This place in history: Abandoned buildings and forgotten Memphis


I have vivid childhood memories of family road trips in which I see an old, rickety shack on the side of the road and wonder: who lived there and when? Why did they leave? More interestingly, what’s inside? I remember thinking how cool it would be to go exploring through these old, dilapidated places and rummage through belongings that have been cast aside and left to linger and age, lost and forgotten.  I still have that sense of wonderment, and I’ve found that stepping into a broken-down, weather-beaten, deteriorating building evokes a feeling of part fear, part exhilaration, that is hard to put into words. Lucky for me, Memphis has a plethora of such places to arouse my curiosity.

Related: "This place in history: The top ten most unique houses in Memphis"


The Wm. C. Ellis & Sons building off South Front Street in Downtown Memphis. The building is one of the oldest machining shops in Memphis and is slated to be torn down. (Houston Cofield)

Walking south on Front Street right past Peabody Place, by “a vast and soulless parking lot, down the hill through the intersection at Beale, and across the street from a utilitarian parking garage, one finds the grace, elegance and modesty of a block-long machine shop that has stood since the days of yellow fever, when the Memphis industrial renaissance was about to carry the city on its shoulders and toward the turn of the century," writes Mark Fleischer of StoryBoard Memphis. The original William C. Ellis & Sons blacksmith's shop was built Downtown in 1879, and several additions followed up until 1925. 

Inside the Wm. C. Ellis & Sons building off South Front Street in Downtown Memphis. (Houston Cofield)
Inside the Wm. C. Ellis & Sons building off South Front Street in Downtown Memphis. (Houston Cofield)

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Ellis & Sons once made horseshoes, parts for carriages and steamboats, cotton machinery, and even cannonballs. They also produced most of the metal manhole covers that for decades have lined our city streets.

Related: "This place in history: Ten Downtown buildings with stories to tell"

Inside the Wm. C. Ellis & Sons building off South Front Street in Downtown Memphis. (Houston Cofield)

The Wm. C. Ellis & Sons building off South Front Street in Downtown Memphis. The building is one of the oldest machining shops in Memphis and is slated to be torn down. (Houston Cofield)
Owner Henry Ellis III closed the shop in December 2016 and the land was bought by developers Carlisle Corporation, who plan to use the space as part of the One Beale project. Against the wishes of local preservationists, there are plans to demolish what’s left of the property, including its contents – decades-old machinery items, shelving, metal presses, office furniture, nuts, bolts, and the like. The building is located at 245 South Front Street.


The white smokestack of the former Firestone plant in North Memphis. (Houston Cofield)
Michael Finger of the Memphis Flyer calls the former site of Firestone Tire and Rubber “one of Memphis’ greatest industrial ruins.” The plant opened in 1936, and at one point the “ultra-modern facility” covered a massive 40 acres with its focal point a sky-high smokestack that could be seen for miles. Firestone helped U.S. efforts in World War II by producing gas masks, rubber life rafts, and raincoats for soldiers. At one point the plant employed over 3,000 workers and in 1963, the company celebrated an extraordinary milestone — its 100 millionth tire was produced in Memphis.

Related: "Ghost signs show Memphis commerce of days long gone"

Sadly, with the introduction of radial tires in the 1980s, Firestone began to plummet. (Despite producing some radial tires, the company decided to specialize in bias-ply tires, which consumers just did not prefer). The plant was forced to close in 1983, which left more than 1,500 employees without a job, leading to a decline in population and property values of the surrounding North Memphis neighborhoods. In the mid-90s, vacant buildings on the property were demolished and the Environmental Protection Agency provided funds to help clean up the area. The plant is located at 712 Firestone Avenue.



The former Anshei Mischne synagogue in the Pinch District. The building's owner, Jake Schorr, plans to develop the site into a bar and music venue. (Houston Cofield)

Meaning “People of the Book,” Anshei Mischne is among the oldest Orthodox synagogues in Memphis. Once located on Jackson Avenue in the Pinch District, the synagogue began in 1900 when ten men, led by Judah Friedman, broke away from the Baron Hirsch Synagogue, which moved east. Traditional Orthodox Jews are required to walk rather than ride or drive on the Sabbath, which forced many early Synagogues to move closer to the center of their population. The structure was built in 1927 and was booming in 1941 with 175 members, but it disbanded as members moved away from Downtown. The building served as a nightclub, believe it or not, in the late 1960s. Once listed on Memphis Heritage’s “Ten in Limbo-Most Endangered” properties list, the structure is in a prime location for developers hoping to revitalize the Pinch. Read here about the current property owner's plan to redevelop the building. The synagogue is located at 112 Jackson Avenue.


