Located at the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue and South Main Street in the South Main District, the Hotel Chisca, now known as The Chisca on Main, has stood as a Downtown Memphis icon for over a century. “The Chisca Hotel is one of the most significant public places in the history of Memphis,” explains Wayne Dowdy, local historian, author and senior manager of the Main Library’s History Department and Memphis & Shelby County Room. “After its opening in 1913, the hotel became a popular destination for vaudeville stars performing in Memphis, including the famous singer Kate Smith — best known for her recognizable rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” In 1959, the Chisca helped lay the foundation for future downtown redevelopment when it added a motor plaza to its original building. Most importantly, the hotel also played a significant role in the launching of rock and roll music.”
On July 5, 1954, Elvis Presley recorded “That’s Alright Mama” at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios. The next day, Sam headed to a nearby radio studio on the mezzanine floor of the Chisca, where Dewey Phillips (no relation), a DJ for Memphis’ WHBQ broadcast his “Red, Hot & Blue” show. Sam played the Elvis recording for the radio host. According to Peter Guralnick, author of Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll, “Dewey had gotten so excited when Sam played the acetate for him that he requested two copies to play both simultaneously and sequentially, and when he played them, the response was instantaneous.” Calls and telegrams flooded the studio as Dewey blasted Elvis over the airwaves repeatedly that evening, introducing the soon-to-be megastar to Memphis and forever changing modern American music.
Not only was Elvis’ music first broadcast from the Chisca, he gave his first on-air interview that same night. The Presleys’ home phone had been ringing off the hook as well. So, his parents headed downtown to drag him out of a movie theater on North Main Street and send him down to the Chisca on South Main to talk with Dewey. Elvis would return to the Chisca in 1956 for a live performance in the hotel’s basement.
Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, Downtown Memphis fell into disarray and decay with the closing of many businesses, including the legendary Peabody Hotel. In 1971, the owners of the Chisca donated it to the Church of God in Christ, and the building served as the church’s headquarters until the 1990s. It spent the 2000s as a vacant eyesore, a reminder of what Downtown Memphis once was, and still could be.
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In the past few years Memphis’ Carlisle Corporation has invested more than $30 million into the rehabilitation of this historic landmark, transforming it into a modern apartment complex, which opened in 2015 and is now at 96% capacity. “I think it is important for Memphis, and cities like it, to preserve its history,” says Director of Real Estate for the Carlisle Corporation, Chase Carlisle. “Rehabilitating the Chisca is one of the ways in which to do it. Architecture tells a story. When visiting the great cities of the world, one of the first things we notice is the architecture of its buildings. The combination of new and old can tell us where a city has been and where it aims to go.”
Today the Chisca boasts 161 apartments with unique amenities — including a club room, terrace deck, secured parking and a state-of-the-art fitness center — for residents who want to live in the center of it all in Downtown Memphis. “The hotel ballroom has been converted into an open-air terrace with lush landscaping, fire pits, water features and a communal farm table, as well as grills and much more,” explains Chase. “It really surpassed my expectations. The building’s renovation is complete; however, we are still exploring options for the historic lobby space. It could be an event space or serve as a pop-up art gallery. We are still working through that process.”
The Chisca offers apartments, from studios to three-bedrooms, ranging from $725 to $3,500 per month. Memphis restaurateurs and James Beard Finalists Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman recently launched their latest venture, Catherine & Mary’s, focused on Tuscan and Sicilian “grandmother cooking,” on the Chisca’s ground floor. Popular takeout eatery LYFE Kitchen has set up shop in the historic building as well with a 4,000-square-foot eatery.
The remains of Dewey Phillips’ once-hopping Chisca studio now reside at Sun Studios, just over a mile away from the historic hotel on the corner of MLK, Jr. Avenue and South Main Street, a corner that introduced the King of Rock and Roll to the world.
The Chisca on Main is located in Downtown Memphis at 272 S. Main St., Memphis, TN, 38103. For more information, call (901) 578-3040 or visit thechisca.com.
Thank you to Micki Martin for the gorgeous images of The Chisca on Main!
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