Pyramids From The Past

Dear Vance: With all of this talk about the future of The Pyramid, I have a question about its past. Wasn't that building originally going to be made of gold?

-- D.D., Memphis.

Dear D.D.: A gold building in Memphis? Surely, you must be thinking of the initial designs for the Lauderdale Mansion, when -- with more cash in our coffers than the entire nation of Tanganyika -- we announced plans to sheathe the exterior of the servant's dormitory in gold plate. But then, knowing the questionable character of those employees, and fearing they would just peel off the gold and sell it, we decided otherwise, and went with vinyl siding.

But wait a minute. Perhaps you are thinking of the early renderings of The Pyramid -- in those days called The Great Memphis Pyramid -- which clearly showed the building with a golden sheen to it. A sheen that was going to be created by covering the entire building in reflective gold-colored glass. Oh, what a tempting target for any neighborhood rascal with a rock and a slingshot!

The origins of The Pyramid are as murky as the muddy waters of the Mississippi. (Did you like that nice phrase? I shall try to use it again, from time to time.) I suppose other people, over the years, came up with ideas to build a pyramid in Memphis. After all, we built one at the Centennial Exposition in Nashville way back in 1897. But let me give some credit to an energetic young fellow named Brent Hartz, who, as I dimly recall, came up with a stunning rendering, and went all over town -- to the Chamber of Commerce, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and other civic groups -- trying to get people interested in the project. He approached the Lauderdales, of course, and we agreed we would back him to the tune of $75, tops.

Anyway, I won't bore you with all the details, because quite frankly I can't remember them, but I believe Hartz and some associates found their way to John and Pat Tigrett, who liked the idea, gathered a group of investors around them, and got the ball rolling. Somewhere along the way, the gold-glass building design got changed to one of stainless steel.

Another, even more significant, change from the original proposal was the location. The first plans depicted a giant pyramid perched rather prominently on the South Bluffs. In fact, the rendering makes the Pyramid look like the biggest building in Memphis. But this would have meant the demolition of quite a few historically significant structures in that area, including the Tennessee Brewery, the old Orgill Brothers warehouse, and -- more importantly -- the quaint building that houses the offices of this magazine. So they -- and I don't know, exactly, who "they" are -- decided to plop the building down in a hole below the I-40 entrance ramps.

Just about every aspect of the original design was going to be much more impressive than what we ultimately constructed. I found a brief proposal, apparently prepared by the local architectural firm of Hall and Waller Associates, which explained, "The exterior skin of the building would be gold-mirrored glass. The mullions of the glazing units would contain fluorescent lights to make the whole building glow at night." Oh, and the building would also house a "Discovery Museum" which would feature "great scientific discoveries throughout the history of man," along with "people movers similar to those used at Walt Disney World." Those movers would take hundreds of visitors to a Music Hall of Fame, theater, restaurant "offering a panoramic view of the city," observation tower at the peak, and even underground parking. The total cost of all this was projected at $20 million.

In the end, The Pyramid cost us $65 million, and somehow the builders forgot to include just about everything that was mentioned in the original design. Which is probably just as well, since now we can't decide what to do with the thing anyway.

All I know is, the Lauderdales want a refund of our $75.

Initial Enigma #1

Dear Vance: I read somewhere that when the campus of Rhodes College was being laid out, they planted trees in the shape of an "S" -- to represent the school's former name of Southwestern. Is that true?

-- T.G., Memphis.

Dear T.G.: This was a rather intriguing rumor, so I did what I normally do with my most provocative questions -- I retired to my La-Z-Boy and lay down with a cool towel on my forehead, while I spent a few hours napping, uh, I mean pondering how to proceed. Upon awakening, my first thought was to peruse the various histories of Southwestern, aka Rhodes College, where I found no mention of this interesting landmark. In the Lauderdale Library, I had one of my "Eureka!" moments, when I stumbled upon a handsome booklet printed in the 1950s titled Southwestern's Arboretum, which gave a detailed description of every single tree planted at Rhodes. Back then, the campus was shaded by more than 1,500 trees, representing some 62 different species, including 15 varieties of oaks. Little metal tags were even affixed to every one, "so the interested passer-by can easily identify the species." What really caught my eye, however, was a campus map, showing the location of each of these plantings. But no matter which way I turned the map, none of the trees seemed to form the "S" you described, T.G.

With the Lauderdale helicopter out of commission (something about forgetting to pay the insurance premiums on it back in 1967), my only recourse, I decided, was to visit the campus myself. Unfortunately, I had a brusque encounter with the school's cautious security guards, who confiscated my sword-cane and set of dueling pistols before they would let me through the gate. They continued to watch me rather intensely as I wandered around the place, trying to find trees -- or even stumps, by now -- that formed the mysterious "S." No luck.

Just when I was about to tell you that this story was a myth, however, I stumbled quite by accident upon a 1962 Commercial Appeal article that was discussing future buildings planned for the college. The story included an overhead view of the campus, and there -- plain as day -- was the giant "S" formed from a group of trees planted immediately south of the old Burrow Library. So the story is true, T.G. Unfortunately, the trees are now gone, chopped down to make way for Buckman Hall, which opened in 1991.

Too bad. I think they should plant some more, though this time in the shape of a giant "R," of course.

Initial Enigma #2

Dear Vance: We found this old picture tucked away in a book found at a local estate sale. What does "DCL" mean?

-- J.N., Memphis.

Dear J.N.: You can't read the embroidered letters attached to these girls' sweaters as "DCL." Yes, that's how it would be if they were monograms, with the letter of the last name larger than the first and middle names. But this is college stuff, and it's DLC, I tell you, and that stands for David Lipscomb College, a private school in Nashville. So even though you found the book in Memphis, the photo came from somewhere else. It depicts some kind of pep squad, I suppose, though I can't explain why one girl gets to wear the jaunty cap and dashing cape that is practically identical to my own. And don't even ask about that little kid in the photo. What is she -- a mascot?


Got a question for Vance? Send it to "Ask Vance" at Memphis Magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103.

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