The Sterick building in Downtown Memphis. (Houston Cofield)

From 1930 to 1957 the “Queen of Memphis” was the tallest building in Tennessee.  The building stood 29 stories of pearly white with a green tile roof. Newspapers reported the main lobby “rivaled the beauty of a Moorish castle,” with clusters of chandeliers costing more than $1,000 each, marble walls, and ornate plaster moldings. The Gothic-style superstructure housed a barbershop, stockbroker’s offices, pharmacy, bank, and beauty parlor. Eight “high-speed” elevators, each with its own operator, rushed happy patrons to the top floor to the Regency Room restaurant.

At one point the Sterick was fully occupied by a variety of well-known tenants: Chrysler, Winchester Arms, Pets Milk, and Union Pacific Railroad. Like much of downtown in the 1960s, the building began to decline as tenants moved out. Now with dirty windows and peeling brown and yellow paint,  “the most fabulous building in Memphis,” stands empty with no plans in sight. The tower is located at 8 North Third Avenue.


The former merchant marine hospital is located adjacent to the Metal Museum in the French Fort neighborhood. (Houston Cofield)

"The whole place feels like the set of American Horror Story: Asylum,” writes Bianca Phillips of the Memphis Flyer.

Situated on six acres atop the river bluff in an area known as French Fort sits the U.S. Marine Hospital, which was established in 1884 to treat former Civil War soldiers and to conduct research in hopes of finding a cure for Yellow Fever. It was also used to treat boatmen for injuries due to explosions and wrecks. Only two original buildings remain: the nurse’s quarters and a three-story Georgian style, neoclassical brick structure which housed patient rooms, a dental ward, a sound-proof chamber for hearing tests, a nurses station, and a morgue in the basement.

The former merchant marine hospital is located adjacent to the Metal Museum in the French Fort neighborhood. (Houston Cofield)

The Coast Guard, public health officials, active duty armed forces, the Army Corps of Engineers, and government employees injured in the line of duty have used the hospital. When it closed in 1965 it was serving as the U.S. Public Health Service. After decades of neglect, the property is now privately owned and ideas and proposals for revitalization and adaptive reuse projects have been tossed around for years. Architect LRK is slated to start lead renovations this summer, with all buildings on the property to be converted into apartments. For a haunting peek inside this historical landmark, check out Deserted Places. The abandoned hospital is located at 360 Metal Museum Drive.



The central police station in Downtown Memphis. (Houston Cofield)

Built in 1911, the old Central Police Building on Adams Avenue was designed in the neo-classical style by prominent Memphis architects Charles Pfeil and George Shaw, who were known for designing buildings with ornate, classical styling, (such as the Tennessee Trust building, now the Madison Hotel). This was in response to the similar style of the newly built Shelby County Courthouse across the street to the east. Along with the construction of the fire station built the previous year next door, Mayor E.H. Crump wanted to make it clear that for the first time in the city’s history a group of majestic buildings would elevate the status of the police and fire departments, (whose support Crump needed). The historic building has been vacant since the 1980s but will soon see new life as a boutique hotel with the façade of the structure retained. The Memphis City Council recently approved the sale of the property to NCE Realty and Capital LLC for $2 million, which includes the main building, along with an annex that was added in 1959. The building is located at 128 Adams Avenue.



The W.T. Rawleigh Company Warehouse is empty and blighted, but a section of it on Illinois Avenue has been renovated and turned into a U-Haul facility. (Houston Cofield)

Once the heart of a thriving mail order business, the derelict set of buildings towering above Crump Boulevard near Interstate-55 is now a crumbling mass of shattered windows and graffiti. W. T. Rawleigh started manufacturing household products in the late 1800s and relied on door-to-door salesmen to recruit customers. The company was based out of Freeport, Illinois and the Memphis location was built in 1912. They produced and sold over 100 products such as spices, ointments, salves, cleaning products, cosmetics, and medicines. Business boomed, and by 1920, the company was delivering their wares to 22 million homes.

Manufacturing halted in 1958 and the Memphis location closed its doors in 1970. Like many abandoned places in Memphis, the complex changed hands many times, but it appears the old facility may have a new lease on life. A section of one of the warehouses has been transformed into U-Haul Moving and Storage of South Bluffs. The warehouses can be found at the corner of Crump Street and Illinois Avenue.



