Compiling a short list of the ugliest places in Memphis is no easy task in a city that is lucky enough to be bisected by such decidedly unscenic boulevards as Lamar, Summer, Winchester, and Germantown Parkway. Plus, large areas of our community are blighted by poverty and urban decay. Listing every eyesore in town would take up more paper than our printing company can provide.
So we decided to focus instead on bad things in good places -- ugly buildings or structures that are actually located in nice parts of town, where lack of money isn't the primary reason for their sheer ugliness. In other words, a list of eyesores without excuses.
Here's our top 10, though there are many others that could have made the list.
1. Cossitt-Goodwyn Library
33 South Front Street
To fully appreciate the absolute ugliness of this building, you have to remember what it replaced. The original Cossitt Library, erected in 1893, was a stunning red sandstone castle, with a sweeping flight of steps that led up to a triple-arched entrance, and a round tower that provided visitors with magnificent views of the Mississippi River. A matching red sandstone wing was added in 1922. In 1958, in a flash of insanity, the city of Memphis, arguing that the old building had somehow become unstable, tore down the castle and replaced it with ... this. The authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide, have written, "The loss of no old building in Memphis is more regrettable than that of the Cossitt Library, an imposing Romanesque structure of great power and dignity."
Some people might try to call the new building "International Style." We call it a hideous blue box that doesn't even attempt to match the sandstone addition. What's worse, the building hasn't been maintained over the years. A nice reflecting pool, once adorned with fine sculptures of scholars by Memphian Ted Rust, is empty and filled with trash, and the sculptures were beheaded so many times by vandals that Rust finally refused to repair them. (They were restored one final time and moved indoors to the main public library on Poplar.) But this whole corner is a disgrace. The original Cossitt Library was one of the most beautiful public buildings in Memphis; this is one of the ugliest.
2. The "Underground House"
646 South McLean
Mention Central Gardens and certain images come to mind: the imposing Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, lovely Belvedere Street lined with flowering dogwoods, the grand houses along Carr and Harbert and other neighborhood streets -- and that weird "underground" house at McLean and Cowden. At one time, a handsome bungalow stood on this corner. Sometime in the 1970s, that house was replaced with a more modern structure, which builder/architect Bill Fuller then covered with mounds of dirt and monkey grass. The whole thing was then surrounded with a wood-plank fence. The house wasn't technically underground; everything was built above ground, but just covered up.
According to neighbors, the house has been empty for almost 10 years, though it's hard to tell when the only thing visible (barely) was the front door. Two years ago, the house was sold, and the new owner scraped all that dirt off and announced plans to expand the house. Unfortunately, those plans didn't meet the approval of the Memphis Landmarks Commission -- this is Central Gardens, remember, a historic district with rather strict building codes -- so now the house sits as you see it here -- stripped of its exterior, windows shattered by vandals, and pretty much a big mess. On a recent visit, we did notice one small improvement: a "For Sale" sign in the front yard. We just hope the new owner has access to a bulldozer.
3. Sterick Building and Parking Garage
22 North Third Street
With AutoZone Park within walking distance and all sorts of high-end condos and new developments in the area, it's hard to fathom why some properties remain neglected. This (below left) is one of the ugliest. Hard to believe, but in the 1960s, this was a Holiday Inn. The top four floors were occupied by the hotel, and the bottom levels served as a parking garage for guests and occupants of the Sterick Building next door.
We're tempted to add the adjacent 1928 Sterick Building to our list of eyesores, but at least its owners, an out-of-town group called Sterick LLC, have given it a decent paint job, so the exterior still looks pretty grand. We can't say the same for the garage, with its paint peeling off in strips. The Center City Commission is promoting the Sterick Building, once described as "the most fabulous building in Memphis," as one of its top-10 most desirable downtown development projects. If that happens, the parking garage might be needed someday. In the meantime, it needs a facelift.
4. Chisca Hotel
262 South Main Street
Constructed in 1913, the Chisca was never considered one of this city's finest hotels. It just wasn't in the same league as The Peabody or the Gayoso. Instead, it was considered a "businessman's" hotel -- perfect for an overnight stay for traveling salesmen or others in need of comfortable, but not lavish, accommodations. Even the authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide say it was "clearly built on the cheap; there is little here that is not strictly utilitarian." That's not to say it's an ugly building; we think it's rather handsome, in a solid, red-brick kind of way, and if you look closely, you can make out interesting details, and stained-glass windows, and other ornaments.
The Chisca died along with much of South Main in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the building was purchased by the Church of God in Christ, which used some of the property for its headquarters. The main hotel structure, however, has not been maintained over the years, and quite a few windows have been left open for months at a time -- not a good idea with Memphis' rain and pigeon population. The good news is that COGIC has announced it will spend some $80 million to restore the old building and convert part of it into a Homewood Suites hotel. So far, we're still waiting for that to happen.
5. Cannon Performing Arts Center sculpture
Poplar and Front
We've never known what to make of this. We don't even know if it has a name. We do know that certain members of our staff -- Philistines one and all, we admit -- have referred to it as "the giant urinal." Apparently, it is supposed to serve as some sort of pavilion for outdoor concerts -- very small ones, we gather -- though we have never actually seen it used in such a fashion. Perhaps we need to get out more.
But we have walked up to it, rested on the metal-mesh benches inside the larger of the two funnels, and discovered that, though the benches are rather comfortable, on a sunny day anyone wishing to sit here for any length of time will need sunglasses and sunblock with a factor of at least 45, because those mirror-polished stainless-steel panels tend to blind you. Don't get us wrong: We're all for outdoor art in Memphis. We just don't know what this is.
