University District

In photos: Closed since 2007, Mid-South Coliseum reopens for one-day cleanup event

Opened in 1964, the Mid-South Coliseum was once the epicenter of Memphis wrestling, Memphis State Tiger basketball and RiverKings hockey. It hosted world-famous concerts, civic events and countless high school and college graduations.

Owned by the City of Memphis, it was officially closed in 2007 due primarily to non-compliance with current disability and accessibility standards.

On April 27, it opened to the public for the first time in 12 years.

More than 50 volunteers stepped inside for a one-day cleanup event to remove debris and sweep floors on one of the two public corridors that wrap the arena. They also organized, cleared and cleaned sections of the arena floor in preparation for future indoor events. 

Volunteers were treated to a VIP tour led by Chooch Pickard, vice president of the Coliseum Coalition, a citizen group which formed in January 2015 to advocate for reactivating the building. The tour took the group into areas the general public will likely never go, including the catwalks between the venue’s interior ceiling and its iconic domed roof.

Many of the Coliseum's interior ceiling tiles are missing, but studies commissioned by the Coliseum Coalition and the City of Memphis show the iconic domed roof above is structurally sound. (Shelda Edwards)
From the Coliseum catwalks, volunteers work on the arena floor below. Their goals included sweeping the floor and organizing items stored in the arena to create a more usable space for future events. (Shelda Edwards).

“It’s just so exciting to see this come together and the enthusiasm of everybody that’s working here who really think this building needs to be reopened,” said Pickard.

“I think it’s a good opportunity to do something decent for the city,” said volunteer Wes Parker. “Also, honestly, I’m a little bit curious what it looks like in here.”

Related: "Friends of the Fairgrounds looks to partner with the city on Fairgrounds redevelopment"

When the Coliseum closed, the venue was operating in the red and new venues like the Pyramid and DeSoto Civic Center made the Coliseum seem obsolete. The roughly 24,000-square-foot arena floor has since served as a storage facility for the City of Memphis. 

Five years ago the historic venue was on the verge of demolition, but it’s seen a resurgence of interest and investment, led largely by the Coliseum Coalition.

Last year, the State of Tennessee designated the Mid-South Fairgrounds, including the Coliseum, as a tourism development zone, which will help fund and guide the building's ultimate redevelopment. The Coliseum Coalition's vision includes a mixed-use facility with public events, retail and cultural attractions. 

There are no definite plans for the first public events, but the Coliseum Coalition said they are working with the city on a possible second cleanup and the first stages of planning for public activities inside the Coliseum. These would be "previtalizing events" or small-scale activities meant to showcase what’s possible and grow interest and investment ahead of more major renovations.

Paul Young and Mary Claire Borys with the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development said in a co-authored statement to High Ground News that previtalization events are a proven strategy for attracting public enthusiasm and private investment dollars for adaptive reuse of historic properties.

“The idea was to start to open up space on the arena floor to work towards the eventual goal of holding previtalization events in the building, similar to what was done at the Tennessee Brewery and Crosstown Concourse,” said Borys and Young.

Marvin Stockwell, co-founder of the Coliseum Coalition, said there’s been strong interest from numerous organizations to host everything from awards shows to movie screenings.

Coliseum Coalition board member Carolyn Chatman holds up pieces of a dismantle tricycle found in an abandoned office on cleanup day. (Shelda Edwards)
Volunteers armed with flashlights clean debris, trash and relics from the past from the venue's old will call office. They found unused tickets from RiverKings hockey games, a Jay-Z concert and a Barney and Baby Bop show. (Shelda Edwards)

The cleanup event was a coordinated effort between the Coliseum Coalition, Clean Memphis and the City of Memphis and a roaring success according to event organizers.

“This small army of volunteers has achieved more in the first 45 minutes than I thought we’d get done all day,” said Stockwell.

Related: "City tables Coliseum repurposing, presents sports complex in latest Fairgrounds plan"

The Coliseum Coalition and Clean Memphis recruited and led volunteers while the city provided task lighting and made decisions on stored items. Prior to the event, the city cleared some items to give volunteers better access. Memphis Public Libraries also removed a number of items with historic significance for a digital archive that will be available to the public.

For volunteers, some of the most interesting items discovered on cleanup day included a dismantled tricycle, unused tickets from a 2003 Jay-Z concert, half a dozen nacho cheese machines and the Liberty Bell that once stood outside of Libertyland amusement park.

“There’s all sorts of random stuff in here,” said Stockwell. “They’ve been storing stuff in here for 12 years, not to mention there’s stuff organic to when the Coliseum was in use. If you toured through these old offices, you’re struck with the fact that people probably just left their offices thinking, ‘They’re going to figure this out, and I’ll be back next week.”

Volunteers use a golf cart to transport trash and debris from the lower level corridor that rings the arena floor. A rendering of the Coliseum's seat chart is still displayed in a frame at the center of the photograph. (Shelda Edwards)
Chooch Pickard, the Coliseum Coalition's vice president, walks the lower-level corridor near a shuttered concession stand. (Shelda Edwards)

Carolyn Chatman, a member of the Coliseum Coalition’s board of directors, said nostalgia for music, wrestling and sports is a big factor for many people invested in the Coliseum’s restoration.

