezzanine in, opened up the basement to natural light with a bridge over it from the big windows and front door to reception, and connected all of it with a spiral staircase creating a three-story open space that inspired creativity in everyone who shared it for the 11 years we were there.
My partner David Brown and I moved the Conaway Brown advertising agency in on January 2, 1996, and won the Commercial Building Award for that year from the Memphis Landmarks Commission. The plaque is still on the outside wall by the front door, right above the bench we placed beneath it, also still there.
That’s the bench I was sitting on having a sandwich when a tall young man jogged by, stopped, introduced himself, and asked, “Is that barbecue?” His name was Shane Battier, and he was new to town. The Grizzlies were, in fact, new to town and we’d been hired to introduce them to Memphis.
We did. And the world to hips and knees and trauma nails from Smith & Nephew. And the idea of hogs flying anywhere and everywhere for the Rendezvous. And Primate Canyon and pandas for the Memphis Zoo. And No Deals for the Memphis Crime Commission. And banks in grocery stores for NBC.
And we took on other agencies in touch football below us in Tom Lee Park, and caught the trolley right beside us to lunch. And had parties on the roof and at the basement bar for, well, pretty much anything.
Three current Memphis ad agencies were born out of that space, and a whole lot of creativity and ability has been spread across this city and others from there.
It was a magical time.
There’s a huge hole and a huge crane where the first Beale Street Landing was, where Gene’s office was. Gene’s office was originally removed by Hurricane Elvis in 2003, literally his corner office, not the rest of the building. Fortunately, he wasn’t in it that morning. A 20-story Grand Hyatt will rise from that hole to command the river.
Where Captain Bilbo’s was, and then Landry’s, and later Joe’s Crab Shack – and a peek at the river outside my office window – there’s a big luxury apartment building, The Landing, and their parking garage literally goes over Wagner creating a tunnel.
Where Mr. Ellis was, demolition is going on and a Caption by Hyatt hotel will soon appear, and as of now the Ellis facade on Front will be saved.
Next door to Ellis on the north end at Beale, a striking Hyatt Centric hotel is open and busy on what was a surface parking lot.
All of that is Carlisle, and no doubt even more is in the works.
If all of this seems that all of that and the shadows it will cast over all that I remember of that block puts me in a dark mood and makes me long for things lost, that’s a waste of my time and yours.
For all of my time there, the space around us was stagnant. Ellis held on to his block like a bulldog holds on to a bone, and the bone was rotting. Nothing new had landed at the old Beale Street Landing on Wagner in years, and the windows felt like eyes staring into empty space. If you ever ate at Joe’s Crab Shack, you were probably sorry. Surface parking lots only seem like a good idea to those charging you to leave your car in the midst of their asphalt desolation.
I’ll happily keep the good parts, thank you, and happily let the rest go. A lot of us forget that memory is selective and if we actually could go back to times we fondly remember, we would probably run from the reality we find.
What’s happening in just that one block is exciting and promising. The change is gigantic, and the bet that the Carlisles are making on the future of Memphis and its draw to the rest of the country and the world is more gigantic still.
A bet as gigantic and hopeful as the one Jack Belz made on The Peabody and Downtown.
Let’s wish them luck. Maybe everything’s not going to hell in a handbasket after all, and we’re certainly making some interesting looking handbaskets these days.
And, yeah, I’m glad the Candy Factory is still there. And the plaque. And the bench.
And I wish the new Backlot sandwich shop and Paramount restaurant had been next door in my day.
Other than that, I’m good.
I’m a Memphian, and 25 Linden was flat cool.
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