6. Sears Crosstown
495 North Watkins
This massive -- all of 1.4 million square feet -- building falls into the same category as downtown's Sterick Building. It's completely empty, but is it truly an eyesore?
From a distance, it's certainly impressive, and a closer view reveals fine workmanship and intricate carving on the stone ornamentation that covers the facade. It's certainly not in the tumble-down class as the derelict Rhodes-Jennings Building downtown. But it may get that way soon. That same up-close look also reveals rusting doors, broken-out or boarded-up windows, and even plants growing out of cracks in the stone many stories above the pavement. Not a good sign.
Sears, Roebuck & Co. constructed this building -- one of the largest in its nationwide chain -- in 1927, and opening-day crowds supposedly exceeded 40,000. But the company phased out its catalog shopping in the 1980s and had no need of their giant warehouses. Rumors have persisted that the building was going to be converted into upscale housing, or downscale housing, or shops, or artists' studios, or even a Home Depot. None of those plans came to fruition, though we would like to point out that everyone keeps whining that Midtown needs a Target if we only had enough space. With 1.4 million square feet and an adjacent parking garage and parking lot, we think this would not only hold a Target but a Home Depot to boot. Surely something can be done with it?
7. Rhodes-Jennings Building
66 North Main
Will anything ever happen to this ghost that haunts Main Street? This building has been on any "eyesore" or "ugly" or "big empty" list we have compiled since the Flyer began publication back in 1986. Looking at what's left of the rusting cast-iron facade, it's hard to believe that in the 1880s, this structure began life as home to B. Lowenstein and Company, one of our city's finest department stores. In the 1960s, Lowenstein's moved to a larger building across the street, and the Rhodes-Jennings Furniture Company moved in. Somewhere along the way -- probably in the 1960s, since that's when we lost all sense of taste -- owners chopped big chunks out of the building's ornate facade, creating the effect you see now. Rhodes-Jennings went out of business in the 1980s, and the building has been empty ever since, anchoring a rather prominent corner of downtown, just across Main Street from the Morgan Keegan Tower.
Over the years, Environmental Court judge Larry Potter has issued all sorts of injunctions against the property's various out-of-town owners, to no effect. Finally, some good news. A group called CGI & Partners, headed by an architect from Czechoslovakia, recently purchased the Rhodes-Jennings Building along with the vacant 22-story Lincoln American Tower next door and announced plans to renovate both into apartments and commercial space. Initial plans were to have the project completed by the end of 2005. That deadline has come and gone, but the CCC assures us that financing is this close to being ready.
8. Linden Circle Theater
321 S. Somerville Street
In the mid-1920s, the Linden Circle opened as one of many handsome neighborhood theaters around town, joining the likes of the Rosemary on Jackson, the Park on -- well -- Park, the Memphian on South Cooper, and dozens more. These were also called "second-run" theaters, which didn't mean they were second-class. That term just meant that when movies came to town, they would appear first at the big "first-run" movie palaces downtown, such as Loew's, Warner, Malco, and others. A few weeks or, for some hits, months later, they would start showing at the smaller neighborhood theaters.
This one closed sometime in the 1960s. In 1997, film buff Kevin Lee announced plans to return the Linden Circle to its past glory by converting it into a fancy "art" theater, complete with fully restored interior and even uniformed ushers. Those plans fell through. The property is currently owned by the New Day Church International, an offshoot of the Church of God in Christ, and church officials plan to turn the building into a sanctuary.
9. Saint Mongo's Planet
56-60 South Front Street
What else do we need to say? It's one of Robert Hodges' projects -- perhaps better known as Prince (and sometime Saint) Mongo. And like all of his projects, he takes a perfectly fine building and turns it into a mess. Such as his former residence on Eastmoreland, with the toilet on the roof. Or his former residence on Colonial, with the junk in the front yard and paint spattered all over the house. Or "The Castle" at Lamar and Central, at one time a magnificent stone mansion, and now turned into -- well, drive by there and see for yourself.
Saint Mongo's Planet was originally a handsome commercial building constructed in 1875, part of Front Street's historic Cotton Row. Hodges defied the Landmarks Commission by splashing on pink and turquoise paint and a neon sign and opened it as a bar, which had an unfortunate tendency to attract underage drinkers. After its beer permit was revoked at least a dozen times, the city finally shut him and his Planet down. It's been vacant for several years. The Center City Commission has listed this as one of its top-10 redevelopment projects. The new owner will need to paint it first.
10. Sunshine Car Wash #9
We really don't have any objection to automated car washes. Sure, the chauffeur normally does a better job, but sometimes he's busy (or drunk), so we have to take the office limo to a car wash. And it's fun to sit inside when the car is completely covered with suds and you can't see out and then those big foam brushes start flapping and slapping or maybe you go to the kind where the brushes are mounted on giant wheels and as they slowly pass over the car you get that uncanny feeling that the car is somehow rolling forward and you jam your foot harder and harder on the brake pedal even though you know it's not really rolling and ... sorry, we got carried away there. The point is, car washes have their place in today's car-loving society. Even car washes with big glass windows so that passersby, who apparently cannot conceive how such a marvelous process happens -- the car goes in one end dirty and comes out the other end clean -- can see the action.
But does the whole thing have to be encased in a bright red metal framework? Sunshine #9 wouldn't look out of place on, say, Poplar. But this is Central Gardens and supposedly has -- or had -- covenants and ordinances and restrictions saying what you could build where. Okay, we know that Union is not exactly the prettiest street in town, but at one time it had some handsome buildings on this corner. On this very site stood Fortune's, a beautiful stucco mission-style ice cream parlor. But then again, the Sunshine Car Wash is right next to a garish Shell station, and right in front of a quick-lube joint, so maybe it doesn't matter anymore. Sometimes you just have to give up.