photos by Brandon Dill
B ack in the early 1970s, young folks were flocking to the most happening place in town — a vibrant entertainment district at Madison and Cooper where alcohol flowed and the good times rolled. Overton Square was launched by five young entrepreneurs — James Robinson Jr., Benjamin Woodson, Frank Doggrell III, Charles Hull, and George Saig — who seized the moment in 1969, when Memphis passed “liquor by the drink,” as the right to serve alcoholic beverages in public places was then called.
I n those heady days, T.G.I. Friday’s was the heart of the district; revelers often stood three deep at the bar, ramping up their rowdiness for the weekly wet T-shirt contest. Other eateries and clubs — Silky Sullivan’s, Bombay Bicycle Club, Lafayette’s Music Room — also packed in the crowds, while retailers sold candles and body oils, antiques and art, trendy gifts and funky furniture. But the real attraction was the atmosphere itself, fueled by liquor, live music, and the hormonal exuberance of 20-somethings ready to party.
A teenager then, Bob Loeb says today, “Frankly I was intimidated by Overton Square. That was the big boys’ playground. I didn’t feel I belonged there.” Then the 59-year-old with his chiseled good looks declares with an easy laugh, “But I have quite a number of friends who report they went there regularly!”
As years passed, Loeb joined the throngs who filled the streets at night, and, like many Memphians of at least two generations, he has fond memories of such places as Le Chardonnay, Palm Court, Bayou Bar & Grill, and other establishments. Several closed long ago while others, despite the whims of taste and time, have endured four decades. “Some memories I can share,” smiles Loeb, “some I can’t. But like so many folks, I have a sentimental attachment to the Square. People of such a wide age range want to see it successful.”
Clearly they are seeing that now. Though Overton Square’s popularity faded in the 1980s and by the twenty-first century showed dimming signs of life, the now-bustling district boasts growing occupancy of properties along Madison and its environs. Patrons, some who were at the Square in its heyday and others who weren’t born then, relish the revival of a Memphis institution.
For that revival, they can thank in large part Loeb Properties, which in 2012 purchased 10 acres in the Square with the goal of bringing people back to a once-thriving destination. As president of the firm, Bob Loeb describes the $7 million purchase from a Colorado-based development firm as a “heads we win, tails we don’t lose” decision. “Lou and I saw it that way from the beginning,” says Bob, referring to his brother and the firm’s executive vice president for assets, Louis Loeb. “Potentially we had something that would be profitable and really enhance the city — and we’re unabashed about seeking to make a profit. But we knew there was goodwill associated with the Overton Square brand; we underestimated how much.
“People see it like Lazarus raised from the dead,” he continues. “If we listen to those who love it and give them what they want, it should be good for all of us.”
“The biggest family on the block.”
A s a fourth-generation Memphian with deep roots in the community, it seems fitting that Robert E. “Bob” Loeb should bring his family name and business acumen to a beloved local landmark. In 1887, his great-grandfather founded a shirt-maker and haberdashery business that later included Bob’s grandfather, father, and uncle. His father, William “Bill” Loeb, later made his mark on the city with a chain of laundries, barbecue restaurants, and convenience stores. “When my uncle went into politics,” says Bob — referring to Henry Loeb, who was mayor of Memphis during the stormy years of desegregation and Martin Luther King’s death — “my father bought his interest. He and my uncle were never close and I barely knew my cousins.” But he certainly knew his siblings, all eight of them. Bill and his first wife, Mimi Shea Loeb, were the parents of nine children, all born between 1952 and 1965. With two older brothers and six younger sisters, Bob recalls growing up in a three-bedroom, two-bath house in Chickasaw Gardens across from the Pink Palace. The first eight kids shared two bedrooms and a connecting bath. “We were by far the biggest family on our block,” says Bob. “Mom definitely had a full-time job. And Dad was trying to keep us all fed.” Memphians of a certain age will recall the Loeb children smiling from newspaper ads a half century ago. “Dad believed the mother was the decision maker of where to take the laundry and where to buy fast food like barbecue,” says Loeb, “and the way to get mom’s attention was with pictures of kids.” Every Thursday afternoon, Bob remembers coming home from school (he attended St. Dominic’s, Presbyterian Day School, and Memphis University School) to find photographers from API waiting with cameras ready. “They’d take individual shots, then put us all together in a cut-and-paste operation.” The half-page ad ran on page two on Mondays and Thursdays in The Commercial Appeal and the old Press-Scimitar. “I can’t imagine what that cost then, or would cost now,” says Bob. “But Dad was a firm believer that you put 5 percent of revenue into advertising, and he never wavered.” This photo ritual continued till Bob was a young teenager. “It’s just what we did,” he says, adding with a laugh, “and a crying shame we didn’t get paid for it.”