The Brick Church at Chelsea Avenue and 7th Street. (Houston Cofield)

Third Presbyterian Church was organized in 1856. The building was completed in 1860 and was a well-known landmark to nineteenth-century Memphians. During the Civil War, the First Battle of Memphis occurred in June 1862 and federal troops occupied the church for use as a hospital and horse stables. The church was renamed Chelsea Avenue Presbyterian in 1916, and was led by former attorney and politician Reverend Fontaine deGradffenreid from Franklin, Tennessee. At the time, it was the only Presbyterian church in North Memphis and was known as the “Old Brick Church” because it was the first brick church built in the city.

According to Memphis Daily News, the property is owned by Centennial Baptist Church and is among 1,400 properties in Shelby County that are considered “tax dead.”  This means that buying the property would include city negligence fees, which in this case total nearly $250,000. The Shelby County Assessor’s Office lists it as “vacant land.” The only hope for this property is the possibility of the city and county waiving what is owed in taxes and penalties if the building is transferred to a community development corporation. In 2013, former Memphis City Council member Lee Harris said, “That property will never be developed under the current situation.” The church is located at 299 Chelsea Avenue.


100 N. Main Street is the tallest building in the city. The 37-floor building used to be home to U.P. Bank, but now sits vacant in Downtown Memphis.(Houston Cofield)

With arguably the best view of the city, 100 North Main stands deteriorated and abandoned. Just recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Industrial-style office tower is the tallest building in Memphis. It was designed by local architect Robert Lee Hall and was completed in 1965. Early in its life, a revolving rooftop restaurant was all the rage. The restaurant sat on rubber tires that rotated 360 degrees every 90 minutes. Behind the restaurant was a Japanese garden, which closed in 1971.

The women's restroom lounge on the 36th floor of the former U.P. Bank building at 100 N. Main Street. (Houston Cofield)
Inside the lobby of the 100 N. Main Street building. (Houston Cofield)The pool room on the 36th floor of the former U.P. Bank building at 100 N. Main Street. (Houston Cofield)

Due to low demand for office space downtown, 100 North Main was only 30 percent occupied in 2013 and was sold to Isaac Thomas for $5 million. Plans to renovate the building into a mixed-use development were halted due to lack of funds. In 2015, the deteriorating building was condemned by Shelby County Environmental Court due to falling chunks of concrete and inoperable fire safety equipment. The Memphis Police Department’s SWAT team has used the building on occasion for training.  On Thursday, May 10, Mayor Jim Strickland took a step in the right direction by signing a letter of intent which calls for redevelopment of the property, including the entire block to the south, into a convention-size hotel with at least 500 rooms. “If realized, this project would be two major steps forward — both with a new convention center hotel and the reimagining of a historic property,” Strickland said. For a look inside 100 North Main click here: Autopsy of Architecture. The skyscraper is located at the corner of North Main Street and Adams Avenue.



A view of the St. Thomas Catholic Church. (Houston Cofield)

Italian Romanesque in style and designed by Regan and Weller Architects, this church was built circa 1925 primarily by Italian immigrants. Nearby St. Thomas Academy for Girls was built in 1938, which later became co-ed Bishop Byrne High School in South Memphis. In the mid-1960s, the church was active in the Civil Rights Movement under the leadership of Archbishop James P. Lyke, who was later named Bishop of Atlanta diocese before his death. This stretch of Trigg Avenue was renamed James Lyke Boulevard. With name and denomination changes its history gets confusing, but basically two different congregations used the same name of St. Thomas Catholic.

A view of St. Thomas Catholic Church in South Memphis. (Houston Cofield)

A view of St. Thomas Catholic Church in South Memphis. (Houston Cofield)

A fire and years of neglect left the old church in ruin, but in 2013 a campaign was started to save artifacts including pieces of marble, brick, pews, pew labels, and most notably 100-year old German stained glass windows. Some of those have been repurposed and installed in a parish church in Mississippi. In 1924, firefighters who attended church there paid for a special window installation. It was recently removed and acquired by the Memphis Fire Museum with plans to display at the museum. A Facebook page chronicling this massive undertaking led by former church member Michael Lloyd can be viewed here: Memories of St. Thomas Catholic Church. The church is located at 560 East Trigg Avenue.

A view of St. Thomas Catholic Church in South Memphis. (Houston Cofield)

Read more articles by Julie McCullough.

Julie McCullough grew up in Millington, Tenn. She received a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and M.A. in Teaching from the University of Memphis. She currently teaches CLUE for gifted students at Shelby County Schools. McCullough is behind architecture blog This Place in History.