Chatman’s mother was an on-air personality for WDIA, the country’s first Black radio station, and performed at the Coliseum for WDIA’s annual Goodwill Revue fundraiser. The event featuring big stars like BB King, Muddy Waters, Ray Charles and Elvis Presley.

Stockwell said the building is one of only 11 worldwide that saw performances by both Elvis and The Beatles, and it’s one of the last places The Beatles performed live. It was the site of their famous press conference after John Lennon said the band was more popular than Jesus.

The Mid-South Coliseum was also the first building in Memphis intentionally designed as an integrated facility for all Memphians.

“This was the first unity building we ever had, where Black and white were together in this building integrated here,” said Chatman. “We just want to bring this history into the future … We need to reclaim our music, our history, our culture.”

Volunteers work together to sweep 12 years of dust from the Coliseum's lower corridor outside of Room F, where The Beatles held their famous press conference after John Lennon said the band was more popular that Jesus. More than 50 volunteers signed up for the one-day cleanup event. (Shelda Edwards)
The Mid-South Coliseum's arena has been used for the past 12 years as a storage facility by the City of Memphis. One goal of the cleanup event was to organize and rearrange stored items to create more usable space for future events. (Shelda Edwards)

The Coliseum Coalition hopes that one of the first previtalizing events held inside the building will be its fourth Roundhouse Revival, an all-day event featuring two of the core brands that made the Coliseum famous, music and wrestling. Previous revivals have been held in the Coliseum parking lot.

“We would love to bring wrestling back to this building,” said Pickard. “It’s bigger today in some ways, internationally, than it was back then but it’s still pretty big in Memphis.”

The Coliseum Coalition’s ultimate vision includes a public facility operating a mix of uses 365 days a year, but the city has been hesitant to back a full rehabilitation until there is a clear plan for generating enough revenue to operate without significant public funding.

In October 2017, city leaders decided against demolishing or restoring the building, opting instead to spend $500,000 on roof and other repairs to stabilize it for future potential uses until there was a more definitive path for successful redevelopment.

“Yet Memphis is a city that likes to find new uses for old buildings – some of which are pretty innovative [like] Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid – and we look forward to seeing what creative vision and private capital might be able to accomplish at the Coliseum,” said Borys and Young.

A volunteer in a protective mask gives a thumbs-up from inside the Coliseum's will call office. (Shelda Edwards). 
Volunteers work by task lighting in the darkened Coliseum corridors. Volunteers found a number of interesting items including decorative plastic trees, a toaster oven, a disassembled tricycle, a Santa suit and a single baby shoe. (Shelda Edwards)

The building faces some major challenges to a full restoration including safety and ADA compliance, some asbestos in non-public areas, an outdated heating and cooling system and the need for modernized seating, sound and lighting. According to a study commissioned by the City of Memphis to complete its TDZ application, the Coliseum is structurally sound.

The City of Memphis estimates roughly $40 million to fully restore the building, but the Coliseum Coalition’s estimate is $25 million to make the most immediate improvements and reopen with a phased approach to full restoration.

In 2016 and 2017, the Coliseum Coalition and City of Memphis facilitated community meetings for input on uses for the Coliseum and larger fairgrounds. The coalition engaged over 200 people who worked or lived in neighboring communities including Beltline, Cooper-Young and Orange Mound.

Ideas for the building include its original uses — sports, concerts and shows, graduations and community events — as well as new uses like permanent and pop-up retail, restaurants and bars, museums or exhibits and office space for businesses and community organizations. Residents want a building that serves a diverse population, not just tourist or the city’s wealthiest citizens.

For the fairgrounds, stakeholders envisioned landscaping, a mass transit hub and removing fences and adding bike and pedestrian paths for better connectivity to neighborhoods.

Left to Right: Coliseum Coalition Vice President Chooch Pickard, board member Carolyn Chatman and founder Marvin Stockwell pose outside of the Coliseum's old performers entrance. (Shelda Edwards)

The TDZ’s language specifically protects the building and includes it in the redevelopment of the greater fairgrounds.

“That to me says the Coliseum has been saved,” said Stockwell. “The work that remains is figuring out, collectively as a city, what exact mix of uses goes into this.”

Stockwell said the four year journey from potential demolition to clear reinvestment from the city has been due to individual citizens and the coalition’s work to prove the building is in good condition and is a one-of-a-kind asset, as well as the city’s willingness to reconsider its earlier stance and a growing pride among Memphians for its iconic spaces.

“The building is in excellent shape, and public opinion polls show that it’s beloved,” he said. “To me it’s a real testament to what municipal leadership tied to grassroots leadership can accomplish together.”
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Read more articles by Cole Bradley and Shelda Edwards.

Shelda Edwards is a visual artist and graphic designer. Follow her on Instagram @legendofshelda.  Cole Bradley is an editor, writer, applied anthropologist and contributing writer at High Ground News since January 2017.