Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Down, Though Not Quite Out, in Memphis


It seems that the further I read about hauntings in Memphis, the more I see a city that has been down on its luck for the past few decades. So many of Memphis’ haunted sites are incredible architectural treasures, yet they sit empty and crumbling. Certainly, it reflects the ill fortune of large cities over the second half of the 20th century as they sprawled outwards while their hearts withered. Among Memphis’ haunted locales are a number that have been abandoned (or, in one case, partially abandoned) and legends have sprouted up concerning them.

At least two of these buildings have legends that may have been invented to accompany their lonely states: the Sears Crosstown Building (495 North Watkins Street) and the Sterick Building (8 North 3rd Street).

Opening in 1927, the Sears Crosstown Building was once the showplace of Memphis. Looming over North Watkins Street, just north of downtown, the enormous Art Deco structure housed retail, catalog, a merchandise warehouse and distribution space for Sears Roebuck and Company, at that time, the largest retailers in the nation. The building’s 11 stories and 17 story tower encompass 1.4 square feet of space. When the building opened on August 8th of that year, many sources say an estimated 47,000 people walked through the doors.

The Sears Crosstown building, 2008. Photo by Anthonyturducken,
released under a Creative Commons License.
Until the store closed in 1983 (the building totally closed for good in 1993), it was considered the height of retailing in the city. Since that time a single person patrols the monstrous structure keeping vandals and curiosity seekers out. His only companions may be the occasional ghosts that may or may not exist.

Laura Cunningham’s Haunted Memphis (History Press, 2009) includes a description of some of the activity supposedly witnessed in the building. This includes apparent residual activity such as the sounds of shoppers and escalators as well as doors opening and closing on their own accord. Cunningham also mentions that the parking garage may be haunted by the spirit of a homeless man who was killed there and buried nearby. Unfortunately, there are no specific reports of any of this activity, nor are the witnesses identified, therefore this has to be chalked up to urban legend.

Perhaps, more evidence will come to light as the building is used. An organization is already formulating plans to create an arts hub within the cavernous building. Late last year an artist installed a lighting installation that lit up various windows in an array of colors. We can hope that as the building sees more activity that more reports of paranormal activity will filter out.

In downtown Memphis, the Sterick Building has dominated the skyline for nearly a century. Opened in 1930, the building’s name is a combination of the surnames of its owners, R. E. Sterling and Wyatt Hedrick. The building was the tallest building in the South for some years and a grand jewel in the crown of Memphis. The building rises 29 grand floors in the Gothic Revival Style.

The boarded up entrance to the Sterick Building, 2009.
Photo by Samuel Grant, courtesy of Wikipedia.
That grand jewel has been tarnished quite a bit over the years and the massive structure now sits empty. Financial issues have taken their toll over the decades. As development in Memphis expanded outward, the building’s tenants vacated one by one until the last tenants left in 1986. It has been empty since. The valuable land that the building rests upon is only leased and the building reverts to the landlord’s ownership at the end of its 99 year lease in 2025. Therefore, the current owners and anyone who tries to do anything to the building before that point will lose most of their investment. The Downtown Memphis Commission has made recommendations, but these may only join the past recommendations that have been nixed as too expensive.

The Sterick Building rises 29 stories above 3rd Street.
Photo 2011, by Reading Tom. Released under a
Creative Commons License. 
So for now this massive white elephant sits on 3rd Street longing for people to fill its corridors and offices again while the occasional spirit may still prowl about. Again, like the reports of activity from Sears Crosstown, the reports from the Sterick Building are somewhat vague. Cunningham points out two specific incidents that may have left a spiritual mark upon the building: both involving people plunging to their deaths. One vague incident involved a young woman committing suicide to “save herself from a loveless marriage.” Another incident occurred in 1981 when a man attacked a woman in the building. As building security pursued the man he broke a window and climbed out onto the ledge from which he plunged to his death. Cunningham notes that employees in the building reported hearing the screams of someone falling outside their windows. Additionally, there are also reports of residual activity including lights on in empty offices and the sounds of people working.

While specific details of the hauntings of the Sears Crosstown and Sterick buildings may be hard to come by, details from the Tennessee Brewery (495 Tennessee Street) are quite prevalent. The massive Romanesque Revival structure looms over Tennessee Street quite close to the muddy Mississippi River. According to Memphis Paranormal Investigations, LLC, this building is quite active and they have captured quite a bit of evidence in their 12 investigations of the structure.

The Tennessee Brewery at the height of its operations. Courtesy
of Wikipedia.
Investigations have uncovered the sounds of footsteps and numerous photographic anomalies. Cunningham mentions that “loud noises, strong enough to rattle windows, can be heard throughout the building.”

Organized in 1877, this massive brewery was constructed in 1890. By the turn of the 20th century the Memphis Brewing Company was the largest brewery in the South and among the largest in the nation. Like most breweries throughout the nation, the brewery closed during Prohibition. With the repeal of the 18th Amendment, the brewery reopened under the auspices of John Schorr, the son of one of the early owners. The brewery’s beer was named “Goldcrest 51” in 1938 and was the most popular brand of beer in the region until the brewery closed in 1954.

The Tennessee Brewery, 2008, by Otto42. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Following its closure, the building was used as a scrap metal company until 1982. As the scrap metal company, the building was little changed and it has been a virtual time capsule with few changes made except those to keep the building in compliance with building codes. The city almost demolished the building in the 1990s, but a buyer jumped in and purchased the structure and brought it up to code. However, the building still remains vacant, though plans have been considered for its use as an arts space similar to Sears Crosstown. Certainly, such a magnificent edifice deserves to be cared for and maintained.

Sources
Bailey, Tom, Jr. “Towering vision: Project would remake Sears Crosstown
     into Memphis arts village.” The Commerical Appeal. 13 February 2011.
Cunningham, Laura. Haunted Memphis. Charleston, SC: History Press,
     2009.
Lauderdale, Vance. “When the Sterick Building was Supreme.” Ask
     Vance: The Blog of Vance Lauderdale. 28 November 2008.
McCoy, Chris. “Signs of Life at Sears Crosstown Tower.” Live from Memphis.
     21 October 2011.
Patterson, Sara. “Tennessee Brewery has intoxicating beauty, sobering
     challenges for developers.” The Commercial Appeal. 28 August 2011.
Pickrell, Kayla. “Haunted Memphis: Brewery a piece of history.” The
      Commercial Appeal. 24 July 2012.
Risher, Wayne. “Memphis officials pushing for plan to redevelop long-
     vacant Sterick Building.” The Commercial Appeal. 3 May 2012.
Risher, Wayne. “Skyline Orphan: Once the towering jewel of Downtown
     Memphis, rehabbing of Sterick Building poses tall order.” The
     Commercial Appeal. 27 December 2011.
Tennessee Brewery. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 24 July 2012.
Wolf, Cindy. “Sears Crosstown, before the doors closed.” The Commercial
     Appeal. 27 February 2011.

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