Brody Kuhar

In 1963, developer Harry Bloomfield broke ground on 100 N. Main St. in Memphis, Tenn. Bloomfield was a prodigious real estate magnate who, like his contemporaries across America, was busy reshaping cityscapes with the introduction of new forms and ideas. In 1955, he led the development of Memphis’ Holiday Inn Towers, utilizing slip-form concrete construction for the first time in the world. Modernism was on the march, a mark of a city’s progress, and Bloomfield was Memphis’ messenger.

For 100 N. Main St., one of the city’s most visible locations in the heart of its downtown, Bloomfield employed architect Robert Lee Hall and his eponymous firm, Robert Lee Hall & Associates Architects, to articulate his vision. Hall was an adept interpreter of Modernist principles, able to express the emerging vernacular of the age in design and detail. Hall had designed the Mid-South Coliseum, an indoor arena that, after opening in Memphis in 1963, would soon play host to The Beatles, as well as projects such as the starkly vertical concrete-and-glass Anthony Wayne Bank Tower in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Memphis in the late 1950s and early 1960s was experiencing an economic boom as it maintained its status as an inland cotton and lumber exchange while accommodating a growing shift toward services. 100 N. Main was originally announced in 1962 as a 22-story development. Its ambition grew—first to 32, then to 37 stories. The skyscraper would open in 1965 as the tallest building in Memphis, as it remains to this day. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015.

Its intricate façade of precast concrete vertical fins is accented by white chip marble, and surprisingly, operable windows that provide depth to its otherwise smooth exterior. The building is supported on concrete pilings, allowing its reinforced concrete frame and floors to rise lightly, culminating with its spaceage top that once contained a restaurant that rotated around completely every 90 minutes. “The Top of the 100” is actually 100 N. Main’s “38th floor.” When it opened, it offered views of the Mississippi River, the city of Memphis and beyond, as well as the Japanese rock garden on the roof of the building’s 37th story.

A Building's Death

Memphis today is more diverse than the average U.S. city: According to the most recent census data, 64% of the city is African American. Additionally, almost 21% of the population lives below the poverty line. For this reason, buildings like 100 N. Main hold the keys to the city’s upward trajectory in the next decade and beyond. A redevelopment project has the potential to serve a broad spectrum of the city, especially if it encourages MWBE participation and offers additional subsidies for those looking to start a business, as the city’s Crosstown Concourse project did.

Downtown Memphis did not experience the urban growth that was anticipated in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The shockwaves of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the city’s Lorraine Motel in 1968 spurred an exodus from downtown that decimated the area’s population and property values, the reverberations of which still echo in the city’s core today. Because of its proximity to city, county, and federal buildings, 100 N. Main continued to function for many years as a place for lawyers, doctors, and other professionals, even as maintenance on the property began to decline.

That decline was slow but steady. By 2012, approximately 30% of the building’s space was occupied. By 2015, that number was zero.

Until recently, New York–based Townhouse Management Company (TMC) owned the structure. The company announced various plans for the building’s redevelopment, including a mixed 200-residential-unit and 550-hotel-room conversion. The hotel was to be branded as a Loew’s property in anticipation of the $200 million renovation of the close-by Renasant Convention Center. However, Loew’s, citing additional development commitments in downtown Memphis, pulled out of any involvement in 100 N. Main’s redevelopment in early 2019.

TMC unsuccessfully sued Loew’s, attempting to get the company to honor its commitment to 100 N. Main. With no development plans or partners in place, and with the onset of the COVID pandemic, the building fell even further into disrepair. In March 2021, the Downtown Mobility Authority (DMA)—an affiliate of the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC), tasked with spurring investment in the city’s downtown—purchased the entire block on which the building sits for $12 million.

Life Again

“Within a 5-minute walk of [100 N. Main], there’s $438 million of property value, 700 hotel rooms, and 1,200 residents,” says Brett Roler, the DMC’s vice president of planning and development. Roler helped orchestrate the DMC’s plan for the next phase of 100 N. Main’s life.