“I learned a lot from my dad, good and bad.”
S truck by polio at age 13, Bill Loeb spent most of his days in a wheelchair. “He did not like being handicapped or different,” says Bob. “There were so many things he couldn’t do, from athletics to social events, which were awkward.” Explaining that he felt “very close” to both parents — “Mom was the nurturer, Dad was the provider and disciplinarian” — Bob adds that his father could be “pretty volatile and at times a little bit frightening. I learned a lot from him, both good and bad.”
One good trait he learned was consistency. “Dad swam every morning, rain, shine, sleet, or snow,” says Bob. “He had a trapdoor in the master bathroom that led to the pool. He would swim for an hour, and my brothers and I had to swim 20 laps every morning; that was a rite of passage, from the time I was 5 or 6 till high-school days. By then we were big and getting in his way. But Dad was consistent with exercise, diet, and work ethic. I learned from that.”
He also learned about growing a business: “Dad had 50 laundry branches with pickup and delivery in the city, with coin laundries next to many of them. He had 50 barbecue branches in Memphis and 50 more in a seven-state region. He was a Yale undergraduate and a Harvard business grad, and incredibly hardworking.”
Bob smiles recalling his own college days. After graduation from MUS, he headed to Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He chose history as a major by “shopping in the course catalog every semester and signing up for what sounded like interesting courses. I sort of wasted those undergraduate years.”
“Bob would rather do anything than watch football.”
A fter earning his bachelor’s degree, he came back to Memphis in the early 1980s and — perhaps as a forerunner to the Overton Square experience — he and a good friend opened a “saloon” called London Transport; soon his brother Lou joined them. “It was located at the corner of Park Avenue and Loeb Street, near Getwell and the University of Memphis,” Bob says. “It was open about six months till we sold it and made a nice profit for young, enterprising guys. Then we opened another one, with the same name, at 3595 Southern. When we sold that one after about four years, I started going to Overton Square for my entertainment.” While running that bar by night, Bob had day jobs in real estate with several local firms. Then he realized he’d benefit from formal business-school training and went back to SMU to earn his MBA in 1985. Over the next few years after his return to Memphis, he and his brother managed the firms owned by their father, who retired in 1989 and died in 1992. “A lot of our time was spent managing operations that weren’t performing very well,” says Bob. “So we sold those off to tenants and found ourselves in real estate management, then in investment and development.” Gradually the Loeb brothers set up what Bob calls “an acquisition and rehab shop.” Today, Loeb Properties and its affiliates are involved in the investment, development, and management of more than 100 properties ranging from retail and office to industrial and multifamily sites.
Louis Loeb, who is less than two years older than Bob, describes differences between them that strengthen their bond both as brothers and colleagues. “As kids we went to the same schools, camps, and even wore the same clothes, so we were for all practical purposes the same product of nature and nurture,” says Lou. By high school and college, differences emerged. “Bob went to private school, I went to public. He studied business [as a graduate] and I studied philosophy. He joined a fraternity and I joined a beer drinking team, which maybe is really the same thing. I like to watch a football game and he’d rather do anything besides watch football.” In response to this good-natured assessment, Bob — who was on the football, basketball, and track teams at MUS — says, “I like to be active, not sedentary.”
Perhaps the main difference that fortifies their success, says Lou, is that “Bob is left-brain dominant and I’m right-brain. We complement each other in a way that maximizes our strengths.”
“A high price tag”
A s far back as the 1990s, the Loeb brothers wanted to buy Overton Square. By then, the area that had already lost patrons to suburban sprawl was facing growing competition from downtown redevelopment and Tunica casinos. “Downtown was subsidized by government incentives and Tunica was subsidized by gambling,” says Bob. “The Square had neither of those and meanwhile it was being undermanaged. In the 1990s it went through a foreclosure and we were second-place bidders. The Fisher family out of Colorado bought it; they had been successful with infill developments. Their approach was to replace local tenants with nationals. They never did pull the trigger on that. They couldn’t get the nationals they needed to anchor the new development. I think they were well-intentioned but their strategy was not in tune with the local market. Eventually they got frustrated and wanted to sell it.”
