A Memphis architect since 1986, Tom Marshall has had a hand in designing many of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. His first design — the (unique for its time) Dryve Cleaners on Poplar — was a collaboration with his father, Oscar Thomas “O.T.” Marshall III, who founded O.T. Marshall Architects in 1957. He’s since worked on a number of high-profile projects, from St. Francis Hospital-Bartlett to Tiger Lane. More recently, he designed much of the Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid, including the hotel, the rooftop observation deck, and the 28-story elevator that leads to the top.
Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid must have been one of the most challenging designs you’ve worked on. Could you tell us about the process?
It was exceptional because we went in many different directions. It took six years to design and build, but thank goodness we didn’t build the first thing we drew because it was a much smaller idea. It was fortuitous that we were able to design bigger and better ideas and that there was an owner, John Morris, who had the vision to see the real potential of the Pyramid.
The Pyramid has the tallest freestanding elevator in America, and it leads up to a sky-high observation level overlooking the Mississippi River. What were the logistics of designing that?
We first started with the idea of an inclinator, which was to take a glass elevator and slide it up the northwest corner of the building. We found a company in Italy that could do it, but they wouldn’t service it, so we abandoned that.
The biggest challenge was to create a freestanding look. We had an inventive owner who decided he wanted a 10,000-gallon aquarium at the top, so the elevator structure had to do three things: get people up and down, create structural stability, and hold up a heavy aquarium — it’s 83,000 pounds.
Some people are spooked by the glass-floored overlook. Have you gone to the top with family and friends?
We created glass balconies that are cantilevered out over the south and west facades to give people a bit of a thrill. Some people still won’t step out on that glass. Even my mother hesitated. But once you get up there, you see a view of the city you wouldn’t otherwise get to see.
How do you feel about the finished product?
It’s pretty fulfilling. In fact, it might be — no pun intended — the pinnacle of my design career.
I assume growing up with an architect dad influenced you?
Of course. I remember the days when he had me on his lap showing me how one-point, two-point, and three-point perspectives worked. And at the end of his work day, he’d unfurl the drawings he’d done. At that time, everything was done by hand. He was a tremendous hand artist, and I learned to draw sitting on his knee. He was one of the first true modernist architects in Memphis and aspired to express avant-garde architecture. So, I got to witness architecture through my formative years seeing his work in action.
Speaking of avant-garde architecture, your father designed a glass house in Raleigh that was recognized by AIA Memphis in A Survey of Modern Houses in Memphis, Tennessee from 1940–1980. You lived in that house?
Yes, I lived there until I was 16. I guess I was 11 or 12 before I realized other kids didn’t live in a glass house. It was second nature to me.
Did you always want to be an architect?
I went off to college thinking that I was going to be something other than an architect. I loved to draw, but I thought that I was going to be an attorney. After taking a course in architecture, I knew that this was my calling.
What’s next for you?
We are designing the Raleigh Springs redevelopment project — razing the Raleigh Springs Mall and adding a 12-acre lake, a library, a police precinct, a skate park, and hopefully a large retail component.
When you aren’t working, what do you like to do for fun?
I like to play squash with my 12-year-old son who is almost able to beat me now. And we like to fish and hunt. So, the Bass Pro project fit in quite nicely. I was one of their biggest customers. Still am.