The owners of the Tennessee Brewery are about to ignite the greatest historic preservation campaign in Memphis history.
That’s because they have raised the specter that in the next 60-90 days, they will decide if the 123-year-old Romenesque Revival beauty will be demolished, proving once again that it’s cold comfort when a building is added to the National Register of Historic Places. In the case of the Tennessee Brewery, that was in 1980.
Over the years, all of us have heard the stories of people enamored with the brewery, but concepts for condominiums and have fallen victim to large renovation pricetags. There was the ballyhooed idea for 140 residential condos, a couple of floors of shops and restaurants, and four or five floors of garage parking landed with a thud. The idea for its conversation into art space in 2001 fell apart two years later.
Today, its owners say that the land is worth more than the building although the Shelby County Assessor disagrees. The assessor appraisal is $262,100, and the building accounts for just over half of that amount.
He wrote: “The brewery has other claims to fame beyond beer. A few scenes from “Walk the Line” were actually filmed inside. Memphis Paranormal Investigations have investigated overnight about 12 times and claim it is one of the most haunted buildings in Tennessee. During our 8 hour daytime shoot however we never felt any unease or heard anything other than the trolley out front coming by every 20 minutes on its circuit. That being said… I’m not sure I would like to spend the night there.”
It’s hard for us to look at the Tennessee Brewery without wishing for Bob Cassilly.
He’s the founder, creator, and creative director of the distinctly idiosyncratic City Museum. He was a sculptor and an entrepreneur, and his imagination gave birth to some of the most bizarre grab bag of exhibits and collections anywhere.
City Museum consists largely of repurposed architectural and industrial objects housed in the former International Shoe building in the Washington Avenue Loft District of St. Louis. The Tennessee Brewery puts the International Shoe building to shame, although it’s easy to imagine some of the City Museum artifacts and imaginative features transplanted into the Memphis landmark.
The City Museum, which opened in 1997 and attracts about 750,000 visitors a year, engenders rave reviews, and from the following delightful video, you can see why. It was filmed by Memphian Allen Gillespie features Memphis kids, and does the best job we’ve seen of showing the sheer delight of the City Museum as he set out to capture “some of the wonder, adventure, and outrageousness of Bob Cassilly’s inspiration.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Cassilly died in 2011 when a bulldozer flipped over on him while he was repurposing another building in north St. Louis.
But here’s the thing: it’s highly possible that we already have someone like Mr. Cassilly…or a group of clever, imaginative, creative people who together could imagine an equally fascinating project in the Tennessee Brewery.
City Museum proves the ability of an architecturally significant building housing a collection of distinctive exhibits, interactive experiences, and eclectic collections. We know that the current owners are looking for a payout, but it would be an interesting and useful exercise if they put out a call for ideas to convert the brewery into a singularly idiosyncratic Memphis attraction.
No one conceived of the impact of the City Museum in St. Louis and the ability of a creative person to develop a wonderfully unique place but also to enhance the brand that the old Midwest city itself has.