In 2009 the Fisher firm contracted with an Oklahoma company that planned to demolish the historic buildings at Madison and Cooper, which had once been home to Friday’s and Lafayette’s Music Room, and build a national-chain grocery store. Needless to say, the community objected and during that period the Loebs were pulled into the fray. “The Fisher representative called me and said, ‘You’ve been recommended as somebody we should seek to sell this property to,’” recalls Bob. “They had a high price tag on it and we had to work awhile to rationalize buying it. We were able to get it under contract and they gave us a year to figure out our game plan.”
The first decision they had to make was whether the development would be public or private. “If private, we could have just moved ahead, but that would mean that Playhouse on the Square and other places on Union would have lost their parking,” says Bob. “And what good would it do to bring back Madison Avenue businesses if we damaged those on Union?” So during that year, the Loebs sought and won an agreement from the city to build an underground parking garage bordered by Cooper, Trimble, Monroe, and Florence. “We agreed to underwrite any operating deficits of the parking garage, and we’ve had some six-digit deficits since it opened,” says Bob. “But we think as more tenants open, more people will park there instead of on the street. We hope to break even next year.”
“He understands how the profit and nonprofit communities can work together.”
T he Loebs took heat from some disgruntled citizens angry about public dollars going to a primarily private development. But more than half of that $16 million from the city funded a water-retention basin in the basement of the parking garage that has since eased flooding in neighborhoods north of Overton Park. Jackie Nichols — founder of Playhouse on the Square and Circuit Playhouse — decries “misinformation” about the parking garage. “The retention pond was built with sewer funds that are paid on our [utility] bills,” says Nichols, “and construction costs will pay for themselves in a relatively short time from increased taxes on businesses. The redevelopment could not take place without the garage, and it is full most of the time in spite of all the naysayers.”
As the Loebs began to envision a rejuvenated Overton Square, they shifted focus from nightlife to a family-friendly destination for theater, arts, and live music — and it’s a change that Nichols praises. “All over town I hear people talking about going to the Square again,” he says. “It is not the old Square and that is a good thing. I was around back then, and our memories play tricks on us. Sometimes it wasn’t all good. Bob wants to create an environment where anyone can feel safe and comfortable coming to the Square with guests for theatre, dance, music, film, food, or shopping. Nowhere else in the city can you [find] all that in one place.”
Nichols, who in recent years invested $13.5 million into building the new Playhouse on the Square at Union and Cooper, recalls when Bob approached him about their plans for the area. “I felt very positive and hopeful. We had done all we could with raising money for our new theatre, and it took someone with the vision and resources to make the rest of it happen.” Bob also worked with Ekundayo Bandele, founder of Hattiloo Theatre, in relocating his venue from Marshall Street to Overton Square. Representing about a $3 million investment, Hattiloo Theatre — which is one of only six African-American theatres in the nation — opened in June 2014 at 37 South Cooper.
“Bob is modest,” says Nichols, “and says he does not know much about the arts, but I’m not sure that is true. He’s a good businessman and understands how the profit and nonprofit communities can work together and benefit each other. He looked at how, historically, arts activities can help change a neighborhood and how a businessman can benefit from it.”
To Bob Loeb, it made sense to emphasize the arts in Overton Square: “We want to celebrate all things positive about Memphis. We already have four performing arts centers here [Playhouse on the Square, Circuit Playhouse, TheatreWorks, and Hattiloo], along with the five-screen Malco Theatre. We have a repertory group that has shown interest in moving here. We have public art installations and beautiful 100-year-old architecture in some buildings. I think all the pieces complement the others.”
“Rekindling the vibrant spirit of the original Square.”
W hether they stroll through Overton Square’s streets, dine at its various eateries, catch local and national music acts, or sit in a darkened theatre, visitors can’t truly grasp the work it required to bring the district to this polished state. For Lou Loeb, one trait made it happen: his brother’s perseverance. “I’d say that’s his greatest contribution,” says Lou. “He worked on this acquisition on and off for almost 15 years and [went to] countless public and private meetings to convince the community that we not only had the best intentions but that with their blessing, cooperation, and patience, we could deliver something they would be very pleased with.
