Let me explain. I first used this phrase in an article here nearly 19 years ago, speaking about a particular place that had been “frozen in time” for decades.
No, it’s not the Tops BBQ joint on Summer Avenue (sorry; that’s a shameless plug for our “Five-Dollar Favorites” feature on p. 42). Nor is it the magnificent Church of the River, designed by Roy Harrover and built along the banks of the Mississippi in 1965.
The timeless “place” I’m talking about is a jewel even more precious than Harrover’s Church of the River. This place is, well, more than just a place. I’m referring to the downtown Memphis skyline, a skyline now frozen in time for over half a century, and one that’s unique in all America.
The best perspective of the Memphis skyline, of course, is gained by hopping across the Mississippi on one bridge, turning around and coming back on the other, although you can now do just about as well by taking the elevator up to the observation deck of the Bass Pro Pyramid. Either way, our city presents itself in stunning fashion when viewed from afar.
We all know why our skyscape has looked much the same for decades. It’s because the skyscraper boom in Memphis began in the 1920s and ended in the 1960s, largely because downtown Memphis was pushed to the verge of economic extinction in the aftermath of the King assassination. As a result, time indeed passed us by. Go online and Google images for the downtown skylines of Tulsa, Birmingham, and Nashville. Then print them out and show them to your friends without labels, and dare them to tell you which one is which. They won’t be able to do so, since all three pretty much look the same.
None of these skylines will ever be confused with Memphis’. Despite the extraordinary downtown redevelopment here over the past three decades, our main emphasis has consistently been upon rehabilitating existing structures. Even the handful of new buildings constructed downtown in recent decades — the Morgan Keegan Tower, the Pyramid, AutoZone headquarters, etc. — have been built to scale, adding nuance to the existing Memphis skyline, rather than creating the kind of vertical glass menageries that define most everyone else’s downtown.
By now you’ve probably figured out where I’m headed here, so let me cut to the chase by plagiarizing from myself, in that 1997 article:
“All urban America looks pretty much the same. Memphis, on the other hand, looks different. More by luck than design, we’ve ended up with a downtown that still has a distinctive sense of place. The skyline is both scaled-down and approachable. Boss Crump could still find his way around, even with many new structures in place. If we play our cards right, downtown Memphis may well become, architecturally, a very historic place.”
Last fall, first approvals were given by city and county authorities for the construction of the One Beale tower complex at the foot of Beale Street at Riverside Drive. It’s an ambitious project, envisioning a 30-story residential tower, a four-star hotel, and a host of amenities. The developers are lifelong Memphians, committed to the city. Their intentions are not the issue. But our concern as a community should be this: Does Memphis really need to go down the same development track that virtually every other major American city already has traveled? Is this actually progress? Or should we replace the modern American helter-skelter approach towards vertical downtown development with something more cohesive, striving to preserve and create something completely different, architecturally, in downtown Memphis?
Really, it’s up to us. As of now, we still have a golden opportunity to continue doing things differently in terms of American urban architecture. Maybe, just maybe, we should look before we leap.