Against All Odds, Memphis Store Reopens
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | Mar. 30, 2009
Memphis has reason to celebrate this month. On Mar. 18, about 500 people gathered for the grand opening of the newly renovated Lowenstein Building, a former department store that sat vacant downtown for almost three decades.
"It's the building that nobody said could be saved, and it's got new life again," says June West, executive director of Memphis Heritage, which owned the easement that protected the building's facade and has contributed $35,000 over the years to save the Lowenstein. "It's one of those projects that you wait for all your life. Now I get to say to people, 'Don't give up.'"
With terra cotta angels and a cast-iron facade, the store, built in 1886, had been empty since 1980 and was threatened with demolition in 1996. Three developers—John Basek, C. Yorke Lawson, and William Chandler, then president of Memphis Heritage—united in 2000 and eventually saved the National Register-listed building with a $20 million renovation. Now home to 28 apartments and retail space, the Lowenstein is part of a three-building project called Court Square Center.
Although the project officially started in August 2006, it hit a major snag on Oct. 6, 2006, when a fire broke out in a downtown church. Embers spread to the Lowenstein, the 1924 Lincoln American Tower, and the 1897 Court Annex building, under renovation four blocks away. The Court Annex was destroyed and the Lowenstein was charred, but renovations continued.
"For Willie [Chandler] and John [Basek] and I, it's always been a case of failure not being an option," says C. Yorke Lawson, partner of CGI and Partners Court Square Center LLC. "We didn't know if they were going to tear Lowenstein down because about 20 percent of it was gone."
Despite damage from the fire, the 22-story Lincoln American Tower reopened last year, just six months behind schedule, with 31 apartments and retail space. Work on the final stage of the $50 million Court House Square project will conclude in August when the glass-and-steel replacement annex is scheduled to open. It has already had an impact on downtown Memphis.
"[Court Square Center] has been a huge catalyst in the neighborhood," says Charles Pickard, project architect and principal of Memphis-based CM Design. "Most of the buildings on Court Square have been renovated since we began this project. Everybody's just so thrilled that it's finally done. It's such a huge accomplishment to have it restored."
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