“It has taken longer than I had imagined to get the Square to this point,” continues Lou. “The physical reconstruction was more complicated than building from scratch. And even more time was spent finding the right tenants, blending them with the buildings, and sprinkling an image on top that would rekindle the vibrant spirit of the original Square.” Through that demanding process, Bob never blinked, and Lou says today, “His commitment will continue as long as there are football games to avoid watching.”
Naturally, some vacancies wait to be filled, and the Loebs hope to build on such sites as the former Silky Sullivan’s and Pappy’s Lobster Shack, both on Madison, and the old Public Eye on Cooper. “We know of a group that wants to locate there,” says Bob. “Our investment continues to ratchet up as we get better than expected response from the community.”
He’s pleased with new additions — Local Gastropub (which was the first to sign a lease with the Loebs), Bar Louie, Babalu, Robata Grill, and Schweinehaus, to name just a few — and grateful for those who have stayed on the Square — Bayou Bar & Grill, Le Chardonnay, Boscos, Memphis Pizza Café, and others. Perhaps he’s most excited about Lafayette’s Music Room, which recently reopened in its original location where in the 1970s it drew such up-and-comers as Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, and Linda Ronstadt. “My high school friend Tommy Peters opened that,” says Bob, “and it’s been the latest, greatest addition because live music is such an important element in Memphis.”
Bob has also been in close contact with the new owners of the former French Quarter Inn at 2144 Madison, which was purchased in late 2013 by NCE Capital Group. “They have a vision to build the nicest boutique hotel in Memphis,” he says, “and it is expected that plans will be made available to the public by the second quarter of 2015.”
“Participating in a renaissance.”
A lthough the Overton Square project wakes him up in the night, Bob doesn’t consider it “the center of the universe” but rather part of Midtown’s larger fabric. “Overton Park is the center, and we want to collaborate with all the parts around it,” he explains. To the north is the Rhodes College area, Crosstown, and Broad Avenue, in which his firm has already invested in improvements. “Broad has full occupancy on the south side now,” he says, “and we own warehouses on the north side and will have some adaptive reuse of that.” To the south is the well-established Cooper-Young neighborhood, as well as the Fairgrounds area, which the city is redeveloping.
“Done properly,” says Bob, “each of these areas will grow and merge together. We try to put the story of Overton Square in context, part of the bigger picture in Midtown. From downtown to the University of Memphis area, we see so many cultural assets and commercial and residential communities. We’re excited about participating in their renaissance.”
“I was anxious to see it play out.”
To unwind from the stress of business, Bob walks in Overton Park and at Shelby Farms, and swims at the U of M’s pool. “I’m a bit of a biker too,” he says, “and I pretend to golf.” Inspired by his sister, Meg, a yogi in San Antonio, he also practices Kundalini yoga at Delta Groove Yoga in Overton Square. Through the years he has chaired or served on the boards of many organizations and schools and is still involved with arts and civic groups. But after his marriage of 23 years ended recently, he describes himself “in divorce-recovery mode and trying to move more slowly.” He’s also the father of three children — Win, 23, Hensley, 22, and Jackson, 20.
A longtime resident of River Oaks in East Memphis, Bob has decided to pick up those stakes. He credits his younger son for that decision. “Statistics show that three-fourths of the millennial generation want to live in the urban core, and in Memphis that’s around the parkways,” he says. “Jackson told me that when he comes back to Memphis after his college years, he’s not going to live in the suburbs like me. I said to myself, ‘That does it, I’m moving to Midtown.’ In fact I’m working on plans now and will start construction next spring.”
As the Square continues to grow and thrive, Bob hopes to “relax and appreciate” a place that many people hold dear. “It was a reasonably conservative investment,” he says. “But it has taken more than 50 percent of our executive time for the last three years and it only represents 5 percent of our square feet of inventory. So up until recently, it’s been really hard for me to go there to recreate. I saw so much that needed to be done and was anxious to see it play out. Now that it’s materialized, I’m beginning to actually spend time there for fun. That’s a good thing. I hope to do lots more of that.”
Marilyn Sadler is a senior editor of Memphis magazine.