Looking out across the Memphis skyline, it’s hard to miss the tallest building in the city: 100 North Main. The history of this iconic skyscraper spans over half a century and often mirrors the changes and struggles faced by downtown Memphis, Tennessee.
100 North Main was built in 1965 by developer Harry Bloomfield, who wanted to create a modern office tower that would reflect Memphis’ economic growth and progress. He hired architect Robert Lee Hall, who had designed other notable buildings in Memphis, such as the Mid-South Coliseum and the Clark Tower. The building had 37 floors of office space and a 38th floor that housed a revolving restaurant called The Top of the 100, which offered panoramic views of the city and the Mississippi River. The building also featured a Japanese rock garden on the roof of the 37th floor, adding a touch of elegance and tranquility.
100 N Main was a symbol of Memphis’ prosperity and innovation in the 1960s and 1970s. It attracted many tenants from various fields, such as attorneys, title companies, accountants, engineers, and government agencies. It also hosted many events and functions at its restaurant and banquet hall, such as weddings, parties, meetings, and concerts. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015.
As downtown Memphis experienced economic decline and urban decay in the 1980s and 1990s, many tenants left the building for newer and cheaper locations in the suburbs or other cities. The building’s revolving restaurant closed in 2001 due to lack of customers and revenue. The building’s occupancy rate dropped to as low as 30% in 2012, making it difficult for the owners to pay for its expenses and debts.
In 2013, the building was sold for $5 million to a new owner who planned to convert it into apartments and a hotel. However, those plans never materialized, and the building remained vacant and deteriorating. In 2015, the building was condemned by the city for safety violations, such as falling concrete chunks, broken elevators, and faulty fire systems.
Today, 100 North Main is still standing empty and fenced off, awaiting a new future. Several developers have expressed interest in renovating the building. Billy Orgel and his partners, who recently saved and revitalized the Tennessee Brewery (and other historic buildings around town), have put in proposals to the Downtown Memphis Commission in hopes of getting a green light from the city to begin a similar revitalization of 100 N. Main. If the project moves forward, it would be a massive development including apartments, a hotel, office space, as well as retail and restaurants. The 100 N. Main Development Partners are Kevin Woods, Billy Orgel, Jay Lindy, Adam Slovis, and Michael McLaughlin.
My time shooting/exploring 100 N. Main:
I was able to get special permission to enter and photograph 100 N. Main in April of 2022. I spent two full days shooting there, but even so, I was not able to explore every nook and cranny. The ground floor was extremely dark as most of the entrances and windows were completely boarded up. I spent a long time doing long exposures of the elevator banks, escalators, and hallways.
There was no electricity and obviously the elevators were not running. Accessing the 37 floors above me consisted of a long, slow trudge up the unlit interior stairwell. After two years of working on my Covid-body and carrying all my camera gear on my back, I was in rough shape when I reached the top. I emerged from the stagnant gloom of the stairwell into a rush of cold spring air and was welcomed by what might very well be the best view in downtown Memphis.
The former restaurant, The Top of 100, sported a circular 360-degree view with floor-to-ceiling windows which now laid broken and shattered on the floor. The restaurant, which could seat 125 people, could be rotated a full 360-degrees every 90 minutes, giving diners an ever-changing view during their meal. Today, however, a cold breeze swept through the shattered windowpanes and swirled around the remaining debris and broken glass on the floor.
Standing still, and taking in the amazing view, I could clearly hear the sounds of downtown Memphis, echoing off neighboring buildings creating an auditory illusion that made them sound extremely close to me. The sounds of people talking as if they were just across the street from me, the trolley dinging and clanging down the street, and the thrumming of a helicopter circling the city around me at eye level. It was a very strange feeling standing up there alone, listening to the everyday sounds of the city below, knowing that (except for that helicopter) I was higher than everyone else in the city. It was exhilarating and peaceful at the same time.
I took my time shooting photos and video at the top, knowing how hard I had worked to get up there, but also knowing that the rest of the two days ahead of me would be spent exploring the dark, claustrophobic, mold-filled hallways of the slumbering behemoth below me. When I had my fill of the epic view, I took one last deep breath of fresh air, slipped on a mask, and delved back into the vast unknown of the building below.
I hadn’t descended far when I came upon the remains of the Tennessee Club. This was once a health club, with massage rooms, and saunas. It also had a large dance floor and event space, with a cocktail lounge and billiard room. A smattering of chairs and a billiards table were about all that was left of the club.
I poked my head into a dark corner and found the top control room for the elevator motors and systems.
I slowly worked my way back down the stairs, stopping on most floors to venture out and see if there was anything of interest. Most floors were desolate empty shells of former office spaces, devoid of anything of interest. Some floors had been used by the Memphis Police Department and SWAT for training exercises as evidenced by the sometimes creepy (but mostly hilarious) posters hung in dark rooms and around corners, depicting stereotypical criminals and kidnappers with hairdos and fashion from the 1980s, and others depicting innocents and civilians. Presumably these were used for tactics training and room/floor clearing methods. Even after seeing these a few times, it was still jarring to walk around a corner and come face to face with an eye-level life-size cutout of a person holding a gun out at you!
The 34th floor had the remains of a former law firm.
One room still had hundreds of books and conference tables. It was abundantly clear that this room had a decent sized fire at one point. Much of the drop ceiling had been burnt out, windows were busted out, and the flooring had scorch marks all over it. After I returned home I found an article that said back in 2017, firefighters had to climb 34 stories to put out the blaze which was intentionally set. The fire department responded and had made it up there and extinguished the fire within about 40 minutes, which is impressive to say the least!
I continued to descend and explore the lower floors and found a former dentist’s office with some chairs and equipment left behind.
The first and second floors had been open to the public during operation. Two escalators flanked the marble lined lobby at the former Main St. entrance.
On the ground floor was the old Tennessee Bank, and the vestiges of a sandwich or fast-food shop. At the end of the ground floor was a bank of inoperative elevators. The marble walls, signage, and central kiosk left the impression that this was a nice place in its heyday. Maybe not fancy, but definitely a step-up from ordinary.
Up the escalators were a former hair salon, another law firm with conference rooms and books, a former cafeteria and deli, more office spaces, and several locked up exits that emptied out into the building’s multi-story ample parking garage.
All in all, I spent two full days shooting and exploring at 100. North Main. There was surely much more to discover in this monstrosity, but after 15 hours hauling my gear up and down almost 40 stories in the dark, two days was more than enough for me!
This is so cool! Thank you especially for giving us the view from the top, although none of it failed to fascinate. Hard to conceive … I’m sure “bargain” does not do justice to $5m purchase price, but truly can’t conceive what it would take to fix it up. Hope someone w vision and plenty of money will save it.
This is impressive work, and obviously your passion. It’s important to catalogue these buildings for future reference- thank you.
I thought it was the Union Planters Bank building at one point…
yep! You are correct. Used to have the big UP BANK sign at the top. I’ll try to get a historic pic of the sign and add that to the blog since I did not mention it. Thanks! 🙂
A very interesting peek inside and enjoyable commentary- thank you for sharing!
My pleasure! Thanks for taking the time to check it out 🙂
I really enjoyed the “tour”. I’m always surprised at the items left behind. Thanks for another interesting blog post.
Thanks so much! Glad you enjoyed it 🙂
Great write-up. Gorgeous photos. You are an amazing photog + and urban anthropologist.
Thanks for the kind words Jen!! Glad you enjoyed 🙂