In June, the DMC issued an RFP for the disposition and redevelopment of not only 100 N. Main and its 579,000 square feet of space (429,000 of which is rentable) but also nine adjacent parcels totaling over two acres. The neighboring properties include four historic, late 19th-century buildings, a surface parking lot, and a pocket dog park. Taken together, the RFP offers the opportunity to remake a significant swath of downtown Memphis.

Roler recognizes the monumental task that comes with redeveloping one of Memphis’ monuments. But he’s also keenly aware of Memphis’ ability to turn insurmountable projects into reimagined and revitalized places. “One of the things we believe at the DMC is that adaptive reuse and historic preservation is vital to creating neighborhoods that have authenticity and character,” he says. “And one doesn’t need to look far to see [adaptive reuse] projects like Sears Crosstown. We already do this.”

lready do this.” Sears Crosstown, which is now known as Crosstown Concourse, is located about three miles east of 100 N. Main. Locals often refer to the 1927-era Art Deco building as “The Chrysler Building tipped on its side.” All 1,500,000 square feet of the structure used to serve as a distribution and retail hub for Sears. By 1993, Sears had entirely left the building.

In 2010, a local arts organization, Crosstown Arts, was formed to realize visions around the redevelopment of the building, as well as build a hub for Memphis’ creative community. What began as a grassroots effort rooted in arts-led revitalization culminated in the successful rehabilitation of the building with its reopening in 2017. It is now an activated vertical village—with a mix of restaurants, retail, theaters, residences, offices, artist and gallery spaces, and even a community radio station—that sees upwards of 3,000 people walk through its doors every day.

“When you think about the project as a whole and what we needed to happen to realize it, it was crushingly overwhelming,” says Todd Richardson, the co-director of Crosstown Arts who led the redevelopment effort and currently leads the Crosstown Redevelopment Cooperative. “The only way to approach it was hour-by-hour and to break it down to its component parts, from curating tenants to financing to design—the 20 different things that all needed to line up,” he says.

Richardson, an art history professor by trade, highlights the project’s goal of achieving 25% MWBE participation on construction as an example of how its approach can be utilized on massive rehab projects. “What we ended up doing was breaking the project down to nine different projects,” he says, noting how the scale then became approachable. The Crosstown project ended up with 32% MWBE participation.

Roler, with the DMC, is already thinking about how the mix of uses for 100 N. Main can mirror the sort of activity now present in Crosstown. “One of the goals is to have an 18-hour vibrancy on the site—to have mixed use where people are coming and going multiple times a day,” he says. “Maybe it’s a place to live and also a place to work. Maybe there are retail opportunities and also hospitality. But we need to bring in different types of people to the site as often as possible to create the street-level vibrancy that the site can really help us build.”

The City of Memphis is ready to help make the deal pencil out, including making a commitment—if it works with the developer’s vision—to lease out 60,000 square feet of office space as an anchor tenant, as well as providing an additional $10 million subsidy through its Accelerate Memphis program to “facilitate catalytic community projects.”

The Future Is Now

The DMC has been creative in publicizing the RFP for 100 N. Main’s redevelopment, touting a “Free Skyscraper!” in an op-ed and advertising campaign. Roler has led numerous parties on tours up the building. It’s an urban explorer’s dream to see the guts and, for now, faded glory of a prominent and imposing presence of architectural and urban might.

The DMC anticipates executing a developer agreement with the selected party by the end of 2021.

“Large skyscrapers get a bad rap,” says Leah Fox-Greenberg, the chief executive officer of Memphis Heritage, a preservation advocacy organization. “For Memphis, this was our show of being a formidable city. It is a formidable building because it showed our strength on a pattern of growth. You just weren’t a city until you had a 100 Main.”

Luckily for Memphis and 100 Main’s future development team, the city still has it.