Memphis hopes pyramid will bring new life to downtown

Published Mar. 6, 1991|Updated Oct. 13, 2005

A few years ago, you couldn't have found many people here who could tell you the connection between Memphis and ancient Egypt. And maybe, even today, you still can't. But for some, the connection is as obvious as the 32-story stainless steel pyramid that is being built downtown on the mud flats of the Mississippi.

The oddest thing about the Great American Pyramid, which is to open this summer, is not its location in this conservative Deep South city. Nor is it what the pyramid will contain: a basketball arena and a collection of tourist attractions.

No, the oddest thing about the Great American Pyramid is how few in Memphis think it is odd.

Take Mayor Dick Hackett, who explains the pyramid in this matter-of-fact way: "Everybody and anybody builds (basketball) arenas, but not everybody builds a pyramid."

In truth, there are no connections between Memphis and Egypt, save one. Memphis was named, somewhat casually, after the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis.

At various times, though, Memphians have been infatuated with Egyptian themes. In 1897, for instance, Memphis entered a 100-foot-tall wooden pyramid as its contribution to the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in Nashville.

But the thought of a great pyramid, one that would be a symbol of the city, did not occur to anyone until the early 1970s. That was when a former mayor suggested the city build a pyramid as Memphis' equivalent of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. That is, as a municipal symbol.

It took a new and energetic mayor, however, to move the pyramid idea from cocktail conversation to construction.

Shortly after taking office in 1983, Dick Hackett began pushing for a new arena for Memphis State University's basketball team. Soon, the arena idea became connected with three other causes _ the desire to save downtown, a long-felt passion for professional sports and Memphis' need for a symbol.

Eventually, those causes became one: The city and county would build a pyramid, place it downtown, put a basketball arena inside, and bid for a National Basketball Association team.

There is a reason no other city has housed a basketball arena inside a pyramid: It isn't a particularly efficient use of space. After all, if you place the arena on the ground floor, it leaves a lot of empty space upstairs.

As the pyramid-arena idea took hold, this inefficiency became obvious, and several notions were advanced about what else the pyramid might accommodate. One was to top off the pyramid with office space and an Egyptian museum.

In time, a far bigger idea was born: a giant tourist attraction, built with private money, inside the city-owned pyramid.

That's what brought Sidney L. Shlenker to town. Shlenker is a former owner of the Denver Nuggets basketball team and an acknowledged genius of promotion. With Shlenker, said Mitzi Swentzell, a longtime marketing associate, "You learn to think outside the box." In other words, creatively.

When Shlenker was approached about taking over the pyramid project, he was so intrigued by the idea that he sold the Nuggets and moved his organization to Memphis.

What he came up with was, to say the least, outside the box.

The Great American Pyramid, as it is now called, will consist of eight parts: the arena; a Hard Rock Cafe; the College Football Hall of Fame (moved from Kings Island, Ohio); a food court; Dick Clark's American Music Awards Hall of Fame; a glass-enclosed inclinator, an elevator that will climb the northwestern edge of the pyramid and give a view of the Mississippi; and two "experiences."

One will be the Egyptian Experience, a high-tech tour of ancient Egypt that goes heavy on the entertainment and light on the education. The other will be the Memphis Music Experience, featuring blues and rock music and, of course, Elvis Presley.

There's more. Near the pyramid is a city-owned amusement park named Mud Island. The park is in the middle of the Mississippi, connected by monorails to downtown. Part of the Great American Pyramid deal is for Mud Island to be managed by Shlenker, made part of the pyramid attraction and probably renamed Festival Island.

How does it all fit together?

Here's how Shlenker describes it: "The sizzle of the project is the monument _ the pyramid. The monument will attract people and the island _ the daily excitement of the festival _ will bring people back."

The Great American Pyramid rests on the idea that Memphis is a major tourist destination waiting to happen. And that idea is, in turn, tied to a single attraction: Graceland.

"Graceland," Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce President David W. Cooley pointed out, "is the second most visited house in the country," behind the White House. Six hundred thousand people visit Elvis Presley's home every year.

The hope is that the Great American Pyramid will keep the Graceland crowd in town a day or two longer.

But there's considerably more at stake in the pyramid than just a few extra tourist bucks. There's civic identity and pride.

For years, there has been a sense among many here that the city is in decline economically, physically and maybe even spiritually. "There has been a feeling of inferiority compared to other cities, like Nashville, Houston, Atlanta and St. Louis," said historian Charles W. Crawford, who teaches at Memphis State.

In the 1960s, Memphis' politicians and business leaders fought desperately to keep racial segregation. It was Memphis' reputation as a tough place for black people that brought Martin Luther King Jr. here in April 1968 to rally support for a garbage workers strike.

King's assassination, on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel, "was a shock to the collective conscience" of Memphis, Crawford said.

Some of the shock was good. "It caused some people _ people in the press, people in business, people in the professions _ to say there was something wrong," Crawford said.

But it also touched off a huge wave of white flight to the eastern suburbs. Later, many businesses joined them. The result is that abandoned storefronts, offices and factories dot downtown. Another result is that many in the suburbs believe downtown Memphis is dead and the city should simply let it be buried.

There's an irony, then, in the city's hope that a pyramid will help revive its downtown. After all, the Egyptians build their pyramids to be dwelling places of the dead.

"I would be less than honest," David Cooley of the Chamber admitted, "if I said everybody was comfortable that it was all going to come about as has been promised. What some people are asking is, "What is Plan B? What will happen if all this doesn't come to pass?' I don't think that's been answered."

Mayor Hackett says it doesn't need an answer. "We don't do things anticipating they won't work," he said. "We're doing this to make it work, and it will work."