By John Beifuss of The Commercial Appeal
In 1914, a brick building with a distinctive smokestack was constructed by the Illinois Central railway line to provide steam and electrical energy to South Main's Central Station.
More than a century later, that same building has been incorporated into a plan to re-energize the Central Station neighborhood with an ambitious "boutique cinema" that would be the most unusual move theater in the region and in Malco's seven-state chain of theaters.
With auditoriums on two floors, a rooftop screen, multiple bar and lounges and a historic power plant for a lobby, the long-planned Malco Powerhouse Cinema — as the theater is tentatively named — is intended to be a centerpiece in the residential, retail and cultural revival of the Central Station area, according to developers.
The eight-screen theater moved several steps closer to reality this week with state Historic Preservation Office approval of some revised plans to make use of the powerhouse structure. Now, Malco Theaters Inc. is taking bids from for construction of the project, which would return first-run movies to Downtown Memphis for the first time since the Muvico multiplex inside the defunct Peabody Place shopping-and-entertainment center closed in 2008, after seven years.
The so-called Powerhouse Cinema also would return the 101-year-old, Memphis-based Malco to Downtown for the first time since 1976, when the company sold its movie-palace flagship, the Malco, to a nonprofit foundation, which restored and redeveloped it as a live performance venue, the Orpheum.
"We've looked for a long time, wanting to find the right location to come back Downtown," said David Tashie, Malco senior vice president, operations and construction. "South Main is the spot. This is going to be a special space for us. With the farmers market, trolley nights, the art galleries, it's a fun spot."
Construction could begin as early as May, with the theater opening to the public in the late spring of 2017.
The proposed Malco Powerhouse at 45 G.E. Patterson is part of a $53 million plan to redevelop the Central Station area with several hundred new apartment units and a Kemmons Wilson Companies hotel inside the 102-year-old train station.
The roughly 17 acres in question is owned by the Memphis Area Transit Authority and is being leased for development by the Henry Turley Company and Community Capital. Malco is a subtenant, leasing from the developers.
Consisting of a main level and a basement (that will not be part of the public space of the new theater), the 4,700 square-foot glass-and-brick powerhouse will be incorporated within the Malco cinema as an elaborate box office and lobby inside the theater's main entrance on the south side of the building, facing the parking lot.
The rest of the compact theater will run to the west of the powerhouse, covering some 20,000 square feet of space that is now a grass field. (Part of the building has to be notched around an existing transformer.) The theater will include five first-floor movie auditoriums and two second-story auditoriums, for a total of about 700 seats. The screen size will be similar to the auditoriums in the Studio on the Square, but Tashie said the seats will be more comfortable and roomy.
The upstairs "VIP" auditoriums will contain only 50 to 75 seats each. Some auditoriums will have designated seats, as at a play or concert, and food and drink delivery. An eighth screen will be in an open-air "rooftop" space that likely will include tables as well as traditional movie seats. This screen will be used for movies, sports events and other types of screenings.
With lobby bars on both floors and a "gourmet" food menu, Tashie said the Malco Powerhouse is intended as an "adult" experience. "Star Wars" sequels and other blockbusters will, of course, be booked, but he said the theater will focus on prestige and art films that attract a mature crowd, and avoid films targeted exclusively at teenagers.
Stacking auditoriums on top of each other — necessary because of the relatively small ground space available — is an engineering challenge. The theater is being designed by TK Architects International, a Kansas City, Missouri, firm that specializes in cinemas. Jennifer Meyer, TK project manager for the site, said the Malco theater is part of a trend in "boutique cinemas" aimed at discriminating moviegoers. She said the powerhouse would give the place "a really nice character that is helping us create a unique and unusual theater."
"The idea is to have the powerhouse maintain its identity and yet be part of a bigger project," said architect Tony Bologna of Bologna Consultants, a specialist in historic preservation who has handled much of the negotiation between the developers and relevant state and federal offices. Also, the theater will have faux exterior windows and other features intended to complement the "warehouse" aesthetic of the district.
"A movie theater seemed like a perfect element, and it says something about South Main and where Downtown is in its evolution," said Alex Turley, vice president of real estate for the Henry Turley Co. "This is a real opportunity to create a neighborhood anchor and a unique property that will be a real draw."
The project has not been without complications. Central Station itself is within the South Main Historic District, while the property just west of the station, including the old powerhouse, is part of the South Bluffs Warehouse Historic District. Also, MATA had received a Federal Transit Administration grant to assist in its Central Station redevelopment. As a result of these factors, the FTA and the state Historic Preservation Office have the right to approve plans for the development.
In addition, the Malco project already has affected some tenants using the space.
The popular not-for-profit Memphis Farmers Market — which begins its 2016 season Saturday — occupies part of what will be the theater's parking lot. Developers and the market organizers have worked out a deal that will allow the market to continue to operate, and have agreed to preserve the long roofed pavilion that provides shade and cover for food vendors.
"The Turley team has been really great about keeping us in the loop from really the very start," said Allison Cook, Memphis Farmers Market executive director. She said the market board was "really excited" about the plans because the new apartments and theater should attract "tons more people."
"As of right now, the plan we are working on is to coexist happily together," Cook said.
However, the market will have to find new space for its dog-sitting and dog-adoption services, which traditionally have occupied the small greensward to the west of the powerhouse. That park space will no longer exist when the theater is built.
Already displaced from inside the powerhouse are some offices and classrooms rented by Downtown Church, a sort of satellite congregation of Second Presbyterian Church that hosts worship services inside Hudson Hall at Central Station.
"It was great to be in that old historic building for a while, but we knew on the front end it was temporary for us," said Kathleen Nobbman, church administrator.
Before the church began renting offices in 2013, the powerhouse — leaky and hard to heat and cool — had been used only infrequently for the past several years, since the demise of Delta Axis. That arts organization operated the Memphis Power House — as the building was dubbed at the time — as an art gallery and performance space that brought important and internationally recognized artists to Memphis from 2003 (when it opened with a performance by William Eggleston, on the organ) to about 2009.
"We did a lot of great things in that building, but it was time for it to come to an end," said physician and art collector James Patterson, who was Delta Axis president.
"The area at the time was very desolate," Patterson said. "I'm happy it's going to be redeveloped in a different way."