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Old Brewery Could Become New Model for Historic Preservation

Activists avoided the phrase "historic preservation," then partied for a month. It may just save a Memphis landmark.  

The Tennessee Brewery hasn’t made a drop of beer since the 1950s, but the fortress-like building that sits abandoned on the Memphis river bluff has brewed up a new outlook for historic preservation in the city.

Credit Christopher Blank
Hundreds of people hung out in the courtyard of the Tennessee Brewery on May 30, 2014 as part of Tennessee Brewery Untapped. Organizers estimates that more than 20,000 people visited the structure throughout the month, which had been turned into a temporary beer garden.

At least, that’s one takeaway from last month’s Tennessee Brewery Untapped project, which turned a section of the building into a temporary beer garden and food truck venue. The project’s goal was to create commercial potential. But some see this as a future model for saving endangered properties.

"The whole concept of you just save it because it's historic -- that just doesn't fly anymore," says June West of the preservation group Memphis Heritage.

Memphis Heritage has lost several high-profile battles with the wrecking ball in the last few years. The Tennessee Brewery, built in the 1870s, could be next. The owners will demolish it in August if they can’t sell it.

Buyers are intimidated by the cost of restoring the entire building, with some estimates around $20 million. That’s where the Tennessee Brewery Untapped concept came in. A group of local investors organized what is essentially a readymade business -- a beer garden serving local craft brews -- for a potential owner.

Doug Carpenter, of the marketing and public relations firm Doug Carpenter & Associates, was recently asked by a group of architects why no one had the idea before.

"The reality is these thoughts weren't around before," he said.

Carpenter, one of the investors in the Untapped project, uses the term “pre-vitalization,” that is, getting a property on the fast track to making money. A beer garden wouldn’t require a top-down renovation of the brewery.  At least, not right away.

Credit Christopher Blank
Even without renovating the entire building, the ground level of the Tennessee Brewery offered some enormous spaces which could be used immediately or adapted for later use. Here, visitors at the Tennessee Brewery Untapped project mingle and play games like cornhole and ping-pong.

  "In looking at it as just a ground floor, we're able to actually generate a good working business model that the community and the culture, tourists and citizens love and have shown week after week -- I mean, we continue to grow week after week... it works," Carpenter said.

Tommy Pacello, a program manager with the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team, said that organizers were surprised to get more than 20,000 visitors last month, at one point even running out of beer. He also said that the very thing that scares off new owners – the timeworn look of the building – is the main thing people wanted to experience.

"People don't need this over-engineered design," Pacello said. "They want authentic design elements as part of the building and that's what the Tennessee Brewery has and they are compelled to be there. It's the most seductive building in the city."

When Rhodes College professor Heather Jamerson saw how many people were taking photos of the space, she quickly put together a survey to study its popularity. More than 800 people responded. Many said that the Tennessee Brewery reflected the city’s character. As Jamerson puts it, “the Memphis grit and grind mentality of old spaces help define us as who we are as a city."

One phrase was conspicuously absent in organizers’ interviews and press releases about the project: "Historic Preservation."

Here’s Tommy Pacello: "It's not as much about saving the building as much as it is about showing how to uncover hidden value in properties."

And, again, Doug Carpenter: "I would love for the building to be saved, but I think the best way to do it is actually to show a potential use and that in turn will create a situation where saving the building may be more of a reality."

June West of Memphis Heritage says she’s catching onto the idea of pushing commercial value in front of cultural value.

“I truly believe that 'pre-vitalization' of historic buildings and historic neighborhoods is taking over from old-school historic preservation,” she said.

West says the Tennessee Brewery project has revived interest in saving other endangered Memphis landmarks. She wants to get more young people involved in projects that re-activate old buildings. Historic preservation, she says, has to be more than protests and letters to the editor.

Credit Christopher Blank
Visitors told Rhodes College professor Heather Jamerson that the grittiness of the Tennessee Brewery reflected the spirit of Memphis. Here, visitors to the "Untapped" event enjoyed ping-pong and conversation.

  “I don't think there's anything wrong with the word 'Historic Preservation,'" she said. "But I think the concept -- what it represents has got to change. And if it means pick a new word, you know, we’re kinda looking at 'guerilla preservation'... but we still got the word 'preservation.'”

So will the Tennessee Brewery be saved?  According to Doug Carpenter, several offers are already on the table, and a big announcement may be made as soon as next week.

Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher has covered Memphis news, arts, culture and politics for more than 20 years in print and on the radio. He is currently WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.