Published as City Journal column in November edition of Memphis magazine:
Pyramids in ancient Egypt ushered the entombed into the afterlife, but in Memphis’ case, it’s The Pyramid itself that’s headed to its next life.
Egyptian pyramids contained the supplies needed for a boat journey through the underworld on the way to the afterlife. Memphis’ pyramid will soon contain supplies for boat rides (and more) now that it has passed through its time of testing to its reincarnation as a Bass Pro Shops megastore.
It’s been a long, strange trip for an icon empty for about eight of its 21 years. The arena died young, and once vacant, the lesson from other cities was there is no life after death for former arenas since most were either razed or turned into non-tax-producing uses like megachurches.
That’s why the recommendation from the committee on The Pyramid’s future for it to become “destination retail” seemed like wishful thinking, but it led to a call to Bass Pro Shops and the rest is history, albeit a history with many chapters and some filled with vitriol and contempt from project critics.
There’s little of that these days, and more than anything, it vindicates the single-minded dedication of City of Memphis Director of Housing and Community Robert Lipscomb who pushed on despite personal attacks, lukewarm support from downtown leaders, and even the public suggestion by the former city mayor that it was time to pull the plug on the project.
Now, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. predicts that the revived Pyramid will be a regular attraction for millions of customers and student groups drawn to conservation exhibits, an aquarium, and a swamp with fish and waterfowl. He also expects that there will be a hotel inside the building, a new entrance off Front Street, and more glass on the building exterior to open up connections with the Pinch District and riverfront.
What will be missing are the statue of Ramesses II, now relocated to University of Memphis, and the Egyptian hieroglyphic drawings over the entrances, but so is the City of Memphis’ $550,000 annual bill for utilities and security for the vacant building.
When it was built, the third largest pyramid in the world was envisioned as a distinctive architectural icon for Memphis, but it was also a symbol for our community’s tendency to ask how to do something cheap rather than to do it well. When it was proposed, The Pyramid was promised to be a “state-of-the-art arena” for only $39 million.
While it ultimately cost $65 million because of changes in its design and materials, supporters of the project in the 1980s lulled people into believing that it was a first-class facility despite bad sound that essentially kept the building unbooked for concerts for the 12-18 months it took to fix it, narrow seats, insensitivity to access for the disabled, poor luxury box design, and the death-defying angle of the stairs in the upper decks.
It was not until the FedEx Forum was built that we really knew what a first-class arena was supposed to look like and what it costs. By then, The Pyramid had been the “Tomb of Doom” for basketball opponents of University of Memphis, but also tomb for the year-round attractions promised by local entrepreneur John Tigrett and the developer he brought to do it, Sidney Shlenker. Buried ideas included a Hard Rock Café; a glass inclinator to the apex; the mutation of Egyptology and rock music into a “Rakapolis” attraction; Dick Clark’s American Music Awards Hall of Fame; a re-creation of The Cavern of Beatles’ fame and the bricks from the original Stax Records studio; an Omnimax theater; a light and music spectacle inside the arena on non-event days, and a short wave radio station at the apex beaming Memphis music to the world.
All of these failures occurred despite Isaac Tigrett, son of John Tigrett and devotee of the guru Sathya Sai Baba, having a boxed crystal skull riveted to the steel superstructure at the pinnacle of The Pyramid. It wasn’t discovered until a year after the building opened, and by then, in addition to the unfulfilled promises of year-round attractions, one person had died during construction and the overflow of toilets that flooded onto the arena floor in the middle of the building-opening concert became legendary in arena circles.
Isaac Tigrett warned that the removal of the crystal skull would risk disruption of the “cosmos,” but these days, most people say that for the first time since The Pyramid opened, its luck is finally moving in the right direction.